Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Week in God's Country

In Lebanon, the land rises steadily from the coast, a series of green mountains racing each other east towards a pinnacle in the center of the country.  At Harissa, where an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the country, I can peer down into the Christian coastal town of Jounieh, south along the coast to Beirut, the capital, and up the coast all the way to Byblos.  The Mediterranean Sea stretches out before me for long miles, seeming almost to rise into the distance like another mountain.  While it is bright and sunny where I stand, out over the sea, layers of clouds obscure the horizon, gray near the sea and dark black above.  A gigantic waterspout dips out of the cloud layer, skirts the surface of the sea, and retreats back into the firmament without making a sound.

If a multitude of press reports are to be believed, farther north up the coast, past Byblos, past Tripoli, in the Syrian town of Baniyas, pro-government militias are going “house to house, killing entire families and smashing men’s heads with concrete blocks.”

This trip to Beirut with Christian Solidarity International, the human rights group I work for, was my first visit to the Middle East since I left Syria in May 2011, when the country’s burgeoning anti-government uprising had claimed “only” a few hundred lives, and all of Syria’s main cities were intact.

On the coast of Lebanon, there are few tangible signs of the carnage taking place on the other side of the mountains.  The schools are open, the streets are clogged with traffic, and construction is booming. 

But you cannot avoid Syria’s war in Lebanon.  Already, 500,000 people have flooded into Lebanon from Syria to escape the fighting.  This, in a country of four million.

Among the refugees are two families I know from my time in Damascus.  On this trip, I get to see them again.  It is the greatest encouragement I’ve had in a while.  It proves to me that my time in Syria wasn’t a dream, and that this terrible war hasn’t destroyed everything I knew there.  Life is going on, at least for these people.

The first is an Iraqi Christian family who fled to Syria from Baghdad when their father was kidnapped by al Qaeda in 2007. “I think I might be the only Iraqi kidnapping victim who was released,” he tells me.

His captors tortured him for four days, and called his wife, telling her that she would have to pay $200,000 to get him back.  This, they said, would be their payment for living as Christians in a Muslim country.

My friend told them that they should go ahead and kill him, because “this is the short life, and the long life is still ahead.  But when we stand together before God, I will get my rights from you and your children.”

At last, the kidnappers let my friend go.  They said, “You can live, but we will take your house.  That will be your payment.”

The family fled to Syria after that, as did close to a million other Iraqi Christians fearing abductions, church attacks and massacres.  Iraq's pre-U.S. invasion Christian population was 1.4 million.  My friends settled in a Christian neighborhood of Damascus called Jaramana.  They tell me that it is Jaramana, and Syria, that they remember most fondly.

Starting last August, Jaramana was rocked by several huge car bomb attacks, and countless smaller explosions, despite its lack of military targets.  Scores of civilians were massacred.  My friends decided to leave after the first one.  Their youngest son, just 9, was suffering from psychological trauma, and the father was spooked by the large numbers of armed men walking the streets. “People knew me in Iraq, and I was still kidnapped,” he tells me. “Anyone could have kidnapped me there.  I decided not to wait.”     

I ask their son what he remembers from Iraq.  He remembers their house, and the giant toy car he had, and that his grandma’s house was right next door, and she would call to him and his brothers through the window whenever she made sweets.

The family now lives in a rough-and-tumble Christian neighborhood in Beirut.  The main street is dominated by an outpost of the Christian Lebanese Forces Militia, which announces its presence with a large wooden cross and two dozen posters of Pierre Amin Gemayal, a Christian anti-Syrian politician who was assassinated seven years ago.

The family is not registered with the Lebanese government.  The father apologizes for not seeing me off to the airport when I leave Lebanon; he doesn’t want to risk any contact with military or police personnel, who might deport them back to Iraq.

My friend, being a good host, tries to find a taxi for me to the airport, but after absorbing a million refugees from Palestine and Syria, the Lebanese have become perhaps understandably (if not justifiably) hostile to foreigners.  The cab drivers hear my friend's Iraqi accent, and give him terrible prices.  He sarcastically shouts "Shokran!" (thank you!) and walks away from each one.  One man drives after him, offering to bring his price down, but my friend will have none of it. "I don't deal with bastards," he tells me.

"Michael" was 15 when I last saw him in Damascus.  We agree to meet at an ancient church along the Dog River, where millennia of invading armies, starting with the ancient Egyptians, have carved their names into a cliffside as they passed through Lebanon.

Michael is taller now, and his voice is deeper, but he's still the thoroughly kind, gentle-hearted, completely sincere young man I remember being so out of place among his coarse classmates.  Sometimes he jokes: "I used to like the color orange, but General Aoun ruined it for me." Sometimes he is deadly serious. "I hate Lebanon," he tells me as we sit on the rocky shorefront, the glistening sea in front of us, the great peninsula of Beirut to our left, the beautiful green hills of Mount Lebanon to our backs. "I want to leave.  I want to go anywhere else but here and Syria."

