30 BEYOND THE GREEN LINE - Beirut and Lebanon thirty years after the Civil War
BEIRUT / LEBANON
2020 is a very meaningful year in Lebanon's history: in fact, thirty years have passed since the end of the Civil War. Despite the time, today in Lebanon that part of recent history people in the country do not often talk about it and it is almost completely absent from the topics of study in schools. Nonetheless, in many cities buildings still clearly show the scars of the conflict. The causes of the war are manifold, and its protraction from 1975 to 1990 is often linked to games of power between foreign countries with strategic interests in the area. One of the main triggering factors is the strong presence of Palestinian refugees on the Lebanese territory, as well as of Palestinian armed groups such as PLO - Palestine Liberation Organization. The latter was seen as a direct threat by the neighboring State of Israel. In fact, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon twice during the war, leading to the consequent intervention by the Syrian army. Furthermore, the worsening of ancient interreligious tensions between Muslims and Christians first, and Sunnis and Shiites after, led to the creation of armed militias within the various religious groups and political parties.
Among other consequences, the fifteen years of fratricidal conflict left the capital Beirut ravaged by clashes, 150.000 deaths and the increase of the Lebanese diaspora, marking a point of no return in the country's history. Hence, since the end of the war, the gap between new generations and those who suffered the consequences of the conflict has progressively widened. This fact prevented the necessary catharsis within Lebanese society to overcome the social and religious divisions already present before the conflict and aggravated by its outbreak. As a consequence, the collective trauma of its tragic memory was never commonly processed among people. Among other consequences, the fifteen years of fratricidal conflict left the capital Beirut ravaged by clashes, 150.000 deaths and the increase of the Lebanese diaspora, marking a point of no return in the country's history. Hence, since the end of the war, the gap between new generations and those who suffered the consequences of the conflict has progressively widened. This fact prevented the necessary catharsis within Lebanese society to overcome the social and religious divisions already present before the conflict and aggravated by its outbreak. As a consequence, the collective trauma of its tragic memory was never commonly processed among people.
The title of the project refers to the famous green line, the former front line that divided the city of Beirut into two sides, with Christians on the East and Muslims on the West. Both were deeply internally fragmented due to the different confessions that always characterized the peculiar Lebanese socio-political structure. In fact, the constitution officially recognizes eighteen religions and the political system is organized on confessional basis. This means that the different political charges are divided according to the demographic and social relevance of each confession. Following this principle, the President of the Republic is a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, and the President of the Parliament a Shiite. Moreover, the 2008 global economic crisis caused an unemployment rate of 37% among under-35s and the third-highest public debt in the world. The already critical general situation within the Lebanese society is also worsened by indirect repercussions of the Syrian Civil War. According to the UN, the number of Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon is about one million out of 4.5 million inhabitants, not counting the approximately 475,000 Palestinian refugees. The high rate of widespread institutional and administrative corruption led almost a third of the population to take to the streets on October 17th 2019 to protest against the entire political establishment. It is significant that it happened almost exactly thirty years after the Lebanese Civil War, which officially ended on October 13th 1990. The riots forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign on October 29th and, a month and a half later, to the election of Hassan Diab as substitute, still considered by many to be part of the nizam, the “system” that Lebanese people are still trying to break down. The result is a country on the brink of collapse with growing internal social and political tensions.
30 beyond the green line is a documentary project mainly composed by portraits taken in places strongly linked to both the history of the subjects and the Lebanese Civil War. In fact, the subjects were portrayed in the same place where, about thirty years ago, a specific event strongly marked their existence. In other cases, the protagonists of the images highlight themes linked to the post-war Lebanese society, but always attributable to the years of conflict. The large space left to the urban context in the images is also meant to strengthen the connection between subjects’ personal history and the places related to it. The purpose of this project is therefore to tell stories and describe places relevant to the Lebanese Civil War through the experience of those who experienced it. Furthermore, this work highlights the social repercussions of the thirty years following the conflict, such as the widespread corruption, the secularization of the country and the unresolved question of the Palestinian refugees.
Beirut / Patriarcat - Mohammed owns a second-hand shop inherited by his father (picture on the top left behind him). During the civil war he fought in the ranks of the Lebanese army and lost his right eye when the Israeli army invaded Beirut in 1982. “It was better during the war. Over the last few years there are more and more people willing to sell their belongings due to the economic crisis”, he says. His shop is just a few dozen meters from the green line, the former front line that used to divide the city between East and West during the Civil War.
