How People Talk About the Lebanon Wars: A Study of the Perceptions and Expectations of Residents in Greater Beirut
This report examines variations in wartime experiences and the attitudes of residents in Greater Beirut regarding measures to confront Lebanon’s legacy of political violence. It documents how members of different segments of Lebanese society perceive and talk about issues relating to truth and memory, justice and accountability, reconciliation, and social repair. The study is based on 15 focus group discussions held in different neighbourhoods in Greater Beirut in 2013.
Results indicate that all participants agreed that justice is unlikely because official initiatives have advanced wholesale amnesia about past political violence, reconciliation efforts have not involved people outside of political elites and reparations processes have been designed and implemented with little connection to the actual needs of the people affected. Participants differed, however, in how they connected their war-related experience to the present and how it affected their thinking and expectations about dealing with the past. Those born after 1990 were most supportive of an unfettered truth-telling process which envisages a broad approach that cuts across familial, community, and national spheres. They expressed a desire to confront “collective amnesia” directly in order to understand the logic of past conflict. By contrast, older generations articulated a vision for truth and memory based primarily on individualized memorialization at the family and community level. They argued for an approach involving partial forgetting that emphasizes the futility of violence and expressed concerns that broad-based clarification processes might cement or deepen divisions along sectarian lines.
Participants who lived through the civil war and victims of direct lethal violence emphasized the importance of learning the truth and acknowledging wrongs. The majority articulated a pragmatic interim vision for evidence-based lustration in which those most responsible for war-related violence should not be allowed to hold elected office. Although older participants generally advocated for accountability measures focused exclusively on political and community leaders younger participants advocated for a broader form of accountability to include both leaders and combatants. There was, however, a general consensus that the motivation behind accountability efforts needed to reaffirm the rule of law and strengthen equality before the law, rather than to exact retribution between sectarian communities. Participants’ notions of social repair and healing varied widely; victims of direct violence rejected the possibility of repairing and healing while indirect victims advocated for an intergenerational approach to social repair. Only those focus groups that exclusively comprised older participants advanced notions of healing and social repair that relied on forgetting the past. Focus groups with either mixed ages or exclusively younger participants advanced notions of healing that relied on closure for direct victims or a forward-looking focus on strengthening the rule of law.
Overall results indicate that, despite their widely held mistrust of domestic political leaders and foreign governments, participants who supported confronting the past identified nonpartisan community groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as viable channels to advance historical clarification and intercommunity discussions about justice, accountability, and institutional reform. These focus group discussions offer insights into a number of challenges in addressing political violence and its consequences in Lebanon. The findings suggest that for transitional justice initiatives to be effective they need to consider the experiences and culture of the local population. This involves recognizing how the nature of current institutions and practices advance war-related injustices. Failing to consider the experiences and perceptions of the local population can further alienate a society that is already deeply divided.