On living in a war-zone

Above: 1982 view of the Green Line in downtown Beirut. Becoming greener in a bad way. Credit James Case.

Wars that are fought within countries, rather than between countries, are for some reason called “civil wars.” But in truth they are often the most brutal and uncivil form of conflict imaginable—perhaps because the express goal of the warring parties is to definitively silence the dissident voices of their own compatriots on the “other” side or sides, rather than to win a military contest on a battlefield. Over the years I’ve reported on, researched, analyzed, and reflected on a number of different wars on three continents. But the experiences I had in the very first war I encountered were different from all those other wars, and taught me the most about the nature of war. Because there, for six years, I was actually living and raising a family in the war-zone.

Let me take you back to the summer of 1974. I had spent some months discerning what I wanted to do with my very mediocre degree from Oxford; and now I decided to go to some intriguing-looking spot in the Global South to become a foreign correspondent. This was a step many British male writers had taken over the decades. So why not me?

The spot I chose was Beirut, Lebanon, where I had a few friends already. I went to my bank in Oxford and took out a loan of, I recall, £100. I bought an air ticket, and took off for Beirut. By the end of 1974 I had a job in a local advertising agency; I was taking Arabic classes in the Jesuit university; I was writing book reviews for the local English-language daily; and I had met an interesting local guy called Souheil, also an aspiring journalist…

In April 1975, the deep political differences that had long simmered inside Lebanon’s quirky political system burst into the open when a rightwing militia based in the country’s Maronite Christian community opened fire on a bus full of Palestinian refugees, killing all of its 27 passengers. By then, there had been 18 Palestinian refugee camps dotted around the country for more than 25 years. Palestinian liberation movements and their armed wings had a big presence around many Lebanese cities, and they had many Lebanese allies, both from the country’s large Muslim communities and from its then-sizeable, more secular, leftist movements. After the April massacre, Lebanon was engulfed by fighting between and among complex alliances whose composition sometimes shifted from one week to the next, though with some clear and constant through-lines. The Lebanese army was never much of a factor. But the armed forces of both Israel and Syria took big parts in some of the fighting—though, by agreement, in those days they never fought directly against each other. (In 1982, the Israeli military fought its way right up to Beirut. It forced the Palestinian armed groups to leave the country and oversaw the ghastly massacres its local allies conducted against civilians in two Palestinian refugee camps.) But the various movements fighting in Lebanon also had staunch and deep-pocketed backers from further afield—from other Arab countries, from Iran, from the “West”, or the Soviet Union. The shipments of arms and money from those outside backers helped to keep the civil war going, on and on and on…

It took 14 years before Lebanon’s political leaders and the militias they all commanded found they’d finally exhausted their appetite for further fighting. The Saudi government brought the leaders of the key factions to their mountain town of Ta’ef, where they reached an agreement that tamped down the conflict considerably. But by then Lebanon, the country they all claimed to love, was less than a husk of its former self. It never regained its wealth or the role it had played before the war as West Asia’s bustling hub for finance, culture, and communications.

Wars of all sorts, by the way, can be very advantageous for the journalists who cover them—provided they don’t get killed. In April 1975, there I was in Beirut, young and ambitious, having gained a modicum of local knowledge and with growing ties to local/global journalism networks. The Beirut Daily Star hired me to do news coverage as well as book reviews. (Hurrah! I could finally give up my job in advertising!) I talked myself into a job at the large bureau Reuters had in the city, doing Arabic-English translating; and soon enough, given the vast global market for their news products, I was producing reporting and day-leads for them on a semi-regular rotation. My Arabic was getting pretty good. By early 1976 I was working on contract for both the London Sunday Times (which had generous expense accounts and only needed about two stories per month) and The Christian Science Monitor (which had zero expense accounts but published two or three of my pieces each week.) I think I was becoming a pretty good journalist, and I give a lot of credit to my editors at the CSM who asked the right questions and helped me hone my skills.

In August 1976, when the Maronite militias committed a massacre at the Palestinian refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar, my byline was on big front-page stories in both the UK and the USA. I was 23 years old.

I was also in a very distinctive position in the confrèrerie of international journalists (“hacks”) who gathered nightly around the bar of West Beirut’s Commodore Hotel. Many of these were American journalistic superstars who had won their spurs covering the Vietnam war; and, now occupying elevated positions in newsrooms back in the States,  they would periodically parachute in to Beirut for a couple of weeks to hone their “war journo” credentials. They didn’t speak Arabic (and earlier, they likely hadn’t spoken much Vietnamese either.) In Beirut, certainly, they were totally reliant on the local “fixers” hired by their news organizations. Nearly all the war correspondents in Beirut at the time were male. The only two female fixtures were the two awesome, Vietnam-hardened French photographers Catherine Leroy and Françoise Demulder.

