The Lebanese civil war began in 1975, and ended in 1990: between different Lebanese sectarian groups, as well as Palestinians, and included two invasions: by Syria and Israel. Until 2000, the South of Lebanon was occupied by Israel, and until 2005, Syrian troops and security remained in Lebanon. The war ended, and the militias who dominated the country for 15 years were dissolved, but the same men dominate Lebanon’s political system today.
For this article, I have interviewed Gaby Jammal, an ex-fighter from this war, now in his mid- 50s, and living in Saida, Lebanon. Gaby certainly isn’t what I expected from an ex fighter – he is a friendly, chatty guy, who lights up as he tells you stories, animating even the most somber tales of war. What separates Gaby – and another 50 fighters- from the rest who fought in Lebanon’s bloody civil war, is that Gaby has openly renounced his wartime actions. I met Gaby this spring, whilst I was staying in Saida, where he lives with his Japanese wife, Junko. They are both vegetarians and atheists; two things which you wouldn’t expect to find in a conservative city in the south of Lebanon. I couldn’t have felt more welcome in his home, where we were given mint lemonade and ramadan sweets. The following weekend he took me and a friend on his own tour of Beirut, passing sites along the green line, the motorway which served as a divide between warring sides of Beirut. Gaby told me it was named because of the grass that began to grow along it after years of disuse during the war.
In the five months that i spent in Lebanon, Gaby on his tour taught me more about the war than anyone else. There still are no official war memorials or museums to the war in Lebanon, and the groups and individuals who remain dominant in Lebanese politics today are largely those who dominate histories of the war. After the war, when the militias were dissolved, their leaders became a part of the new Lebanon: the ministers, deputies, and government members. Because of the sectarian system, Lebanon is still divided and clashes continue today.
Gaby, whose father was a Palestinian Christian, and mother a Lebanese Maronite, began training to fight with a Palestinian militia at 12, following the advice of one of his school teachers. That was 1974, the year before war broke out. By thirteen, Gaby had shown a natural talent for handling a rifle, and was awarded his very own Kalashnikov. To the envy of all of his friends, he slept with it by his side; it made him feel masculine, and invaded his dreams. Gaby calls it his first girlfriend. He was trained by a Palestinian militia, who prepared him to fight the Maronites, (a Christian denomination, close to Catholicism), his mother’s family’s sect. Quickly, Gaby became a hero in his neighbourhood, seeing himself as macho and tough, defending his people.
I ask Gaby if his family were worried about him fighting, but he explains that he was honoured: by his family, in the neighbourhood; especially by the girls. Th war was like cinema for Gaby: a space for fantasy, imagination, and where dreams came true. It was a realisation of his dreams for changing the world, and it began in Lebanon. This feeling lasted for the first two years of war, but quickly the fighting descended into chaos: What happens when war lasts longer than it should, he explains. But he still hoped that things would change. Now, he sees it was all in vain. They were destroying the country that they wanted to change.
As the war progressed, Gaby’s family fled. As Christians living in West Beirut, his father and brother were kidnapped by other Palestinians – their own group. They fled to Austria, but Gaby stayed behind. His mother stayed in East Beirut, on the other side of the green line and they couldn’t see one another, so at 17 Gaby was left in the house alone. Afraid to stop fighting, and get killed, he was forced to carry on.
There are a lot of ironies that Gaby experienced over that time. He was kidnapped nine times through the war, always by allied groups and, once when he refused to fight, by his own group. During his kidnappings, he often befriended the guards. Once, he persuaded them to go to the cinema with him. They watched the film Blues Brothers, then went for a walk along the Corniche. The next morning, when the same guards were instructed to beat him, they did it, but more gently than before. Gaby chuckles as he remembers. In another incident, thanks to his Christian name, Gabriel, the Christian group he was fighting with invited him over to talk. He describes feeling fearless as he crossed over, instructing his men that if he didnt come back, to shoot them all. They drank and ate together, and agreed a peace for the next two days. [maybe I should take this out]
Perhaps it was because of his identity; having a Maronite Lebanese mother, and a Palestinian father, that put Gaby somewhere in between two of the warring groups, that allowed Gaby to be so open to his enemies. It also led to some extreme difficulties. His house was in a predominantly Christian area, and Gaby would come home from fighting to see shells fired by his own militia.
Gradually, Gaby moved away from fighting: only fighting with the Israelis and the Syrian army. But when they fought with other Palestinians and Lebanese, he disengaged. Nobody was guiding the fighting, he explains. They’d lost their ideologies, and the weapons led the men. He feared that, as a leader, if he left he’d be killed. In 1986, when a captive was about to be shot against, as a revenge for killing one of their men, Gaby saw a strong resemblance between this man and his brother in Switzerland. He insisted they couldn’t kill him, holding a gun up to his colleague. He succeeded, and took the man with him, delivering him to safety, and saving his life. They never saw each other again, but a year later a similar incident happened, and in 1992 they passed each other, both in so much shock neither could speak. Gaby describes how his head span, and after about 30 seconds of looking at one another, this man was able to nod to him: a recognition of what had happened.
Fighters for peace
In 2008, fighting broke out in the north between Alawi and Sunni groups. A group of ex-fighters from different groups in the war urged them not to fight: it wouldn’t lead to anything. They kept in contact, and in 2014 formed the NGO fighters for peace. There are now about 50 of them: not a lot, compared to the number who fought in the war, but it has done something extraordinary in bringing together old enemies, and denouncing fighting. And they’re growing: Gaby happily tells me they have just gotten Sunni and Alawi fighters to join them. Using playback theater, ex fighters share their experiences so people hear what was war is like. They speak in schools, universities, and make small documentaries that show the strength of unlikely friendships between fighters from different warring parties.
Perhaps most important is their work abroad: speaking in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Iraq, to bring groups together. Recently they’ve spoken to teenage ISIS fighters, to try and understand the motives for them to fight with ISIS: Gaby doubts its from religious belief, but that, like him, they are attracted to the image of being a fighter. Just like Gaby, he imagines that its a desire to be tough, strong and powerful. That’s what being armed does for young guys. Not many of us can imagine what it would be like to be a teenage fighter: but Gaby has had an experience of it.
As the war continues in neighbouring Syria, and fears grow for what will happen to the fighters of this bloody civil war, let us hope that some of those fighters will follow in the footsteps of the Fighters for Peace, and move forwards from the brutality of the war.