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Dangerous truths: Avoiding the ghosts of the past

In Lebanon, a conflict-ridden country laced with internal tensions, confronting the past is a tricky business, as the latest crisis over a UN investigation into the killing of a former premier has revealed...


More than five years after her husband was killed in a car bombing in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, Giselle Khoury has yet to see her husband’s killers brought to justice. And in the short term at least, she does not believe she will.

Sitting in a café in an upscale Beirut neighborhood, Khoury, a talk-show host on the Al Arabiya news channel, describes herself as a realist.

“In this country, justice is a very long process and I don’t have any illusions for tomorrow or the near future,” she says. “In 2005, in the months after the assassination, I had an illusion that justice would be served soon. But after 2006, I have no such illusions.”

Khoury’s chronology of hope and subsequent resignation mirrors in many ways that of certain sections of Lebanese society in this fragile, fragmented nation.

Her husband, the eminent Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, was killed on June 2, 2005, just months after the Feb. 14 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, whose death sparked massive political change in Lebanon, including a series of demonstrations - popular known as the Cedar Revolution - and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.

Kassir was one of several anti-Syrian Lebanese figures killed following Hariri’s assassination. Syria is widely believed to have been involved in the killings although Damascus has consistently denied any involvement.

The ‘danger of forgetting’

While there is no dearth of theories about who might have been responsible for the attacks, justice in these cases has not been served.

But justice is a tricky business in a country that continues to teeter precariously on the brink of all-out conflict, having descended into violent sectarian strife at various points over the past three decades.

The 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War officially ended with an amnesty law that pardoned all political crimes during the conflict. While the agreement that brought an end to the brutal, internecine fighting was largely welcomed, experts like Eugene Rogan, Director of the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford, have warned of the “danger of forgetting” by pursuing “an active policy of putting the past behind”.

‘Nobody wants to know who killed Hariri anymore’

History is in danger of repeating itself in Lebanon today. The latest crisis has been triggered by reports that a UN tribunal probing Hariri’s assassination is set to indict members of Hezbollah, the Syrian-backed Shia militant group.

A July 22 speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has raised fears of renewed conflict in Lebanon, prompting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi King Abdullah to make an unprecedented joint visit to Beirut last week in a bid to ease tensions.

Hariri’s son, current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has long been the UN tribunal’s chief supporter. But some analysts have noted that with the prospect of renewed instability over possible Hezbollah indictments, there is a decreasing appetite to see the perpetrators brought to justice.

In his political blog Qifa Nabki, Lebanese author Elias Muhanna noted last week that “it’s almost as if nobody wants to know who killed Hariri anymore”.

When swords turn into stock shares – but not for long

Lebanon has experience of putting aside a turbulent past in order to get on with the present. In many ways, assassinated Prime Minister Hariri, a billionaire who financed much of Beirut’s reconstruction after the civil war, was a symbol of the Lebanese penchant for, in Rogan's words, “putting the past behind in the hope of turning swords into stock shares”.

“The irony of Hariri’s assassination is that Hariri himself was not someone concerned with the past or with closure,” says Michael Young, opinion editor of Daily Star, a Lebanese English-language daily. “He wanted to rebuild Lebanon, not dwell on the past.”

A tiny, multi-religious country divided along confessional lines that are politically institutionalized and often manipulated by neighbouring nations, Lebanon has never had a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission - and it probably never will.

“This country is not comfortable with the truth in large part because it’s a fractured country and the truth for one is a threat for the other,” says Young, whose recently published book, “The Ghosts of Martyr’s Square” examines Lebanon’s “confrontation with its domestic and regional demons” in the aftermath of the Cedar Revolution.

Hezbollah’s hilltop Disneyland

But while some troubling aspects of Lebanese modern history have been neglected, others are ferociously revived and commemorated.

On Tuesday, Hezbollah chief Nasrallah will deliver his much-anticipated speech commemorating the end of the 2006 war with Israel, an event that frequently features in official Hezbollah public displays.

On a hilltop located around 44 km southeast of Beirut, thousands of visitors stream into Hezbollah’s “Museum for Resistance Tourism,” a sprawling complex built at a reported cost of $4 million and inaugurated earlier this year.

Dubbed “Hezbollah-land” (a play on Disneyland) by the international press, the museum on the Hezbollah mountain stronghold of Mleeta is a glamourous display of the group’s resistance against the Israeli military and features a disused reinforced bunker, interactive displays and a sunken concrete terrace called "The Abyss" which contains the debris of Israeli tanks and military equipment.

“I think that Hezbollah has invented an alternative history,” says Young. “It’s a glorious history of resistance. But the danger is that it’s designed to stand against a consensual Lebanese history, in many respects it’s a history that stands against the Lebanese state itself, and consequently it’s used to block the integration of Shia history to maintain its [Hezbollah’s] hold of the Shia community.”

While the different countries of the fractured Middle East region often present fraught and conflicting readings of history, Khoury does not believe that the Lebanese people suffer from a form of collective amnesia. Some day, she says, she will find out who killed her husband, even if she concedes that she may never know who masterminded the attack.

“It’s not true that the Lebanese people forget the past,” says Khoury. “We have lived through war and we confront it everyday. You don’t just forget a war. We do want to know the truth. But sometimes the truth is so complicated and there’s not one simple way of arriving at it.”


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