Michael's family is from Aleppo, from a Christian neighborhood that became a frontline in the battle between regime forces and rebels.  Michael never saw the fighting, but he heard the explosions and felt the high-rise where he and his family lived shake.  After four days without electricity or water, they decided to leave for Turkey.  Their only real scare was when they saw the "terrorist" (rebel) flag flying in a town their bus was passing through, and realized the rebels had seized it.  Men with large guns approached the bus before their commander realized they were just refugees, and waved them through after checking their ID cards.  Michael's older brother was asleep at the time, and his nervous mother told the guards he didn't have an ID card.  Amazingly, the guards accepted this preposterous story. "They are so much stupid!" Michael's brother tells me, laughing.

I want to see where he's living now, so Michael takes me by bus high up into the mountains, a third of the way to the Syrian border, to a region dotted by churches and statues of a sword-wielding prophet Elijah.  Michael lives with his older brother and older sister in a flat in a dank, cold apartment building with a breathtaking view of a green valley stretching all the way down to the sea.  Electricity and water are only on for a few hours a day.  Black, angry mold grows on all the walls.  I'm frightened by it, but I don't know how to tell them that.

It's safe here, he and his older brother explain, because it's a Christian area, and the Christian Lebanese know what it's like to be at war with Muslims, so they are taking care of Christians who come from Syria.  Michael, his older brother and his older sister all have jobs - a rarity for refugees in Lebanon.  But Michael has had to drop out of school, because the Lebanese curriculum is too French-centric.  Michael's English is beautiful, but French, with its all of 110 million native speakers, is keeping him from getting an education.

Michael's parents, meanwhile, have returned to Aleppo to continue their jobs in government banks while their younger son completes his crucial 9th grade year at his school there.  Regime forces have decided to set up a military outpost right next to the school, which means the area is often the scene of fighting.

I also meet with some Syrian Christian refugees with my boss, as part of our efforts to find ways to help Christians fleeing the conflict.  One of them, "Basel," arrives at the monastery before my boss comes down from his room.  I introduce myself to him, and we exchange pleasantries in Arabic. "Where are you from?" he asks. 

"I'm from America," I respond.

Immediately, Basel tenses up. "What are your goals here?" he asks.

Later, after trust has been won, he confides in me that I made him nervous when I told him my nationality.  From the perspective of Syrian Christians, America's role in their country's civil war is so destructive that merely meeting an American inspires fear.  But after speaking with me and my boss for a few hours, Basel's natural Syrian hospitality takes over again, and he insists that I visit his temporary home for tea and cookies (which I do.)

Basel is from Homs.  He provides me with a straightforward map of the conflict.  For the first six months of the uprising, the revolution was largely peaceful, with only light arms being used on occasion.  After the sustained government violence against protestors, the revolutionaries began to arm themselves, and Islamic fighters flooded into the country to join the fight.  The Christian neighborhood of Hamidiyye in Homs became a frontline in the fighting, and most of the Christians fled.  Their homes were subsequently occupied by the rebels, who refused to allow them to return.  Today, the entire neighborhood has been laid waste in the fighting.

Basel and his friends tell me that many Syrian Christian men, including them, have sought refuge in Lebanon, not because the conflict directly threatened them, but because the Syrian government has begun selectively drafting Christian men into the army.  Unlike Muslims, the reasoning goes, Christians can be counted on not to defect and join the rebels.  The government is also organizing Christians and other religious minorities threatened by Islamist rebels into a "national defense army," a network of local militias loyal to the government.

Michael's brother also tells me that the government has been handing out weapons to Christians in Aleppo, and that some have accepted them.  The church, however, opposes this.  Michael's family is Orthodox, and his brother tells me that the Orthodox Church forbids carrying weapons, even for self-defense. "Killing is killing," he says.

This is a hard word, and not all Middle Eastern Christians can accept it.  During the 19th century, tens of thousands of Lebanese Christians were massacred by Muslims and Druze, and during World War I, 120,000 Lebanese died in a famine perpetuated by the Ottoman Muslim rulers of Lebanon.  The French carved out Lebanon as a safe space for Christians in the region, much as the British helped the Zionists establish Palestine as a safe haven for world Jewry.  When Lebanon's growing Muslim population, fueled by an influx of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Palestinian refugees, tried to overturn this arrangement, Lebanon's Christian government and militia movements responded with extreme violence.

The civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990, featured invasions from Israel, Syria, and the U.S., and killed nearly 120,000 people.  Both sides committed horrendous atrocities: Christians point to the village of Damour, where Palestinian militiamen massacred the Christian population, and Muslims point to Sabra and Chatila, Palestinian refugee camps where Christian militias conducted a similar massacre seven years later, after the assassination of Lebanon's Christian president-elect.

Beirut, once known as the "Paris of the Middle East," was a center of the civil war's violence.  Today, Beirut is running from that history.  Scores of giant construction cranes dot the skyline, busily building depressingly-modern hotels and shopping malls on the ruins of millennia of history wiped out in the war.  I have two encounters with the Lebanese military in Beirut while walking about on my free day.  The first comes when I take a picture of the Holiday Inn, a giant structure completed just before the civil war started which soon became a prime sniping post.  Its empty, bombed-out hulk still looms over the city.  The soldiers scold me for taking a picture of it.  This is forbidden.

