Syrian refugee children sell roses or collect scrap metal on the streets of Beirut. They sacrifice their futures to ensure their families' survival.
25 years ago, these fighters were enemies. Now they have come together with a new goal: maintaining peace in Lebanon. But time is running out.
The man with the clown face has many secrets, including the ritual he performs before getting into his car each morning. He bustles about, clearly occupied with something. He will not turn the key until he is sure the vehicle has not been tampered with and presents no danger. Then he drives away, leaving his house behind, its windows barred and the balcony protected by barbed wire. He prefers not to talk about it though, instead focusing his large eyes on the traffic jam building in front of the city’s port.
A quick glance at today’s headlines: “Shootouts in the north and south,” he reads laconically, then tucks his smartphone into the middle console. “Good thing Beirut is in the middle.” His eyes widen frequently, as if in astonishment, especially when he cracks a joke or recalls a memory. Downtown, past the dry river basin, he glances at a huge building on the right. Large letters on the furniture factory spell out “Sleep Comfort”. “Yes,” he confirms, “that was one of our jails.” When As’ad Shaftari talks about the Civil War that took place in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, it almost sounds like it was just yesterday. From his tone, you’d think he had just left off interrogating men and women in the former makeshift jail. He mentions his former profession in passing, but with perfect accuracy.
The cities of Tripoli and Sidon are tense these days…
But along the former Green Line the car is now crossing, the war is just a faint memory. Hardly a sign of the aftermath of grenades and weapons remains. Initially a line of demarcation of the front between the predominantly Muslim west and the predominantly Christian east, today it has had a face lift like the rest of Beirut, trying to erase history. The price of real estate in the city is on a roller coaster ride that is turning it into a Disney Land of shiny glass towers and neoclassical sandstone buildings with a dash of ruins sprinkled here and there.
But the past is still there, like an unwelcome guest knocking at the door. The cities of Tripoli and Sidon are tense these days, as supporters and detractors of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad battle it out. Bombs are set, power structures challenged. As’ad Shaftari is like an alarm clock for his homeland. His ticking has gone long unnoticed, but now he is sounding the alarm. “Can’t people see where all this is taking us again?”
A slight 58-year-old, he has always known more than others. The young As’ad skipped several grades, the adult served as head of the secret service in the infamous Lebanese Forces, the Maronite Christian militia. And he is the first warlord to publicly repent for things he did during the war, which is why he has this appointment today, in his office near the National Museum.
The men were quick to find a name, the “Fighters for Peace”.
On the first floor of a faded brown building, six men in their mid-fifties gather around a tablet, stooping to get a good look. It is playing the latest videos from one of the men’s neighbourhoods in Sidon. As’ad Shaftari watches men shooting from balconies, men in yellow vests with Kalashnikovs creeping through a parking lot – scenes from a skirmish between Sunni extremists and militiamen from the radical Shiite Hezbollah – and says, “It makes me sick.”
He shuts the laptop. “Will the streets be open tomorrow? We had planned to visit the class in Tripoli tomorrow.” All nod briefly. Their determination is palpable, no words are needed. The men exude a strange kind of peacefulness, cutting and relaxed in equal parts. They were enemies during the Civil War – Faris As’ad from the Shiite Amal militia and Haidar Ammacha from the Palestinians behind George Habash, Badri Abu Diab from the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and Fuad Dirani from the Organisation for Communist Action, Ziad Saab from the Communist Party and As’ad Shaftari, back then the eyes and ears of the far-right Christian militia. Five months ago, they ran into each other more or less by accident at a meeting of various civil liberties groups and discovered they were now all on the same side. And that they could not just stand idly by and watch what was happening to their country.
The men were quick to find a name, the “Fighters for Peace”. Today they are editing a letter they plan to release to the public. “Back then, we all thought we were on the side of right,” Ziad Saab reads aloud. “We killed, kidnapped, destroyed.” They address today’s fighters directly: “You are not only a threat to the country as a whole, but to yourselves as well. Every shot fired poisons the shooter.” As’ad Shaftari drums his fingers on the edge of the desk. “Can’t we be more to the point?” he asks. The others grin slightly uncomfortably.
Not all the children have come to school today.
The Fighters for Peace have set themselves a difficult mission. Every one of them enjoys respect on the streets. They are seen as heroes, though the respect is tinged with a frisson of fear. And now they are pushing back against their own military mystique, recalling everything that went so wrong in the past. It is almost as if they are pushing back against themselves. They stand united in their isolation.
The next day breaks with the sun hidden behind a cover of grey morning clouds as As’ad Shaftari climbs out of his car in Tripoli. The 90-kilometre drive from the metropolis of Beirut to its smaller sister in the north was a breeze along almost entirely empty streets. One lone tank at the side of the road bore graffiti from the night before. Written from stem to stern were the words: “There is no other God than God.”
