The psychological fallout of Lebanon's 'mini civil war'

by Alex Klaushofer | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 10 June 2008 13:23 GMT

Peace has broken out in Lebanon. At least that's the official line in a country that came in the bottom 10 in last month's "Global Peace Index" published by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Last month's crisis saw the worst sectarian fighting since Lebanon's civil war, with over 80 people killed and sections of West Beirut taken over by Hezbollah militia in a bid to push the Siniora government to give in to its demands.

The peace deal subsequently brokered in Doha, Qatar ended eighteen months of political deadlock and saw the election of a president acceptable to both sides in the countyÂ?s political divide.

Now pictures of the new president, army chief General Michel Suleiman, adorn the streets and - unusually for a member of LebanonÂ?s political elite - it's hard to find anyone who will say a bad word about him. And with hotels booked for months ahead, the tourist industry is anticipating a boom summer.

But ordinary people and aid workers are feeling the affect-effects of what is widely considered in Lebanon to have been a mini-civil war.

Â?I was angry for a week after the Doha Accord, and I cried often,Â? says Diana Bou Ghanem, who lives in Hamra, the area of Beirut taken over by Hezbollah. Â?All this chaos, and after one night people started celebrating. What are they celebrating for? People were killed and humiliated.Â?

As gunfire raged around her flat during the first night of fighting, she moved her children away from the windows into the relative safety of the corridors. The following day the family fled past armed gunmen to the Chouf mountains, only to find that the fighting - this time between Hezbollah supporters and the Druze inhabitants - had spread there too.

In the wake of the crisis, NGOs are starting to consider their role in healing some of the psychological wounds. The ink had not even been signed on the Qatar deal when the Beirut-based Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture issued a statement calling for a law banning sectarian prejudice to help heal the rifts caused by the conflict.

Â?We talked about the psychological aspect because during this conflict there were many inhuman practices between neighbours,Â? says the organisationÂ?s general secretary, Mohammed Safa. Â?Since the conflict ended, people feel fear and anxiety - theyÂ?re not living in peace any more.Â?

The organisationÂ?s stance is a direct result of its experience in its office in Corniche el Mazraa, the site of fierce fighting between Sunni and Shia. Living nearby, SafaÂ?s own family - members of a Shia minority in a predominantly Sunni area - illustrate the feelings of many Lebanese who saw their hitherto peaceful areas erupt into violence.

Â?Nothing happened to me or my family. All the time they stayed in the house,Â? says Safa. Â?But now they requested me to move them to (the Shia area of) south Lebanon.Â?

As a result, the centre has organised a community event to bring people together -work which, he readily acknowledges, goes beyond the organisation's core aim of helping torture victims to rebuild their lives.

Â?We will exceed our activity with this issue,Â? he says. Â?If this sectarianism had victory we would not be able to do our work. You cannot rehabilitate in a war!Â?

He hopes that a two-year drawing project, due to end this month, involving children aged 4-8 from schools across Lebanon will also help to counter sectarianism. Â?It will be a very dangerous community to have children of this young an age thinking in this way,Â? he says.

Meanwhile, international aid agencies are becoming increasingly aware of the need to deal with the psychosocial consequences of conflict in the Middle East.

An inter-agency report signed by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Children's Fund and other NGOs during the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel, laid down some key principles for alleviating civilians' distress, such as fostering Â?normalisationÂ? and doing community-based work.

Maha Damaj, child protection officer for UNICEF in Lebanon, agrees that, despite its brevity, Lebanon's latest conflict has had a marked effect on children.

Â?The polarisation has really increased since these last two weeks,Â? she says. Â?Children quite often repeat what they hear around them. This polarisation is happening around them for reasons they donÂ?t understand, and they are manifesting it.Â?

A particular challenge is that the complexity of the May conflict, with its multi-faceted political causes and remedies, defies ready explanation.

Â?Easy answers donÂ?t satisfy critical children,Â? says Damaj. Â?Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, explaining to a child why they went through this is not simple. Kids are quite shrewd.Â?

But rather than rushing in with clinical interventions, she argues that relief agencies should adopt Â?softÂ? approaches to help people recover their psychological well-being.

Â?The larger percentage of the population doesnÂ?t need medical assistance - they need modes of processing,Â? she says. Â?What anyone working with children can offer is the same - to reinstate a sense of normality and encourage different modes of expression, whether itÂ?s drama or drawing.Â?

Often this means that NGOs need to raise awareness of these approaches, countering a tendency to put too much faith in pills and prescriptions. Â?Here particularly weÂ?re in a very medicalised culture and doctorsÂ? opinions are respected far beyond anyone elseÂ?s,Â? she adds.

Meanwhile, the Bou Ghanem family continues to deal with the psychological consequences of living in this notoriously unstable country as best they can. Â?Every time a conflict happens I feel my children grow older by more than a year,Â? says their mother.

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