Among the English-language journos, I was one of very few females. But I was also distinctive in that I was a Western war correspondent who was married to a local man—Souheil and I had tied the knot in 1975—and who was trying to run a household in the tough conditions of the war. Soon, we had two children: they were born in Beirut in 1978 and 1979, each under very extraordinary circumstances deriving from the war. (More on that later, maybe.) So there I was, a journalist doing some often very dangerous reporting and filing stories to leading British and American news outlets while also, simultaneously, living in an ordinary, upper-middle-class apartment building (not a hotel) and trying, alongside Souheil, to keep our family safe, fed, and sane; our car running; and our home decently clean.

Let me tell you a couple of things about living in a war zone. The first is that you become pretty smart about distinguishing between “incoming” and outgoing”, and identifying which of the “incoming” ordinance you need to worry about. The second sounds simple but isn’t: A family can live without electricity but absolutely cannot live without water. We lived on the seventh floor of our building. If you don’t have electricity, you walk up the stairs. You cook or heat water with butane burners, or when butane runs out, on little camping-type stoves. Camping-style gas lanterns with fussy little gas mantles are good when the power is out. You huddle for warmth, as needed, around charcoal grills (but keep some windows open!) It’s a lot of hard work but yes, you can live without electricity.

Water is a different matter. When the electricity cut the pumps in our building, we’d have to carry jerry-cans of water up nine flights from the well in the basement to meet all the family’s needs. Every drop was valuable and should be reused as many times as possible. What you’d used to for a quick personal sponge-bath could then be reused to wash the clothes (or vice versa), and would end up being used to flush down the contents of the toilet. What you’d used to wash the dishes could be reused to wash the floor. And so on. Even more grinding, hard, daily work.

And that was in an upper-middle-class family. (Disclosure: Yes, we had a truly wonderful nanny/housekeeper and we could never have kept the family going without her. Bless you, Nadia. But we all did our part.) But then, how about lower and lower down the national income scale? I traveled all over the country for my reporting and saw parents (mainly moms, grandmas, and aunties) trying to raise their kids in a broad array of horrendous circumstances. Most of the guys were either away fighting or, in far too many cases, as after the fall of Tel al-Zaatar, had been massacred en masse. People displaced from one area by one or the other of the fighting parties, usually because of their sectarian or ethnic affiliation, would be “temporarily” housed in districts recently captured by the other party—either in large new war-refugee camps, or in neighborhoods that this other party had recently captured in the fighting and that were full of badly war-damaged structures that they wanted to “claim.”

It is well known in the international humanitarian-aid movement that a large majority of the casualties of civil wars are derived from non-military causes: mainly from starvation or malnutrition, or from diseases like cholera that prey on communities that have zero or near-zero working sanitation. When I read about the hundreds of thousands of such casualties in a place like Yemen, I certainly think back to some of my reporting (and daily living) experiences in Lebanon.

I stuck it out until the spring of 1981. At that point, the “nerves of steel” that I had honed in pursuit of my career quite suddenly broke. (Again, possibly more on that later.) Also, our marriage was in trouble and amidst the chaos of the war and the demands of our two careers we couldn’t find the mental space to work seriously on it. I scooped up the nanny and the children and high-tailed it back to London. The years that followed were tough. I was a single mom with two two small children and the career I had built on the basis of being an Arabic-speaking, locally-savvy set of eyes and ears on the ground in West Asia for Western news outlets was now in shreds. I ended up in Cambridge, MA in January 1982, on a short-term gig at Harvard where I was writing a book about the PLO. I had some weird physical symptoms of PTSD that caused the family-medicine doc whom I consulted to gather all his staff into the room to wonder at, and learn from, this unusual manifestation. But I had zero ability to deal with any of the causes of that PTSD, which I simply sublimated into my caregiving and book-writing commitments.

It took me several years to be able to view the experiences I’d had working and living as I did in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war as giving me a distinctive and valuable perspective on the phenomenon of civil war, and perhaps of war in general. There are not too many people who have the same access to the political elite in this country that I have, who have also had the experience of living and running a household within a war-zone. Later, in the late 1980s, I did some strategic studies at the University of Maryland; and it is probably not surprising that the people I encountered at the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland tended to look at all matters related to their discipline in a very instrumental and ethically sterile way. Decisionmakers in the U.S. national-security field then—and until today—would pursue their discussions of armed actions (“interventions”) in Central America, former Yugoslavia, West Asia, or elsewhere with little heed to the searing costs those interventions would impose on the residents of the war-zones they created. And far too much of the punditocracy was focused on discussing those same kinds of political and military considerations, too: considerations that were almost wholly blind to the human costs involved in war-making, or that treated them merely as a burdensome footnote.

