Six years ago the New York Times described Assaad Chaftari as the one major participant in Lebanon’s civil war who had ‘truly apologised’ for his role in the atrocities committed.
Today he is not alone. Twenty-five ex-combatants from differing factions, Muslim and Christian, have joined him, calling themselves Fighters for Peace. One of their aims is to help younger Lebanese ‘to realise what we realised too late – that in a civil war everyone loses’. They speak in schools, universities and public forums.
They came together in 2012, when fighting broke out in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli. ‘We saw the sectarian mobilisation for violence,’ said Haydar Ammacha. ‘We were terrified, knowing that this was how civil war had started in 1975.’ He was part of a coalition of NGOs called Unity is our Salvation, in which Assaad and other ex-fighters were active.
Faced with a perilous situation, several of them called a press conference. ‘For the first time I spoke publicly about my past,’ said Haydar. Then they went to Tripoli to meet the groups in conflict. Their unity across sectarian lines caught the media’s attention, and Lebanon heard about former enemies working together to prevent violence.
Gradually other ex-combatants joined. For each of them this has meant a painful re-evaluation of their actions during the 15-year war in which 150,000 people died. ‘I thought about the bombs that I used to throw,’ said Haydar. ‘I had joined the militia to defend my people, but gradually I had turned into a criminal.’
Such frankness does not come easily. Like many ex-combatants, Fadi Nasreddine had hidden his past from his children. But the ‘courageous honesty and humanity of Fighters for Peace convinced me that peace is possible in Lebanon’. He knew that his sons could be enticed into taking up arms for a cause. ‘So I confessed that I had been a fighter, and told them what this had led to.’ Now he speaks publicly.
Fighters for Peace do not just speak. They reach out to people who lost relatives during the war, and to refugees. They organise summer camps with Syrians and Palestinians. Documentaries about their work on Lebanese national television have inspired others to take action.
In one town school pupils organised a marathon for peace in cooperation with Fighters for Peace, and 400 ran. Last month 100 young people came to a hall in central Beirut to see a play about the 17,000 people who disappeared in the civil war. The event was hosted by Fighters for Peace, who are doing all they can to find the disappeared and return them to their families for burial.
Recently they were approached by the Forum of Cities in Transition, which is working to encourage peace in 15 conflict-ridden cities. Now the Forum has added Tripoli to their concerns – giving Fighters for Peace the chance to extend their work not just in Lebanon but in cities far beyond.
Photo by John Bond