Not all the children have come to school today. The large brownish-yellow assembly hall on the first floor seems to swallow the 20 or so pupils present. Many stayed home because of the shooting. Ziad Saab, the former communist, opens with a joke. “You take the seat on the right,” he says to As’ad Shaftari, then sits down on a snow-white plastic chair on the left and laughs.
“Everyone in my family has a weapon at home.”
The children size up the two fighters with open curiosity. “What did you do during the Civil War?” 14-year-old Nahil asks. Ziad Saab nimbly sidesteps the question. “Terrible things, but we are not here to talk about that today.” As’ad Shaftari straightens up. He appears taller. “We want to talk about weapons. They are not cool. Their only purpose is to kill.” He repeats the passage from yesterday’s letter. “You kill a little piece of your soul with every shot fired.” It sounds a bit pathetic. They are not winning over 14-year-old Najib.
“How do you know?”
“Trust me, I know.” Just like he knows he has to check his car for explosives every morning, though he does not know why.
The children talk about the shooting taking place in their neighbourhood. “I am not allowed outside anymore after 6 pm,” 13-year-old Omar says. “It is like they roll up the footpaths.” Najib adds, “You need to be armed. I don’t like it, but a pistol makes me strong and I have to be able to defend myself.” As’ad is all ears. “Who says so?” Najib hesitates. “Everyone. Everyone in my family has a weapon at home.”
None of the fighters surrendered their weapons at the end of the Civil War, locking them up in their nightstands instead. They are still around and killing today, at weddings, when a celebratory bullet takes a wrong turn, or when a fight between two young men escalates and a pistol is drawn before reason can prevail. There were 1,200 such deaths in the country of 4 million people in 2012. The textbooks today do not deal with the Civil War at all. The country has agreed to subscribe to a kind of collective amnesia. In 1991, a general amnesty was issued and all crimes of war filed away. Reconciliation was given short shrift. Peace was simply declared under the same old story repeated throughout the history of the world: there were no victors, and thus no vanquished.
Downtown is getting ready for a night out.
As’ad Shaftari stands up and places his hands over his ears. “Everyone says so? I cannot bear to hear that anymore.” Chinese whispers is the next point on the agenda, a good demonstration of how quickly information gets twisted and changed. “Do not listen to third parties,” the men urge the young people present. “Only listen to people you trust. And try to focus on your shared interests.” Their eyes burn with a kind of fervour as if they wish to hypnotise their young audience.
These men have taken on a Herculean task. Fear and pride are so deep-seated, as are loyalty and a sense of connection to family, clan, and denomination. None of the 17 religious communities in Lebanon is strong enough on its own to completely dominate the others, creating a never-ending pressure cooker. Professor for Psychology at the American University of Beirut Charles Harb conducted a study in 2010 that revealed some very uncomfortable findings about Lebanese youths: One third openly admitted to harbouring negative prejudices against other religious denominations, while two-thirds stated they would never consider marrying outside their own religion. These basic tendencies have even shown a slight uptick in recent years. Weapons are omnipresent and the recent violent crisis in neighbouring Syria is driving demand and prices up.
The two men spend the evening over a relaxing drink in a cafe in Beirut. Ziad Saab pours beer into a chilled glass, its lip festooned with lemon juice and salt, as the street heading into Star Square begins to fill. The sun bathes the sandstone in dull gold. Downtown is getting ready for a night out. Couples outfitted in matching pastel Lacoste stroll by. This was once the site of the old bazar, but bulldozers pushed what was left of it into the sea in the mid-90s. Today an entire quarter of magnificent, light brown buildings has sprouted from the rubble, with porticos holding up ribbed vaults and small balconies, as empty as the expensive flats behind them. It was all designed to look old yet new, a silent dialogue between two different ages. Ziad Saab and As’ad Shaftari take up this same dichotomy as they circle back to the past again and again.
At the age of 18, he went to war.
“If we had met in a café in 1976,” Ziad Saab begins, grinning after a sip of his lemon beer, “you would have put a bomb under my table. And I would have waited outside to bump you off.” As’ad Shaftari smiles in return, even without the tart encouragement of lemon. “That is not true at all. We Lebanese are great liars. We would have hugged and raised a glass together. Then we would have planned how to bring each other down two or three days later.”
Back then Ziad Saab lived underground on the run from As’ad Shaftari’s secret police, from Mossad and others. He was one of the top commanders in the communist militia. “I slept in a different place every night.” He joined the Communist Party at the age of 14 with utopian visions of changing the world. He had also heard the members of the party did not believe in god, which appealed to him: “When I was a child, a religious sheik used to come to our home occasionally. He wanted to talk undisturbed, so my six brothers and sisters and I were shut away in the other room of our two-room flat.” This was enough to turn the kids against the sheik and his religion.
