“We Cannot Undo the Past, But We Can Change the Future”, the Fighters for Peace Project in Post-War Lebanon

By Niamh Woodmass, JNL61004, MA International Public and Political Communication, University of Sheffield

Introduction

In post-war Lebanon, societal divides between the former enemies remain prominent. The civil war occurred from 13 April 1975 to 13 October 1990 and was a devastating conflict which led to approximately “150,000 dead, twice as many wounded or injured and almost two-thirds of the population displaced or uprooted” (Larkin, 2021). The youth of the population in Lebanon especially struggle with the consequences of these presently divided communities, and many have deep-rooted issues passed on from the generations that experienced the atrocities of the civil war. Formal resolutions of peace such as the Taif Agreement in 1989 have ultimately failed in bringing sustainable peace to the country, yet one grassroots organisation has been working to change this.

Fighters for Peace

The Fighters for Peace (FFP) are an organisation made up of ex-combatants of the civil war and was formed in reaction to the continued heavy violence between the communities in Lebanon long after the formal end to conflict. One communitive conflict between the Sunni and Alawite sects in 2013 was especially volatile and ignited national anxieties that the violence would pour into the communities around the rest of the country and create the same widespread unrest seen during the civil war years. As a result, this group of ex-combatants from opposing sects willingly joined together to communicate publicly against the atrocities occurring in the hope of avoiding a repetition of mistakes from the civil war. The FFP (2016) claims to be the “only organisation in Lebanon that united former fighters from different political, religious and social backgrounds”, and heavily focuses its peacebuilding efforts on communicative initiatives such as creating mediated dialogue in schools, universities, refugee camps, and so on. Their vision is shaped by two priorities; bringing ex-combatants together to see and understand the perspectives of those that were once their enemies, and to educate the youth in the hope that the atrocities of the war will not be allowed to happen again. In an oral testimony by the FFP president and ex-combatant, Ziad Saab, it was exclaimed that at the start of the civil war in 1975 most of the fighters were between the ages of 14 and 20 years old. Now that many of these ex-fighters are parents themselves, they integrate education and youth engagement as a core value in their peacebuilding efforts. The group is supported by the United Nations Development Project (UNDP), a global peacebuilding organisation which aims to encourage and maintain sustainable peace in the developing world. This kind of support is invaluable for grassroots peacebuilding initiatives as it offers the ability to gather recognition and financing from more of an international perspective.

The project in Tripoli encourages the former enemies to see beyond their differences and instead realise that their struggles and experiences are often identical. This idea is once more demonstrated through the oral testimony of Ziad Saab, who said that one must remember that “the violence will be against another, and the other is a human being… don’t look at him as a number, or The Other, or as an enemy”. This work also links to the broader goal of peaceful cooperation, which is particularly challenging as many of the founding members of the FFP “committed or ordered killings…held different ideological orientations…came from different social classes and sectarian backgrounds” (El-Khoury et al, 2021) and as such were involved in some of the atrocities that took place. Therefore, despite being former enemies, the ex-combatants are demonstrating a willingness to look beyond their past actions to ensure that a civil society can be re-established and prevent a future conflict from taking place.

The FFP place their greatest significance on open communication and dialogue, and this was especially important in the turbulent city of Tripoli. Tripoli is a city in the north of Lebanon that has “long been linked to conflict, armed fights and intemperance” in which “the conflict can still erupt again any time” (UNDP, 2017). Two neighbourhoods in particular, Bab al Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, have been involved in approximately 20 clashes between the Sunni and Alawite sects until a ceasefire was declared in 2014. While the ceasefire put much of the physical fighting to an end, there was no formal governmental initiative serving to reintegrate the torn-apart communities into the wider redevelopment of Lebanon after the civil war. As such, Tripoli remained in a state of instability for the years that followed. In hopes of dismantling the conflict, the FFP initiated a project aimed at amending the long-ignored psychological scars made by the war for the people of Tripoli to begin the peacebuilding process of returning to civility. The project, named Roadmap to Reconciliation: Tripoli, was launched in 2016 with the core aims of formulating an opportunity for dialogue and reconciliation between the former enemies and ensuring a safe space for those on both sides of the conflict to speak about their beliefs while respectfully listening to the ‘other’. Such spaces of dialogue between former enemies were previously unheard of, yet the efforts of the project allowed for a process to begin in which community members could learn to gain respect for and understanding of each other whilst still recognising the events of the past. Through this, the FFP is providing the means for the people of Tripoli to work towards a civil society that otherwise may have been forgotten.

Critique

The work of the FFP through the Tripoli project can be seen as vital in beginning the restoration of peace in the communities of Lebanon that have suffered for many decades during and after the civil war. Unlike many other countries, Lebanon did not undergo a formal and governmental process of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration, so the work of grassroots organisations such as the FFP is essential in steadily reintegrating citizens back into society and ensuring the same scale of conflict does not occur again. It could be argued that the aims of the FFP are somewhat idealistic, as it would be impossible to get all ex-combatants to participate in the activities organised. However, one study has acknowledged the importance of encouraging communities to participate in and to listen to the stories of the ‘other’ in order to seek a more well-rounded understanding of those within that same community (see Ayoubi, 2017). Regular commitments to such meetings should breakdown potential suspicions that may hinder participants from being in such enclosed spaces with their former enemy. The online archives with access to oral testimonies of some of the ex-combatants can ensure that citizens with an interest in the imitative that may feel held back by the unknown can see what the project has to offer and may slowly encourage their involvement. Therefore, it is vital that these testimonies continue to be produced to create momentum and encourage participation from as many citizens as possible. Aside from this, the spoken words in the oral testimonies may work to break down the often-glamorised image of fighters that young people often look up to. This is particularly the case for Lebanon, as a somewhat justified violence has been passed down through some of the families of the past conflicts.

It is also difficult to empirically assess the success of bringing ex-combatants together to form dialogue with one another, particularly around a topic such as that of the civil war. In her work with Lebanese ex-fighters, Hermez (2019) observed that even after communicating with one another, many of the participants are still able to justify and reason their past violent actions. In this way, one could argue that these communication sessions undertaken by the FFP are only successful if participants are willing to adapt their views. However, many peacebuilding efforts recognise that participants are able to maintain their previous views so long as they respectfully engage with or listen to the views of the ‘other’. In this way, it is hoped that peace can be sustained within the community as all sides are being catered for and adhered to.

Overall, the work of the FFP in Tripoli deserves international praise through its success in bringing ex-combatants together through the civil means of open and mediated communication. Tripoli and the wider communities within Lebanon were involved in extremely violent conflicts until approximately 2014, meaning most citizens have not had the time or resources to heal from either their physical or psychological trauma. As such, the work of the FFP is difficult but essential in beginning this process of reconciliation from the raw perspectives of those involved in varying aspects of the violence. The peacebuilding project may be criticised for its lack of evidence in reformulating the pre-existing civil norms and stabilising the country of Lebanon. However, this can be a challenge for any peacebuilding initiative as national sentiments towards peace can seldom be proven in this way. Therefore, the willingness of ex-combatants to come together in proximity is arguably enough evidence to ensure that Tripoli is working towards rebuilding a civil society in the wider context of Lebanon as a whole.

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