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Words Alia Fawaz

While many Lebanese still have unresolved issues from their war-torn past, they are also dealing with on-going sectarian rifts, a presidential vacuum, and an overwhelming influx of Syrian refugees who are competing for the country’s already scarce resources and services. In the face of all of these challenges and unresolved war issues, UNDP decided to launch the “Peace Building in Lebanon” project in 2007. The project works towards enhancing mutual understanding and social cohesion by working directly with youth, educators, media, NGOs, and local leaders. Its mission is to disseminate the right information while engaging and bringing people together in developing strategies towards building peace.

The complex and unique context of Lebanon – the civil war (1975-1990) and the lack of reconciliation and a framework for sustainable peace that followed it- encouraged the UNDP to create this unique and multi-faceted project. The organization wanted to look at the root and historical causes of conflict as well as the current causes of conflict. To do so it decided to work on two tiers: on a grassroots level dealing with local communities, and on a national level dealing with leaders and policy-makers.

Education and knowledge

One of the strategies is working with schools (through the Ministry of Education). Joanna Nassar, the initiative’s project manager, explains, “We train teachers on non-violence and peaceful resolution of conflicts and we teach students to respect one another and to accept and deal with their differences.” These efforts, involving the teachers, students, and their parents, are aimed at sowing the seeds for a more tolerant society, which hopefully will bring peace for future generations. Nassar also points out that one school (in Ghbaireh) was so inspired by the project that it is even going the extra mile by declaring a year of “non-violence”’ – issuing a dedicated newsletter and giving prizes for parents to encourage non-violence with their children. Other schools have been inspired to draft peaceful codes of conduct for how teachers and students should behave, for example.

Another project directly addresses the civil war, which led to more than 200,000 deaths, and which is not mentioned in Lebanese history schoolbooks. Historians worked hard to piece together a cohesive curriculum to suit Lebanese of all backgrounds, but political disagreements over the content prevented the book’s distribution. “This has meant that the post-war generation knows about the war mainly from its parent’s often personal point of view,” says Nassar. She adds, “This means that if the parents harbor hatred due to personal incidents, the hatred is transferred to their children.”

In order to address the historical narrative in an informative and objective way, which is crucial for peace-building, UNDP launched “The Bus Takes the Podium” initiative in 2011. Using a bus (to represent the symbolic Ain Al Rummaneh bus shooting that allegedly ignited the war), UNDP and local NGO UMAM (which possesses a substantial archive on the Lebanese war) toured the country. The idea was to make this vehicle into a memory bus. The bus was equipped with computers directly linked to UMAM’s archives, and toured for a whole year in 2012, going to various villages, hosting debates and gatherings for young people.

Media influence

The project also engages frequently with the media. In the early days it worked on building skills of the journalists, such as what language to use and how to report objectively. However, these days it is working more on creating platforms on which they can share their voices. One key project is the “Joint News Supplement” produced every three months and distributed with An-Nahar, As-Safir, L’Orient-Le Jour, and The Daily Star newspapers. It is a collection of articles from different journalists that cover topics not commonly covered in newspapers. Objectively they address the different challenges in Lebanon – covering stories about the Lebanese and more recently also stories about the Syrians living in Lebanon. It tries to highlight the many success stories, which are not reported by the mainstream media.

In 2013 the program developed a pact for journalists to promote civil peace. It established a guideline for how the media should speak and behave in order to promote peace. This covers the language and terminology that is used, the attitude in front of the camera, and the topics that are covered in the media. “Thirty-four national media outlets – TV, print, radio and websites – took part in designing it and they all signed it,” says Nassar. The Maharat Foundation was then appointed to monitor all the media outlets that signed on, and on a monthly basis it produces a report making it possible to verify whether they are abiding by the pact or not.

Healing and ex-fighters

Another current and sensitive project that it handles involves ex-fighters. Around 25 former militiamen and fighters (now in their 50s and 60s) from different political parties have volunteered to take part and form an NGO. Ironically they claim (in a statement that they issued on You Tube) that they would have liked to be put on trial and sent to jail for what they did, but after the war ended they were not charged. They strongly feel that now they have a chance to redeem themselves and compensate society for whatever atrocities for which they were responsible during the civil war. The role of UNDP is to help them build their skills so that they can run their NGO. UNDP is also helping them with communication skills (many did not finish school), as they are visiting schools and giving talks to the youth. Acting like ambassadors of peace, but able to communicate on a street level, they go and speak to disillusioned and disenfranchised youths who want to fight and start a new sectarian war. These fighters present the stark and ugly reality of their experience to these youths, and most of the time by the end of the session the students begin to think differently.

There are also often very controversial sessions during which the audience members are directly affected by the ex-militiamen making the presentation. Nassar said: “In one incident an audience member stood up and said to the former militiaman, known as Ziad, ‘you put a bomb in this village that killed my parents.’ Ziad then went and spend two full days with the man and his family,” explains Nassar. These types of reconciliations have rarely happened in Lebanon and to date there has been no information regarding many kidnapped persons and no tribunal for justice.
“Soon the NGO will launch its new website, which is also funded by UNDP,” says Nassar. While this project remains controversial and many political parties do not wish to participate in it, it is slowly and surely paving the way for important dialogue and information sharing that could help the country to heal and find answers to many unresolved questions.