At 17, Ziad Saab took over the leadership of the party’s “military department”, “just because at 1.87 metres, I happened to be the tallest.” The skin around his mouth crinkles in folds like the jowls of a lion. In 1975, at the age of 18, he went to war. He recounts battles, tales of forced marches and hidey holes. In passing he mentions that the dead still haunt him in his dreams. He rarely sleeps through the night because it was once reserved for fighting. A glass on a nearby table tips over, and Ziad Saab startles, terror writ large across his face. He looks around, then straightens up again. “So where was I?” As’ad Shaftari is as quiet as his drinking buddy is talkative. His eyes shine with a mild light, not as hard as they did a dozen years ago. When he entered a café back then, his gaze communicated brutality. Today almost no one gives him a second glance.
Its foundations are being shaken by the battle raging in Syria.
The Fighters for Peace do not expect their mission to be a cakewalk. They want to talk to as many young people in as many schools as possible. “And we have to get on TV,” Ziad Saab says, “that is the only way we can reach out to retired fighters.” To talk the people out of perpetuating the violence while they still have time.
It sounds so trite. War is monstrous. No one wants it, yet it continues to break out, conjured up by men who expect to profit from it in some way, men the greater public grants impunity. War looks for weakness, like in Lebanon’s current political system. Its foundations are being shaken by the battle raging in Syria. Hardly anyone identifies with the “state” or “nation”, instead viewing their religious affiliation as a kind of state within a state. Politics is reduced to governing streams of money. So the split between the supporters and detractors of the Damascus regime threatens to paralyze the country’s institutions. Pressure from the outside rises as divides widen on the inside. It is a familiar situation, like the factions for and against the presence of the Palestine militia in 1975, and before that people’s varying stances on Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1958, and even further back when opinions were split on the influence of Western Europe on the country in 1860. War erupted every time. Wars based on the internal division of power, like in the US “Game of Thrones” series with its powerful families, importance of rank, and propensity to resort to weapons and violence.
This is one side of this country: Lebanon, the merciless. On a more personal level though, the Lebanese are curious and open. The emanate warmth and respect – irrespective of religious affiliation. These two worlds seem like polar opposites, yet they come together to form one country. A strange mission for a peace fighter, perhaps more the purview of a clown.
He was in the wrong place at the right time.
“The war started with a joke,” As’ad Shaftari says, “when I was five years old.” Back then jokes at the expense of Muslims seemed perfectly normal to him. Like the other members of his family and people on the street, he felt superior to Sunnites and Shiites. When the war began in 1975, he was 20 years old and determined to protect his Christian community from the Muslims. So he dropped out of university where he was studying electronical engineering and began climbing the ranks in the Lebanese Forces. Soon he was integrated into the secret service where he was making life-and-death decisions, judge and executioner in one. He does not know just how many people he ordered to be tortured, how many died based on his decrees. Once the fighting that had killed thousands and led to 17,000 still missing today ended, “I enjoyed the sensation of walking down the street without bodyguards.” He realised he did not need to exude the aroma of power, not necessarily. He found inner peace.
His comrades climbed the career leader while he, one of the few orthodox Christians in the Maronite militia and one of the most powerful men there, was faced with ruin. Now that the guns had fallen silent and new posts were being assigned, his background was a hindrance. He was in the wrong place at the right time. His reputation preceded him and he struggled to find work. People feared him. As’ad Shaftari closed himself off and has lived off his modest pension ever since. And ten years later, in 2000, when his then 12-year-old son told him that his schoolmate Ekel never walked by a mosque unarmed, something suddenly clicked for him. A small voice inside him rose up and shook him awake. “In my mind’s eye, I saw my son in a military uniform. My stomach turned over.”
Memories began flooding back unbidden. A déjà-vu of the war, a horror he had shoved down, hidden deep inside. Along with a sense of shock at himself and at what human beings are capable of, perhaps spurring on by his wounded pride at having been passed over.
The group went online the very next day.
He sat down immediately and penned a letter to the Lebanese people in five minutes flat. The 500-word missive began with the words: “I am so sorry. I wanted to defend Christianity, but what I did had nothing to do with true Christianity.” He recalled attending church on many Sundays during the war and not confessing because he did not see killing Palestinians as a sin. “Awareness was growing in me that something had gone terribly wrong.”
He sent his letter to a news agency where it lay around unpublished for five days. “The editors said it was ‘too hot for them to touch’.” Someone called and ordered him to retract the letter. But As’ad Shaftari was done taking orders. He sent his letter out to all the newspapers until one bit. Death threats followed. “People called me a traitor.” And then nothing. As’ad Shaftari was the first war criminal to go public with his confession and apology, and he remained the only one for many years. Until a few weeks ago in fact, when the Fighters for Peace was founded.