The lived experiences that people like me had had, of trying to run a household and raise children in the heart of a war-zone, were not part of the mainstream discourse here in the United States. Indeed, it took me many years to even recognize that my own lived experience in Beirut should be part of the broad national discourse on war.

As I came to reflect more on my time in Beirut, I recognized another valuable aspect of the experiences I had there. My then-husband, Souheil, had family members living on both sides of the  “Green Line” that the civil war fighting drove right through the heart of Beirut, including through its once bustling and beautiful downtown. Like most Western journos, Souheil and I lived in West Beirut, which was where most of the Western embassies were and which was dominated by the militias of the Palestinian-Muslim-leftist alliance of those years. But Souheil had cousins who lived on the other side of the line, in East Beirut, which was dominated by the anti-Palestinian and Christian-supremacist Falangist Party, and its allies. (For the record, many Lebanese Christians, like Souheil, shunned the politics of the Falangists. Roughly one-third of the population of West Beirut were Christians in those days.) But Souheil’s cousins who lived in East Beirut were all family and we knew that they were suffering from the war, as we were. So when we or just I would periodically travel to East Beirut to cover breaking news stories, we would also check in on the family members there.

Crossing the front-line between East and West was sometimes totally terrifying, sometimes less so. Yes, there would usually be snipers posted on the rooftops around the main crossing-point, at the National Museum. And no, it didn’t make things much safer at all when an Arab League “Deterrent Force” was deployed there in an attempt to separate the warring sides. One of my scariest moments came when a rumor reached the Reuters bureau that Sudanese peacekeepers near the Museum were themselves randomly sniping on approaching motorists; and in an excess of bravado I decided to drive there to investigate. Luckily I took a colleague. After I froze at the wheel he kindly took over the driving. But by then, we had confirmed that the rumor was true… So, while you didn’t want to drive across the line too frequently, there were numerous people—mainly, foreigners or Lebanese Christians whose ID’s did not immediately mark them as belonging politically to one side or the other—who would do so with some regularity.

I learned a number of things from the contacts I had, with just regular people as well as political leaders, on both sides of the line. I learned how deeply Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian many of the “regular” people in East Beirut were, in a way that was not mirror-imaged to anything like the same extent in West Beirut. Throughout East Beirut in those days, the walls on many streets had large stenciled notices saying “It is the duty of every Lebanese to kill a Palestinian.” The notices were signed by an extremist militia called “Guardians of the Cedars.” But I noted that in none of the numerous places I saw those notices had anyone from those neighborhoods made any attempt to paint over or otherwise blunt that message of hate. Some of my in-laws in East Beirut expressed some distaste for Palestinians (though they probably dialed it down for us, for the sake of family calm.) But what I also learned from them and their friends was the extent to which their distaste and fear of Palestinians derived from a keen sense of economic displacement.

East Beirut in those days was a deeply Francophone, or Franco-Arabic language environment. West Beirut was Anglo or Anglo-Arab. (The country’s governmental educational system had two distinct streams: bilingual Arabic-English and bilingual Arabic-French. Go figure.) Beirut hosted two great foreign-linked universities: the American University was in West Beirut; the Francophone Université Saint-Joseph, where I did my Arabic-language studies, was in East Beirut. From Souheil’s cousins and their friends in East Beirut I learned how hard many Lebanese Christian families had scrimped and saved to send their children to one of the numerous private French-language secondary schools that dotted the country. Those schools, they felt, would prepare them well for the modern economy. But when those children graduated, what happened? From the late 1905s on, the best jobs throughout West Asia, in the oil industry, in finance, in education, business, or whatever, all went to English speakers. And it was the scrawny kids from the Palestinian refugee camps, to whom the UN had provided a basic but decent grasp of English and Arabic, who were getting all those jobs…

So what I learned from traversing the front-line in Beirut, and from having significant, warm contacts with civilians living both sides of the line was that during the war—and quite possibly until today—there were deep resentments as well as some solid reasons for those resentments… on both sides of the line.

For that reason, despite all the stomach-churning fear I felt nearly every time I crossed the front-line, I now look back on my ability to have visited with ordinary people on both sides even during the height of the war as a gift.

In every war that has been fought in the era of modern media, going back to the broadsheet newspapers of the 19th century, each party to the conflict has accompanied the war on the battlefield with extensive “information operations” designed to maintain strong popular enthusiasm for the war, despite the always evident suffering that wars cause. People living on one “side” of any war are then too often trapped in an information bubble and have to work very hard to learn what the war looks like from the other side of the front-line—even should they desire to do so.

