“Memory…is the diary that we all carry about with us.” ― Oscar Wilde
The war started very close to home. I was born and raised in the east suburbs of Beirut with a majority-Christian population and where right-wing political parties and militias dominated on the ground. Less than 1 kilometer away from home, there was a small zone where a group of people from other political inclinations, religions and nationalities lived. Naturally, when the conflicts started in the heart of Beirut, other regions of the country soon had their own daily frictions among different conflicting groups. This also happened in what had been considered “my safe neighborhood.”
When the violence erupted around that mixed zone, the local right-wing militia decided to put an end to it and to cleanse from that spot anyone considered alien to the region. A fierce artillery fight started. It was the first time in my life I had ever heard such loud, scary noises. At home, mum, dad, and my brothers and sisters were all agitated and did not know where to hide or what to do. Since our house was full of windows, it had always been considered a healthy place to live with the sun infiltrating it from all directions. But it suddenly became hazardous because of the risk of getting hurt from the broken windows and shattering debris incoming from all directions.
The battle to take over that spot lasted only a couple of days. When we heard the good news, we thought, perhaps naively, that “finally” the violence was at an end. But what we didn’t know was that some of the defeated militias had managed to run away from the spot, were hiding in neighboring homes and were taking hostages. That’s what happened to our peaceful neighbors living in a building just 50 meters away. Four heavily armed gunmen entered their building, and took them hostages along with all the other residents of that building. They were forced to go to the top floor. Then the gunmen started to shoot, targeting the surrounding buildings. When we heard the very close shooting, we all ran to hide in the corridors, the safest places in our house. The local militia could not attack the building because of the taken hostages, so they decided to force their release by using a horrid technique that I can never ever forget
“The mind replays what the heart can't delete”―Unknown
A lineup of approximately 50 captured men, of all ages, passed in front of our house down the road until they reached a big, long perpendicular wall, which was used as a fence for a neighboring convent and home for the elderly. Among those poor people being led at gunpoint, there was one man who shouted dad’s name when he passed by our house, begging dad to save his life. I recognized his voice; he was an old man who used to sell us fresh oranges from his garden. Without a second thought, dad reacted to help the peasant by asking one of the militia guys to release him because he was a peaceful person and we would shelter him at home. The guy shouted angrily at dad, telling him to go inside and not get involved.
"To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose one’s self." ― Soren Kierkegaard
All the captured men were forced to stand against the long wall. Using loud speakers, the local militias ordered the four gunmen to release their hostages. Otherwise, they would shoot the captured men one after the other. Shortly after that we heard a lot of screams and firing of guns. Horrified with all that was happening, I started to cry, taking refuge next to mum and dad. Finally, the gunmen ended up by surrendering. We later learned that none of the hostages or the captured men was killed, as the militias were only hitting some of the younger ones and firing in the air. A tentative peace came back to our neighborhood, and, what we thought was the end of the violence was actually just a truce preceding a long civil war.
Memories die hard when our innocence has been hurt so deeply. Those stored memories from 1975 come to my mind again and again, reminding me of the horrors of war. Being exposed to such situations, in spite of the atrocities involved, taught me some good lessons in life and how to behave when emergency strikes. Such lessons are that:
- We must resist the urge to respond to aggression with more of the same. If not there is a big risk of unintended casualties.
- We need to have the courage to take risks and speak up for what we believe in. "It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all." ― William James
- Even in extreme situations,we need to retain our essential humanity and aim to support others rather than spectating on them. "Never let the odds keep you from doing what you know in your heart you were meant to do." ― H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
- Family support and love are very important. Love gives us courage to overcome fear and the giving and receiving of support strengthens our resilience even in extreme situations.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer…. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”― Frank Herbert
* I would like to thank my friends David Hain and Richard Pennington for their most valuable comments!
* Drawing & Collage by Hoda Maalouf