The group went online the very next day. The “Lebanon Debate” website published their open letter, in just minutes the most clicked on post in the country. As’ad Shaftari is on the road when his mobile phone rings. Ziad Saab’s voice bursts from the receiver. “Two newspapers called this morning. They want an interview.” He sounds euphoric, very unlike when we parted last night. Towards the end of the evening in the café, Ziad Saab recounted how he wanted to get out in 1987, three years before the Civil War died down. “But the majority of the party voted against me. So I caved.” He had cracked a hard nut. “Not taking off was a mistake. And I knew it.” He had already laid the communist texts he used to worship aside. What he learned in the party, he said, was that self-criticism was not about changing yourself. It was aimed at changing the others. “Which is why to this day, there has been no official apology issued from the leftist parties involved in the Civil War for the murders they committed.” His tired eyes stared out into the darkness.
As usual, he is the first to arrive in the conference room.
Today the sun burns hotly on the smooth asphalt of the Beirut ring road. As’ad Shaftari’s pointer finger drums out a frenetic beat on the steering wheel. He is on his way to an important meeting. Rockets from Syria have hit Baalbek, the largest city in East Lebanon, in retaliation for the thousands of fighters Hezbollah sent to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The notoriously weak Lebanese army has little chance of quashing the battles flaring up in many parts of the country. The citizens are left to their own devices. “It is a network meeting,” As’ad Shaftari says as he steers his car onto the St. Joseph University campus. Civil rights groups are coming together to present a united front against the impending war.
As usual, he is the first to arrive in the conference room. The air is bone dry. Two peppermint sweets on a hard wooden chair later, the others begin trickling in with loud greetings, cracking jokes. As’ad Shaftari stays in his seat. He starts when a small, slender woman in a sleeveless white blouse enters the room, brown hair tucked behind her ears. He stands and strides across the room, briefly clasping her hand in his like old friends.
The 25 group representatives begin with an animated discussion about the exact time the meeting was actually supposed to have begun; As’ad Shaftari’s right foot bounces impatiently. “We have to call a national conference in a month,” someone finally suggests. “That is too far off,” As’ad Shaftari says. “We are too unimportant. Where are all the unions, the churches, the parties? We have to keep pushing, keep talking and talking.” The group breaks up with a sense of helplessness.
“I do not know. I do not know where all the mass graves are.”
They run into each other again in the hall. “How are you?” As’ad Shaftari asks the slender woman. Wadad Halwani smiles shyly. “I read your letter,” she says. “It was good. But you know it is not enough.” Both are silent for a moment. “I expected more from you. What you are doing is helping you, but not us.”
Wadad Halwani was 31 years old on September 24, 1982 when, as she reached the top of the steps to her apartment, she saw her husband Adnan in the doorway in the company of two men. He told her not to worry, that he would be back soon. He never came back though. Christian militias kidnapped the communist supporter. In that same year, the mother of two founded the group “Families of the Missing”. She has organised demonstrations and sit-ins, joining forces with hundreds of other women in demanding information about their loved ones and their fates, which remains unknown to this day. But working against the warlords of back then who still hold the country’s fate in their hands today is like banging your head against a brick wall. The families of the 17,000 missing want to start the grieving process. Some are still clinging to the bizarre hope that their loved ones might still be alive.
Numbers. They put the smile back on his face.
He rubs his face. “I do not know. I do not know where all the mass graves are.” There were so many groups during the war, everyone against everyone else. “I was too far up in the hierarchy; the foot soldiers took care of such details.”
She looks him over, taking his measure with no animus. “I do not believe you. I do not think you are telling us everything that you know.”
As’ad Shaftari shrugs his shoulders and narrows his eyes like a sad clown. He is all alone. Anything he says will have repercussions for others, powerful accessories to crimes of war. Does he feel threatened? Is he waiting for the men who will follow in his footsteps? He hands slice the air in a gesture of finality. “I do not know anything. They were just names and numbers to me then.”
The pioneer who lives with uncertainly climbs back into his car. He has a text message from Ziad Saab. “We are meeting some young people in Ramlieh tomorrow in Mount Lebanon,” As’ad Shaftari reports. “Around 50 kids!” Numbers. They put the smile back on his face. He types in a few more numbers, setting up meeting in schools and youth centres. Then he leans back in the driver’s seat, turns the key and gently steers his car into the afternoon traffic. He drives slowly as honking taxis pass. All along the road street pedlars and pedestrians call out to one another, zigging and zagging as they go. It almost seems like he is standing still while the alien world outside moves at its frenetic pace in a direction that spells certain disaster. He would like to bring it to a halt, but he does not know how. Every trace of him disappears after Rue Monot, past all the cafes and night clubs on the way to Damascus Street.
Photos by Frank Schultze