The second comes when I try to find Beirut's last surviving Jewish synagogue, whose location is marked in my tourist handbook.  I arrive at the entrance to the road the synagogue is located on, only to find it blocked by a gate and an Army checkpoint. "Can I walk this way?" I ask one of the soldiers. "No, it is closed," comes the curt reply. "What are you looking for?"

"Oh nothing."

Apparently the one thing a country divided between Christians, Sunnis and Shiites can't handle is a publicly-accessible synagogue.

Despite this vigilance, the leftovers of the war are impossible to miss.  The Green Line, which separated Muslim West Beirut from Christian East Beirut, is a massive wasteland in the heart of an otherwise packed metropolis.  The buildings along the Green Line that were destroyed in the fighting have been bulldozed, but nothing has yet taken their place.  The headquarters of the Christian Phalange party, set in a beautiful 19th-century French mansion on the east border of the Green Line, are completely surrounded by giant cement blast walls, giving the whole mansion the appearance of a giant cement box.  The rival militias, still active, still armed, mark their territory with posters, flags and graffiti.  Do you see green cedar trees, red crosses, posters of Pierre Gemayal, graffiti that reads "Fuck Turkey"?  You must be in a Christian neighborhood.  Green flags, posters of Mousa Sadr or Hassan Nasrallah, pictures of the Dome of the Rock?  Shiite terrority.  Hammers, sickles and mustachioed men?  A Communist neighborhood.  "There is no god but God" in white Arabic letters on black background?  Hide.

Nearly everyone I speak to is convinced that war is coming to Lebanon again.  The country's balance of power is too tenuous, and the Syrian conflict too overwhelming.  The same sectarian groupings that define the Syrian war - Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Alawite, Druze - exist in Lebanon, and already, Lebanese militias are crossing the border to fight for their respective allies.  Violent clashes between Sunni, Shiite and Alawite forces have already taken place in Beirut and Tripoli.  The flood of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon helped trigger the last civil war.  500,000 Syrian refugees have already entered Lebanon, and if Syria's Sunni rebels take power in the Alawite heartland north of Lebanon, that number could increase by millions as Alawites flee the takeover. "Lebanon is close to the breaking point," the director of a Christian NGO in Beirut tells me.

But the cause of the coming new Lebanon war could be darker than a mere refugee influx.  Al Qaeda and like-minded Salafist groups are on the rise across the region.  Once viewed as a collection of psychopaths bringing destruction on the whole Muslim world, Al Qaeda has now become the leading name in Sunni Arab nationalism from Iraq to Lebanon.  In Iraq, Al Qaeda is the leader of the resistance against the near-dictatorship of the U.S.-installed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  In Syria, Al Qaeda's affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra is by far the most effective and (among Sunnis) most popular rebel group fighting the Alawite regime.  In Lebanon, the al Qaeda flag has begun making appearances at Sunni anti-government protests.

Lebanon's peace, when it has existed, has always been rooted in a balance of power between Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians.  They comprise relatively equal proportions of the population, and none can dominate the other.  Cooperation is essential to governance.

If Lebanon is considered together with Syria, however - as most Muslims consider them - Sunnis comprise an overwhelming majority in the region.  If Sunni Salafist rebels succeed in overthrowing the Syrian regime, is it believable that they will stop there, and respect the borders drawn up by Christian imperialists 100 years ago?  Jubhat al-Nusra has already proclaimed the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria." How hard would it be to add Lebanon to that list?

As all the Syrian Christians we speak to on this trip recount, the slogan, "Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave!" has been heard chanted in the streets of Syria since the earliest days of the revolution.  As chilling as it is, it also strikes me as deeply disingenuous.  Christians to Beirut?  Guys, we’ve been over this.  120,000 people died in the 1980s over the question of whether or not the Christians could have Beirut all to themselves – and the answer you settled on was a decided no.

This is Lebanon today - a heartbreakingly beautiful country, where all you can see in every direction is signs of war past and the war to come.  "If Lebanon is in danger, we will be there," proclaims a giant poster of Pierre Amine Gemayal hanging on the side of the Phalange bunker.  Pierre has been dead now for seven years.

"The people of this region have good hearts, but that's not enough," a Syrian Christian nun who's taking care of 400 Christian refugee families on the Syrian coast tells me. "Their minds must be changed as well."

What can we do when we see a man-made disaster approaching so clearly, and so unavoidably?

We pray.  We feed the hungry and homeless.  We preach the gospel of peace and justice to our neighbors and our government.

And we wait.
Christian Solidarity International is providing aid to displaced and suffering Christians inside Syria, where the church is being targeted for religious cleansing by Islamic extremists.  You can donate to these efforts at our website:


1 comment:

  1. A heartbreaking assessment, Joel, written in the kind of sorrow that lament requires.