As I wrote here a few months ago, in 1928, the leftwing British war resister Arthur Ponsonby published a book titled Falsehood in War-Time, that summarized some of the numerous propaganda points the Allied governments had promoted during the then-recent WW-I. Then in 2001, Belgian philosopher Ann Morelli codified the main themes of the pro-war propaganda Ponsonby had identified into the following ten-point list:

  1. We do not want war.
  2. The enemy alone is to be blamed for the war.
  3. The enemy is inherently evil, resembling the devil.
  4. We defend a noble cause, not our own interest.
  5. The enemy commits atrocities on purpose; our mishaps are involuntary.
  6. The enemy uses illegal weapons.
  7. We suffer small losses, those of the enemy are enormous.
  8. Artists and intellectuals back our cause.
  9. Our cause is holy, it has a sacred character.
  10. Whoever doubts our propaganda, is a traitor.

That list certainly still resonates today.

A salient further wrinkle in this story of war-promoting information operations is that—perhaps especially in more “democratic” societies—these ops can have the additional effect of entrapping the very political leaders who had authorized and launched them.

In a recent book, The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War 1916-1917, historian Philip Zelikow noted that by April of 1916, the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany had all privately concluded that victory on the slogging battlefields of northern France was not, in fact, going to come either as soon or as easily as they were all promising their respective publics. Each of them felt obliged to maintain a strong public facade of optimism about the prospects of imminent victory on the battlefield. They did not want to be seen by their publics as undermining the morale of the men who were dying in hundreds of thousands in the trenches of northern France. So that month, both the Germans and the Brits (who were also acting on behalf of France’s President Poincaré, with his permission) quietly reached out to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to ask him to mediate a peace between them.

Zelikow’s book is mainly about the reasons for Wilson’s failure to respond to these overtures in either a timely or a successful way. In the  end, WW-I was not brought to an end until 30 months later, and then only after a massive injection of U.S. forces tipped the balance decisively in favor of the British-French side— and after many hundreds of thousands more Brits, Frenchmen, and Germans had lost their lives in the fighting. The continuation of the war for those additional 2.5 years, and the way it was ended then—in a one-sided outcome that imposed heavy penalties on the Germans—set the scene for further developments of great moment for Europe, including the Bolshevik Revolution and the brutal Western “intervention” that followed it, and the rise of Hitlerism… And nearly all those losses and developments could have been avoided if the leaders of Germany, Britain, and France had not, in April 1916, all felt themselves trapped by the success of their own pro-war propaganda.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 thoughts on “On living in a war-zone”

  1. Dear Helena,
    Your article “On Living in a War Zone” rang so true to me! Like you, I was living in Beirut from 1972 until 1996 trying to raise two little girls and work. Like you, I lived in West Beirut but we had relatives in the East of the city. Like you, I am American, and my husband Lebanese. That was a very hard time.
    Your stories of carrying water, reusing it to flush the toilet, of listening for incoming or outgoing shelling, of electricity cuts, of crossing the city by the Museum are very familiar. My husband’s elderly father was killed by one of the militias at a check point at that crossing. I crossed there, the taxi racing to avoid shelling, with my little baby in a basket with me and her 3-year-old sister in the back seat ducking to hopefully avoid getting hit.
    In our top floor apartment in Ras Beirut near AUB my husband would spend nights listening to news on his transistor radio to know how near the fighting was and whether we should grab our blankets and lanterns and babies and carry them downstairs to an inner room on a lower floor of the building where his office was to sleep more safely for the night.
    In 1982 when the Israelis came into Lebanon right up to Beirut we were there. My husband was General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional organization headquartered in Beirut. They were actively running humanitarian aid programs and advocating for peace on a national and international level. I’ll never forget one day going into the office just as medical volunteers came running in to report the massacres at Sabra and Shatila camps.
    So yes Helena, I thank you so much for making light of what war is like for people, real ordinary people. Whenever I see reports of the war between Russia and Ukraine, so much destruction, and so many mothers and children fleeing terrifying circumstances, I remember Beirut.
    Your point is so well taken, that wars and their consequences don’t end. Look what is happening to Lebanon now! Often it is described as a continuation of the war. The militia leaders just put on suits and made themselves the country’s ruling class and total collapse led by the same players and affecting nearly everyone, except the very rich, is happening before our eyes with no substantial effective help in sight. As you describe, everything is seen through the sterile lens of “national interests” and security, and politicians on all sides (national and international) believe the propaganda they write to justify their political and war machines.
    You’re so right! People’s lived experience (on all sides) should be a very central part of the media discourse on war. Without it, media coverage is merely propaganda that feeds the war machine and pushes any hope of genuine peace farther down the road. Thank you so much for sharing your lived experience and insights.

  2. Dear Helena, very insightful article. Thank you for reminding the world how terrible the war with your own experience. My regards to Prof. Quandt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *