Gustavo de aristegui Former Spanish ambassador to India
I returned to Lebanon after many years of absence to attend my brother’s wedding. I lived there as a student when my father was the Spanish Ambassador from 1984 to 1989. My father was murdered for defending Lebanon’s independence and territorial integrity in April 1989. Among my many emotional and touching memories were my trip to repatriate my father’s remains after the attack, and the visit of the Spanish troops in south Lebanon under United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon next to the Indian Base over there when I was a Spanish member of Parliament. I didn’t come to a different country, it seemed to be a different planet.
Lebanon was torn by cruel Civil War since 1974, that exhausted all the possible combinations of confrontation among the different communities of the country, not only Muslim-Christian; Christian against Christians; intra-Muslim rife; inter-Chia war after the birth of Hezbollah. Finally, two broad coalitions of heterogeneous Lebanese parties clashed for years until the situation was unblocked and General Michel Aoun was elected as President and Saad Hariri Prime Minister. Lebanon’s war was much more a war by proxy than a real civil war.
Hatred was fuelled by external powers and their interests used the Lebanese as pawns of a much larger conflict, one beyond the Cold War that caused over three lakh causalities of a population of under four millions. Every Lebanese family has suffered tragedy and loss, my own family was struck by the horror of war. My father was killed alongside his Lebanese father-in-law and sister-in-law in a deliberate shelling of the Embassy compound by Syrian Army’s 240mm shells.
This land of contrast, history, traditions, modernity, glamour and fashion, is also the land of war, violence, revenge. Here, sworn enemies can become strong allies after years of battles and deaths. Beirut boasts some of the most beautiful, modern and avant-garde architecture, with the coolest bars and clubs, luxurious hotels and trendy restaurants, pretty much at the best level of the hottest places on earth. Everything about Beirut is tantalising and bewitching, a near-perfect mix of tradition and modernity all wrapped in charm and bustle.
Just a couple of kilometres away there is a different world, not just a different neighbourhood, in the traditional Chia districts such as Bourj al-Barajneh with no alcohol, bars and packed with chadors and pictures of their leaders all over the place. Walking those streets we could be in Teheran in Iran or Karbala in Iraq. In fact some of these places were called ‘Little Teheran’ during the war. And just 50 km away from Beirut, the Lebanese Army was fighting Daech terrorists that had occupied 120 km² of Lebanese territory on the border with Syria during my recent stay.
The Lebanese people are resilient—going from near extinction as a nation, as they were all but annexed by Syria, to becoming an apparent oasis of prosperity and stability. Apparent because there are still underlying tensions that need to be intelligently managed to prevent Lebanon’s very short fuse from creating an explosive chain-reaction taking the country back into chaos. The Lebanese know how to enjoy life because they know how fast and dramatically things can change from peace to war, from normality and stability to mayhem.
Lebanon’s treasure is its people, not only those that live in the country, but its huge diaspora of well over 18 million that is as dynamic and hard working as the most. They have contributed to strengthen the identity of the country, help their brothers back home, send back money, investment and ideas that they invented or learnt abroad. It’s like a limitless bank of human talent. After decades of deeply-rooted hatred, fuelled by regional and world powers, the moment of true independence and peace has come. The only way to make this happen is by not forgetting the tragedies, the pain, the suffering of the past. If all of this is ignored, history could repeat itself.