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Lebanon yesterday, today, tomorrow. Thanks to Lazarus at Letters Apart.

April 13, 1975
Lebanon’s War and Memory

As iconic a date as September 11 is for America, April 13 is for Lebanon. It was on this day thirty-one years ago that the civil war began there, on a Sunday morning, neither cold nor hot as I remember it, but balmy enough for a family trip to the mountains, where we spent the day as oblivious to the crag unfolding in Beirut as we were about the shatters, happening that very day also, of a half-century’s colonial order half a world away. April 13, it turned out, wasn’t just the end of the road for Lebanon’s brief experiment with peace and the semblance of unity. It was also very near the end of the road for America’s experiment in hubris in Vietnam, and for Cambodia’s days without terror.

It’s all there on The New York Times’ front page for April 14, 1975. The lead story is by Sydney Schanberg, who’d eventually win a Pulitzer for it and others like it, reporting the exodus out of Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge approached (Schanberg was the last American reporter there). Over three columns and below a four-column picture of jubilant South Vietnamese soldiers waving communist flags they’d allegedly seized, Fox Butterfield reports North Vietnam’s capture of Xuan Loc (“a key provincial capital east of Saigon”).

And there, above the fold, fifth column from the right, this two-deck headline: “22 Palestinians Killed in Beirut,” followed by the sub-head: “Are Reported Shot on Bus by Lebanese Rightists—Arafat Protests.” The story, datelined Beirut, is by Juan de Onis. Like Proust’s muffin, any one word evokes that whole world of strife indistinguishable from personal memories verging, inexplicably, on the nostalgic (I imagine because anything spilling out of one’s childhood, even the traumatic and unforgivable, inevitably flirts with the nostalgic): “Gunmen of a right-wing Lebanese party opened fire today on a bus filled with Palestinian militants,” de Onis’s story has it, “killing 22 Palestinians according to an official Lebanese communiqué. The incident took place during the opening of a Christian church by followers of Pierre Gemeyel, the leader of the Phalangist party, one of the principal Christian political groups in Lebanon […] the bus had been stopped by armed members of the Phalangist party and […] shooting had broken out. Earlier today, a Phalangist party member was reportedly killed in the same neighborhood by shots fired from a passing automobile.”

Remember “ Rashomon,” the great Faulknerian flick by Kurosawa about a rape and a murder, and the conflicting stories told about it from different perspectives? April 13 was Lebanon’s Rashomon. I remember (or rather, I remember being told) that shooting of “a Phalangist party member” as being an attempted assassination of Pierre Gemeyel, and the party member being his body guard, as they left the church. The shooting of the bus was retaliation, and the bus was filled with Fedayin, Palestinian militants. But that’s the story that was told us at the time, the story we bought whole, because we wanted (as Christians) to believe that we were the good guys. The alternate take had Phalangists firing wildly at a bus full of civilians, women and children, not quite in retaliation but as a follow-up to an earlier spate between Phalangists and either members of the PLO or… but what does it matter anymore? It’s the same old story that, barring filmed evidence of every minute on every Beirut street that day, will never be settled. Nor would settling the question have relevance today, when settlement is a matter of principle and compromise, not historical accuracies over bandritry's deeds.

And yet it was over idiocy and intransigeance of the same sort that the war wouldn’t settle for the next fifteen years, and as it still hasn’t been despite its ostensible, final cease-fire, after a few hundred, in 1990, as the Syrian army finished gobbling up the place entire while the United States and its first coalition was busy ridding Kuwait of another invader. That was one of the curious ironies of the end of the Lebanese civil war: it was brokered only with America’s and France’s tacit agreement to let Syria have the place once and for all, even as the United States was claiming to draw “a line in the sand” against naked aggression barely one time zone away, if that. It took another fifteen years finally to get Syria’s incrustations off of Lebanon’s back, although Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolution came and went with hardly a sapling making it. The guns of the civil war have been silent. The conditions for war aren’t much changed.

Moussa Bashir reports the following in his blog today, referring to the very same neighborhoods where the war began in 1975: “A handful of young Lebanese enthusiasts were distributing leaflets this afternoon on the “ Old Saida Highway” This road divides “Chiah” (predominantly Amal and Hezbollah) and “Ain el Roumanni” (predominantly Lebanese Forces and Phalange). Last year, skirmishes occurred between residents of these two areas, bringing back ugly images of the not-so-civil-war that “ended officially” 1990. The army had to interfere to stop the fights then, and are still stationed on the "Highway" to prevent any new ones. Today, the activists were distributing hand written, photocopied, half-A4-sheets of paper with a message. […] A bus that is a replica of the infamous ‘bus of Ain el Roumanni’ was in the background serving as a reminder of the spark that started the war on April 13, 1975. One of the cardboards on the bus read: ‘we don’t want any new demarcation lines’ (khoutout tammas).” Moussa provides an English translation and a picture of the leaflet, which asks a series of ominous questions, though none more ominous than Moussa’s own: “Q. Why is everyone concerned that a civil war may start all over again? A: Because it is not over yet!”



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