Fighters for Peace
Assaad Chaftari speaking to Lebanese students at a meeting hosted by Fighters for Peace
Twenty-five ex-combatants, called 'Fighters for Peace', from differing factions, Muslim and Christian, are aiming to help younger Lebanese ‘to realize what we realized too late – that in a civil war everyone loses’. They speak frequently in schools, universities and public forums.
Six years ago the New York Times described Assaad Chaftari as the one major participant in Lebanon’s civil war who had ‘truly apologised’ for his role in the atrocities committed.
In his book La vérité même si ma voix tremble (The truth, though I tremble to tell it), he describes the Initiatives of Change meeting which began this transformation. ‘I went with a gun hidden under my belt and two bodyguards outside.’ After a short introduction, the participants sat quietly, seeking direction from ‘the inner voice for some, the voice of God for others, their consciences for the agnostics.’ He began to realise that, in his fight for the rights of his Christian Lebanese community, he had strayed far from the tenets of his Christian faith. ‘All I saw was a path full of blood.’
Today he is not alone in taking a new path. Twenty-five ex-combatants from differing factions, Muslim and Christian, have joined him, calling themselves Fighters for Peace. One of their aims is to help younger Lebanese ‘to realize what we realized too late – that in a civil war everyone loses’, and they speak frequently in schools, universities and public forums.
They came together in 2012, when fighting broke out in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli. ‘We saw the sectarian mobilization for violence,’ said Haydar Ammacha. ‘We were terrified, knowing that this was how civil war had started in 1975.’ He was part of a coalition of NGOs called Unity is our Salvation, in which other ex-fighters were active including Assaad.
Faced with a perilous situation, several of them called a press conference. ‘For the first time I spoke publicly about my past,’ said Haydar. Then they went to Tripoli to meet the groups in conflict. Their unity across sectarian lines caught the media’s attention, and Lebanon heard about former enemies working together to prevent violence.
Gradually other ex-combatants joined. For each of them this has meant a painful re-evaluation of their actions during the 15-year war in which 150,000 people died. ‘I thought about the bombs that I used to throw,’ said Haydar. ‘I had joined the militia to defend my people, but gradually I turned into a criminal.’
Such frankness does not come easily. Like many ex-combatants, Fadi Nasreddine had hidden his past from his children. But the ‘courageous honesty and humanity of Fighters for Peace convinced me that peace is possible in Lebanon’. He knew that his sons could be enticed into taking up arms for a cause. ‘So I confessed that I had been a fighter, and told them what this had led to.’ Now he speaks publicly.
And Fighters for Peace do not just speak. They reach out to people who lost relatives during the war, and to refugees. They organize summer camps with Syrians and Palestinians. Documentaries about their work on Lebanese national television have inspired others to take action.
In one town school pupils organized a marathon for peace in cooperation with Fighters for Peace, and 400 ran. Last month 100 young people came to a hall in central Beirut to see a play about the 17,000 people who disappeared in the civil war. The event was hosted by Fighters for Peace, who are doing all they can to find the disappeared and return them to their families for burial.
Recently they were approached by the Forum of Cities in Transition, which is working to encourage peace in 15 conflict-ridden cities. Now the Forum has added Tripoli to their concerns – giving Fighters for Peace the chance to extend their work not just in Lebanon but in cities far beyond.
This article first appeared in Changemakers magazine, London