In Lebanon, the last household waste processing centre stopped working on July 17. The country has been buried in tons of rubbish for weeks. Parents are worried about mounds of waste in front of schools that could put their children’s health at risk. On November 25, a big bonfire of rubbish blocked the highway between Jounieh and Ghazir, whilst the heat of the flames damaged the foundations of the Maameltein bridge. Every day, daily newspaper Orient le Jour publishes an article denouncing the “saboteurs of the Republic”, politicians who don’t care if they wreck the State institutions and put the health of their citizens at risk.
The rubbish crisis is a metaphor for Lebanon, which is no better at managing its household waste than its civil war past, just as its present is also fraught with dangers. For nearly five years, Iraq and Syria have been mired in war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues and now Yemen too is in conflict. The ghost of civil war haunts Lebanon, especially after the double suicide bombing on November 12 which left 43 dead and 250 wounded in Bourj El-Barajneh, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut.
How can the current challenges be met whilst the State has put an iron cover on the past? Lessons have never been drawn from the 1975-1990 war which killed some 140,000 people. There is no history manual about this period, and it is almost never taught in secondary schools.
Amnesty and impunity
There is a reason for this. In 1991, the Lebanese parliament approved a law granting amnesty to perpetrators of war crimes. Militia leaders have become leaders of the main political parties. Under the lid that has been put on the past, individual and community memories remain alive, but have never been examined or discussed in the public forum. A survey carried out in the Beirut area in 2013 by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) found that most Lebanese think “the 1975-1990 war is not over but has just taken another form”.
Also, can you really call it a civil war? How do you name the terrible violence that shook the country for 15 long years, including the terrible massacres at La Quarantaine, Damour, Tal-el-Zaatar, Sabra and Chatila and elsewhere, in which all the factions were guilty? Was it a civil war? But then what do you call the Syrian occupation and the Israeli military intervention? Should we not rather talk of a series of conflicts all intertwined with each other? Should we use the word “resistance” for the struggle against the “Zionist enemy”, or does it also apply to the Syrian occupation? On all these questions, the State has remained resolutely silent.
Carmen Abou Jaoudé, director of ICTJ’s office in Lebanon, stresses the consequences of the amnesty policy. “With the amnesty, we have had neither real peace, nor justice, nor truth,” she says. “All it has generated is a culture of impunity which has poisoned society.”
Speaking at a conference in November held at Saint-Joseph University with support from the Swiss embassy, professor of geopolitics Joseph Maïla issued a warning. “Lebanon is sitting on a remembrance time bomb, because even if the State has conducted a policy of judicial amnesia, people do not forget,” he said. “This is fertile ground for propaganda and perhaps one day a return to violence.”
Fragile inter-community relations in an unstable region
The fragile relations between Lebanon’s 18 different communities are today being put to a tough test in a region that is more and more divided with the advent of a “Sunnistan” in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, a Kurdistan in the making, a Jewish state on the border and perhaps tomorrow an Alawite state to the north. That is not to mention the influence of Shiite Iran, the exodus of Iraqi Christians to the West and the arrival of more than a million Syrian refugees – mainly Sunni – in tiny Lebanon whilst Europe is struggling to take in half a million refugees. Such are the political, economic, social and cultural shocks that the country must absorb whilst the Lebanese remain deeply divided on what sort of society they want. They nevertheless have one common goal: not to be sucked into the war.
For 18 months, Lebanon has not had a President because the main political forces cannot reach agreement. But despite a congenitally weak State, civil society remains strong. Lebanese artists have no qualms evoking the past. Discussion groups talk about how to reform the paralyzed political system. Should there be majority or proportional voting? Should the confessional system be scrapped?
In April 2014, a consortium of NGOs proposed a bill to shed light on the 17,000 forced disappearances during the war and to open the mass graves, which could finally bring some relief to the families of the disappeared. This same group of NGOs is lobbying for a commission of inquiry on the forced disappearances and a Truth Commission. The household waste crisis also provoked a civil society movement that adopted the slogan “You Stink!”. Under that banner, tens of thousands of people of all political and religious persuasions have taken to the streets in the past few months.
That is a clear message to the politicians that they need to get their act together in the face of all the challenges facing Lebanon in an unstable region. The waste crisis is the signal of a deeper danger: it is not just the health but also the security of the Lebanese people that is at stake.