Today Karantina is home to the massive concert and frequent rave venue “Forum De Beyrouth,” where Snoop Dogg, Arman Van Buuren, Cirque Du Soleil and dozens of other acts and celebrities have performed over recent years.
But how many clubbers and performers know about the massacres that took place on these grounds 40 years ago this week?
Although there is no memorial to be found, the Facebook group “La guerre du Liban jour au jour (The Lebanese war day by day)” has posted chilling archival footage of the massacre that left hundreds of dead at the hands of Kataeb militiamen on January 18, 1976.
The 19 minute video is not easy to watch. At times the young men are gleefully loading up their heavy machine guns and shooting up the slum where impoverished Palestinian refugees had settled. One woman rushes out carrying a baby, begging the militants not to fire by holding up a white handkerchief:
Other civilians were less lucky. You can watch the full video here:
We find out why they were bulldozing and clearing the area in this British television report which came out later that year. One of the christian militia leaders, Dany Chamoun says it was not a massacre, merely a “concise military operation” to reclaim private property.
“No it wasn’t ruthless, they were just asked to give up their arms and go out of here peacefully, ” he tells the incredulous correspondent. “They didn’t. A very concise military operation was taken and they were given free access and transportation out of here. What made it seem ruthless because we cleared the shanties out of here. This is private property and now it can be used for development. We are desperately short of land and I’m sure the people will use it for proper development.”
Watch the full video here, which follows the Chamoun interview with a testimony of a child who survived the killings, who says the Karantina refugees were offloaded from a truck and the men were lined up and sprayed with bullets.
I guess the “proper development” Mr. Chamoun was talking about was night clubs and concert venues, because who needs poor people?
The Karantina massacre would be avenged by armed Palestinian factions a few days later in Damour on January 20th, leaving homes burned and hundreds of civilians in the Christian mountain village dead.
Here is a less journalistic youtube video looking at that massacre:
And in this ITV newsreel, we can see the Palestinian militants burning and looting homes, as dead bodies lie in the streets, in an eerily similar fashion to the images in Karantina:
The Damour massacre, documented in horrid detail here by Robert Fisk, was followed by more assassinations of Christian militia leaders and more massacres at Palestinian refugee camps killing thousands more such as the infamous Sabra-Shatila massacre. When I reported on remembering that massacre 30 years on in a 2012 piece for Al Jazeera, I asked Nadim Gemayel, a current member of parliament and son of the late Kataeb party leader associated with a number of war-time atrocities, if he thought the dead should be remembered or if there had been any reconciliation efforts, three decades later.
“A lot of crimes happened on both sides,” he said ” I think admitting that it happened from both sides can help.”
Gemayel even proposed a wall honoring Lebanese war victims of all faiths, but he cautioned that this would not include Palestinians.
But why not? Why are our memories of the war still so polarized that we are able to forgive some crimes and not others?
The politicization of memory has become an increasingly relevant with the recent agreement between ex-war commanders and once extremely violent rivals General Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea who have now decided to form a sort of political alliance and support Aoun’s bid for the presidency. Many, particularly those close to the leadership or big businesses, suggest we celebrate this ‘initiative’ and move on from the war. But if the warlords are still in the highest positions of power is the war really over to begin with? If we don’t have spaces to remember those who have gone, to pay tribute, to reconcile, to make peace with the past, how can we chart a new future and ‘start fresh’? How can we forgive, if we have already chosen to forget?
I think the Lebanese academic Maya Mikdashi put it best in a still very salient piece she wrote last year about the importance of exploring our memories and understanding the memories of others. She says: “during the war, one child’s nightmares were populated with another child’s heroes. ”
Perhaps it’s time not just to remember Karantina and Damour and all the other tragedies, but also to acknowledge each other’s pain, to help us begin to empathize and thus humanize one another, regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity. Facebook groups may have provided a starting point, but there is much more to do.
In the absence of any formal reckoning with the legacies of the civil war, public memory and narration grow increasingly important. This is particularly true when there is no agreed upon narrative of the past, a condition of building a political community oriented towards a common future. Lebanon is a long way from this, but only when the fractured memoryscape is actually mapped out in all its registers will it be possible for these memories to inspire new futures. We should recognize the traumas that we experienced and inflicted upon each other during the war, and the traumas that we continue to experience through the imposed silence of the “post civil war” era.