Beirut / Bourj Hammoud - Within Beirut’s urban and social fabric the Armenian community has always been a special case. With the outbreak of the Civil War and until its conclusion, Armenians always kept a neutral position. However, almost every family used to keep weapons as a measure of self-defence and to protect the neighbourhood. The various commercial activities, mainly related to gold, occasionally were targets of raids from militiamen. Jewellery is the same business that Vatché carried on since he was seventeen, from 1979 to 2001. Today he owns a small bar where he claims brewing the best coffee in all Beirut and makes no secret of his passion for weapons. “In Bourj Hammoud there are still many families who have weapons stored somewhere”, he says. The shotgun he is holding in the photo is not his own, but was unexpectedly handed to him by a neighbour just a moment before the photo was taken.
Beirut / Manara - Like his family, Victor has been in charge of the Beirut lighthouse for his whole life. Today the old lighthouse, located in the western side of Beirut, is disused due to the buildings that have sprung up all around compromising its functionality. In 2003 a new lighthouse was built closer to the coast line, visible in the background on the right side of the photo. As belonging to the Maronite community, during the Civil War Victor got isolated by the other Christian groups, being the western part of Beirut mainly under the control of the Muslim militias. In order not to provide the Israeli Navy with an easy reference to strike the Syrian artillery located in the nearby area, since 1976 the lighthouse could only work during the day. Because of his faith Victor got kidnapped three times, being considered as a potential spy. The third time he was about to be hanged by some militiamen. He already had the rope around his neck when he was saved by the intervention of a high-ranked military man who knew him personally.
Beirut / Saray - Despite appearances, Selma is Muslim. She dresses like a Christian nun since when, she says, the Virgin Mary appeared to her in a dream ordering Selma to dress like her. Later, God also appeared to her together with the apostles and prophets requesting her to pray for the good of the world. Selma has been praying and reading the Qur’an in the same spot where she is standing in the photo for thirteen years now, from 5 am until approximately 5 pm. During the war, due to its strategic position, this place witnessed some of the most violent clashes. It was an important crossroad between the city centre, the green line, the hotels area and the Burj El Murr, an unfinished skyscraper meant to be Beirut’s trade building, that thanks to its ideal location close to the green line, during the war became a place from where snipers had a clear view of a large portion of the front line.
Beirut / Sodeco - During the Lebanese Civil War, a large part of the famous green line, the former front line that divided the capital Beirut into two sides, ran along the Damascus Road (the road that crosses diagonally the photograph). Many strategic points were disputed between the opposite factions. One of the most famous is the Bakarat House, today known as Beit Beirut (building in the lower right corner facing the crossroad). Before the Civil War broke out, some middle-class families lived in the building’s eight spacious apartments, until its occupation by the Christian militias. It became a strategic observation point for snipers who had a wide view of both the combat area and the front line. Thanks to its particular open architectural form and position, the building could ensure the control of the crossroad and its surroundings.
Beirut / Bachoura, Al Imam Ali Bin Abi Taleb Mosque - Sheikh Mohamad Qazem Ayyad was born in Iraq in 1969 in a family originally from southern Lebanon. He came to Lebanon with his father in 1977 after the death of his grandfather, when the Civil War was at its peak. His father and grandfather were Sheikhs of the Shiite community before him. “The construction of this mosque was completed in the 1970s by my grandfather. It represents the first construction of the Shiite community in Beirut. We have stayed here (Khandak El Ghamik) ever since. We never left even during the toughest battles”; he says. “We were so close to the green line that bombs were constantly falling here”. His house was hit several times. The worst attack occurred during The Elimination War (1988-1990) between General Michel Aoun - Commander of the Lebanese Army - and the Lebanese Forces, when a missile exploded right on the rooftop of the mosque.
Beirut / Majidiyeh, Downtown - When this portrait was taken, Annuar had arrived to Beirut only two months before to work for a big cleaning company. Every afternoon he cleans a small square at the edges of the new Beirut Souks, an important commercial area in the central district of the city. Behind him part of what remains of the former headquarters of the newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour is still visible. This area is one of the most iconic places related to both the civil war and the history of the Lebanese capital. Of Bengali origin, like many of his compatriots Annuar got to Lebanon for better chance of work thanks to a local “sponsor” who paid for his visa. The sponsor also remained in possession of his documents until the debt is repaid. This way Annuar became de facto dependent on his sponsor’s will to have his own documents back.