Processing Lebanon's long legacy of collective trauma

In Lebanon, collective trauma is obvious. The explosions in Beirut on 4 August will have triggered memories of the civil war in many people. By understanding how individual and social identities are influenced by the past, peace work can help contribute to the healing process. By Miriam Modalal and Dalilah Reuben-Shemia

Essay by Miriam Modalal & Dalilah Reuben-Shemia

The Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, left many wounds unresolved and resulted in a fragmented society with deep sectarian divides. The end of the civil war was followed by a collective suppression of memories about the past three decades. The state promoted this process with the hopes of creating a sense of normality. This may have primarily numbed the pain, yet it failed to deal with the deep wounds of loss, shame and despair.

Collective narratives of victimhood were passed on within fragmented communities. The past remains taboo for school history books and open public discourse has been silenced. Instead, migrants and refugees, not to mention foreign powers, are scapegoated as being the overriding threat to security and the reason for social and political misery. A language of fear and mistrust has given political parties a platform to manipulate the collective need for safety and security.

Recent events of a massive nationwide uprising, which started in October 2019 and is known as the October Revolution, called these realities and heteronomous identities into question. Following a government announcement to tax Internet voice calls, protesters all across the country rose up, demanding an end to corruption, clientelism and the lack of accountability.

The October Revolution led to a collapse of the government, while the country has suffered several months at the brink of financial bankruptcy. A divided society – where many had remained silent for so long – was unified in calling for a root-and-branch transformation of the social and political make-up of Lebanon. It was the end of a prolonged period of collective paralysis.


Peace work that responds to trauma

Entire communities can be traumatised by violent conflicts and the traumas can be passed on from one generation to the next. In Lebanon, collective trauma­ is obvious. With its projects on "Dealing with the Past", forumZFD, a German peace organisation working within the Civil Peace Service programme, uses multi-perspectivity – the idea that history is interpretational and subjective – to engage people in conversations about the past. It thus contributes to a healing process of collective trauma through understanding how individual and collective identities are influenced by the past.

During its "Memory of War" training series, peace activists from various conflicted communities reflected on collective narratives of identity and mind-sets influenced by the consequences of the civil war. In light of events surrounding the October Revolution, the activists explored the importance of a healthy mourning process.

This is prerequisite for breaking the deadlock of mind and body that exists when trauma – resulting in collective emotions of fear and despair – remains unresolved. The activists were encouraged to look at current conflicts in their communities through a multi-perspective lens and acquired techniques to address the past in the present.

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History of the Lebanese Civil War – Coming to blows over a school textbookforumZFD also supports teachers and religious communities across the country in learning and teaching about the past, seeking to bridge rather than deepen existing divides. With creative methods, forumZFD and its partner, the Lebanese Association for History, inspire teachers and students to transform the narrative of contested historical events and the memorisation of past violence. Besides multi-perspectivity, establishing dialogue with the older generations is an important approach.

The project "From local history to a wider understanding of the past", for instance, initiated trans-generational conversations on daily life during the civil war. After recording these oral histories, students are invited to transform their findings through artistic means and express how these memories relate to their own present life. The project contributes to a cross-generational process of reconstructing and integrating fragmented memories from the past, which is an essential element in collective trauma healing.

Encouraging community activism across divides

Another focus of forumZFD aims at encouraging community activism across divides to mobilise for non-violent action. Together with its partner, The Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering, forumZFD supported the foundation of a women’s cooperation Nisaa Kaderat (Capable Women) with Syrian and Lebanese peace activists. Nisaa Kaderat opened a self-organised community centre that provides a safe space for women of all nationalities and generations in the city of Baalbek.

Non-violent communication workshop at the women’s cooperation "Nisaa Kaderat" – lit. capable women (photo: Miriam Modalal)
Offering a safe space: "Nisaa Kaderat" invites women to find shelter and relief from everyday micro-aggressions against their gender and to practice self-care. Inspired by tools from non-violent communication, community dialogue and psychosocial support, women meet each other with empathy to transform collective emotions of loneliness, victimhood and shame

It invites women to find shelter and relief from everyday micro-aggressions against their gender and to practice self-care. Inspired by tools from non-violent communication, community dialogue and psychosocial support, women meet each other with empathy to transform collective emotions of loneliness, victimhood and shame. The dialogue supports women from different generations to stimulate a trans-generational healing process.

In short, on the one hand, the lens of collective trauma can be integrated into the work of conflict transformation. On the other, group-building processes create an atmosphere of empathy where individual experiences can be processed with the support of the group and collective learning processes can be facilitated.

If conflict transformation is sensitive to the psycho-social dynamics of collective trauma, it can strengthen re­silience at an individual and collective level. Health-promoting techniques are transformed in the process, strengthening resilience and positive coping strategies – parallel to other ­activities – thereby creating safe spaces for groups involving women or community groups to gather.

It remains important, however, to work on the transformation of shared narratives of the past and of victim identities through media, arts, festivals, exhibitions and digital storytelling platforms and to transform the enemy image of "the other". This in turn will serve to reinforce a sense of self-efficacy, helping to overcome shared feelings of helplessness and transforming passivity and political apathy into empowerment and agency.

Miriam Modalal & Dalilah Reuben-Shemia 

© D+C | Development & Cooperation 2020

Miriam Modalal is a project manager for community organising at forumZFD, an international non-governmental organisation working in the field of conflict transformation, in Lebanon.

Dalilah Reuben-Shemia has worked as a peace and conflict consultant and conducts research into non-violent action.