About a War: Motives and trauma from Lebanon's war

About a War: Motivations and trauma from Lebanon's civil war compete in stirring new movie
6 min read
30 November, 2018
Film review: 'About a War' explores complex personal motivations behind ex-fighters' decisions to take up arms - and what happens when they try to come to terms with killing.
The deepest wounds are those eating away at people's hearts [Daniele Rugo & Abi Weaver]
The 15-year civil war that erupted in Lebanon in 1975 saw teenagers joining militias in droves to fight in a brutal conflict which left 170,000 dead, one million displaced and 17,000 people still missing today.

Now in 2018, with political gridlock, legislative paralysis and economic woes fraying the nerves of the country's citizens, many Lebanese worry about a return of the devastating war that remains fresh in living memory.

Tragedies from the bloody conflict remain visible in the bullet-riddled buildings still standing in Beirut today. Yet these, as well the country's crippled infrastructure, are mere reflections of the permanent scars and handicaps suffered by more than 100,000 Lebanese on their bodies as a result of the war.

The deepest wounds, however, are those eating away at people's hearts, especially of those teenagers who, now in adulthood, look back at the traumas, crimes and a childhood lost.

Following the 1989 Taif accord that pushed the warring Lebanese factions into a power-sharing agreement, a general amnesty allowed various militiamen to fall back into society.

From prominent fighters of the battlefield to anonymous citizens, all have since faced one more battle to fight: How to come to terms with the killings and the injuries they wrought.

In this highly sensitised climate, directors Abi Weaver and Daniele Rugo bring to film the traumas and tragedies faced and inflicted by some of those who took part in the fighting 26 years ago.

"About a War" is a documentary film that offers a rare insight into the Lebanese civil war and brings together compelling testimonies from three former fighters.

The filmmakers sought to capture the often-forgotten personal narratives of the conflict and to delve especially into the motivations that led three men as teenagers to pick up arms during a crucial turning point in Lebanese history.

In the film, we meet Assad, a right-wing Christian intelligence officer; Ahed, a Palestinian refugee and fighter and Nassim, a Communist commander. 

Co-directors Weaver and Rugo spoke to The New Arab about the filmmaking process:

"We wanted to explore how these men, as teenagers, were first mobilised," Weaver says. "We wanted to know how and why they picked up a weapon for the first time, and how they kept on fighting for 15 years.

"We also wanted to explore what happened when the fighting was over and suddenly, they had no role to play; when they were in a position when they had to acknowledge what they had done as part of a system of violence."

There were many different sides to the Lebanese civil war, and the fragmented nature of the country means communities are still yet to hear the experiences of others who now they call neighbours. In the film, the confessions of the ex-fighters are woven together to present narratives likely unheard by the other side.

"[The film] offers multi-perspective accounts and multi-perspective truths," Weaver says. "In the Lebanese context there were many wars, many reasons, many memories, individual and collective, and we wanted to represent this."

From speaking to many of them - on and off camera - we understand that their reluctance is down to fear of affecting the current balance of power, fear of weakening their own community and also shame for what they have done

While the former fighters' testimonies are sited against the backdrop of the Lebanese civil war, Rugo sees a universal relevance in their stories.

"We felt that the stories of the ex-fighters from the Lebanese Civil War, their recruitment process, the reason why they fought, their passions that turned to violence, still resonate with the world we live in today," he says.

"The ex-fighters' stories are specific to the Lebanese context, but at the same time, they could be from any other war - they speak to people fighting different wars, in different environments," Rugo  says. "The process of fear, hatred, picking up weapons, these cycles are still there, and we feel one of the ways we can learn to break them is by learning how you get into them in the first place."

Yet getting the fighters to speak was not easy. Rugo shares the difficulties encountered in getting the men to relay their stories and reveal both crime and trauma on camera:

"The issue is very sensitive, maybe because too little has changed," Rugo tells The New Arab. "In Lebanon there is still considerable stigma around ex-fighters - many are reluctant to speak out.

"From speaking to many of them - on and off camera - we understand that their reluctance is down to fear of affecting the current balance of power, fear of weakening their own community and also shame for what they have done.

"Their testimony runs counter to the general amnesia in the country and the widespread refusal to face up to what went on."

The confessions of the ex-fighters are woven together to present narratives likely unheard by the other side [Daniele Rugo/Abi Weaver]

Nowadays, former fighters Ahed, Assad and Nassim work towards breaking cycles of violence among young people in Lebanon.

"Both Assad and Nassim are involved with Fighters for Peace - an NGO that brings together former combatants who want to work towards peace education and peace building," Weaver says.

"Ahed runs a youth group in Shatila refugee camp," she adds. It is most pertinent that such an effort at peace-building is located at a site which saw one of the most gruesome massacres of the entire war.

In 1982, right-wing Christian militias entered the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, and, overseen by the Israeli army, were responsible for up to 3,500 killings in just two days.

But for Weaver, it is precisely such efforts of sharing and peace-building that could lead to some form of resolution for the traumas of a life-past.

"We have heard many times how ex-fighters enter support programmes with all sorts of fixed ideas about the other side, but then emerge, often years later, with a sense that history is much more multi-sided than they thought," she says. "They are able to see different perspectives, and that is, for them, a way to finding redemption."

The filmmakers believe "About a War", which will be screened in Lebanon in February, is relevant today as the country tries to heal from war.

"The film shows that speaking about what happened is crucial in particular in a country like Lebanon," Weaver tells The New Arab. "Without dialogue and an attempt to create a shared narrative it is very difficult to learn from the past and avoid repeating the same mistakes, while achieving some sort of a resolution."

Above all, "About a War" stands as cautionary tale for a country that remains beset by deep inequality and sectarian divide.

Follow Sarah Khalil on Twitter: @skhalil1984