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In Beirut ‘A Child is no Longer a Child’

October 14, 1985

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ They may not know Grimm’s fairy tales, but Beirut’s children can tell the difference between the sound of a 106mm recoilless rifle and a 120mm mortar. Toddlers can tell an incoming shell from an outgoing.

They are Lebanon’s war generation, raised during a decade of civil war and facing bleak years ahead in a country in ruins.

″If we continue this way, our future is a very sad one with the kind of children we’re raising,″ said Iman Khalife, a Beirut nursery teacher.

″One wonders what these children will be like when they are older, what with all the ugliness surrounding them.″

Amid daily fighting, a generation of children has lost direction.

″A child is no longer a child,″ said Miss Khalife.

She said the 3- and 4-year-olds she works with ″don’t talk about the kind of things that children normally talk about. Their conversations revolve around shelters, explosions, battles and fighting, electricity cuts and water shortages.″

Their favorite game is ″war,″ she said in an interview.

″They pretend a shell has exploded nearby and then they all start to scream, some hitting the ground while others huddle in hideouts like they do in their shelters at home.

″Life is distorted for them. They don’t know what the reality around them is anymore.″

With as many as 130 distinct religious, ideological and social groups, many with widely differing visions of the Lebanon they are fighting for, the young generation has grown up with a sharp sense of alienation.

″This is a very serious problem for young people,″ said Dr. Samir Khalaf of the American University of Beirut.

″How do you expect to reintegrate youth into a society they can’t identify with, a society they can’t understand; more importantly a society they don’t know?″

Like everything else in Lebanon, the young generation is divided.

The Green Line that separates Beirut into mutually hostile Christian and Moslem camps separates the young as well. Before the war people on both sides mingled all the time.

Now the young go to separate schools. The history books they read give different versions of the past and the centuries-old feuding that has kept their communities apart.

According to Khalaf, the war has forced people increasingly into what he calls ″bubbles,″ to the extent that families, rather than communities, have become the key social grouping.

This, he argues, limits youngsters’ outlooks and comprehensions of the world as they are squeezed into ever-diminishing social contact, even among people of their own religion, class or sect.

″What do you say to a 3-year-old child who asks you why Christians and Moslems can’t live together?″ Miss Khalife lamented.

″Their childhood has been hijacked,″ said Professor Laila Farhood, a mental health specialist at American University.

Lebanon’s teen-agers and young people in their 20s have spent the past 10 years ″witnessing a catalogue of horror,″ Khalaf observed.

He said most Lebanese have gone into a chronic state of mourning, ″be it for losing friends, family, property, opportunities or wasted years.″

″But the most painful of all,″ he said, ″are those grieving the loss of a way of life that may never be restored.″

Unlike young girls elsewhere, where main preoccupations are the latest hairstyles or fashions, Hala Tawil, 22, an English-language student at the university, is more concerned with survival.

She has learned which corner of her house provides the best protection during shellings, how to study by candle light during the frequent power cuts, how to get through the often bewildering jigsaw puzzle of militia checkpoints, how to get by without the things that girls in other countries take for granted, like going dancing or to the movies, going out on a date.

″We’ve lost a lot of things because of this war,″ she said. ″We’ve lost our youth because what has gone will never come back. There is no purpose anymore, nothing to aim for.″

″I can’t sleep unless I hear the sounds of shells,″ said Moslem Ghazi Sabbagh, 20, another university student.

On quiet nights he plays a tape he made of the shellfire, the mortars, the rocket-propelled grenades, the AK-47s, what Beirutis call ″the symphony.″

Michel Ayyoub, 21, was 11 years old when the war started. His family was shelled out of three homes between 1975 and 1983 and he now lives in Christian East Beirut.

He attended the university, which is in Moslem West Beirut, until 1983 but had to give up his business studies when it became too dangerous to cross the Green Line. Now he’s an artilleryman with the Lebanese Force militia.

″I had some sense in my mind when I was a kid,″ he said. ″Now I’m a crazy man. Half my life’s been spent in war.

″In other countries young men like me play tennis and chase girls. Here we’re trained to kill people.″

He said he wants to emigrate to the United States ″because it’s not getting any better here.″

Jihad Farr, a 20-year-old Moslem, was planning to get out too.

He never made it.

One Sunday afternoon 12 days before he was due to leave for Canada he was blown to pieces by a stray mortar shell that exploded on the university’s campus.

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