Surviving Amid Civil War in Lebanon
As told by “Awake!” correspondent in Lebanon
FOR months Lebanon has teetered on the brink of collapse. The country resembles a scarred battlefield, particularly its capital city, Beirut. The property damage and revenue loss run into the thousands of millions of dollars.
Worse still is the horrible human toll—by early spring some 15,000 to 20,000 had been killed and thousands more wounded in the yearlong war. Since Lebanon has a population of only a little more than three million, it would be comparable if the United States lost well over a million people in a civil war! That would be more than three times the U.S. battle deaths during all of World War II!
From my observations, many people here feel that this war really started on Sunday, April 13, 1975. On that day a busload of Palestinian commandos entered the Maronite Christian suburb of Ainel-Rummaneh. The bus was riddled with machine-gun fire, killing all of the some thirty occupants. This incident sparked a nearly week-long battle in Beirut.
The war since then has been a series of battles, or “rounds,” as they came to be called, interspersed with cease-fires—over thirty of them so far. This spring 2,000 were killed and 4,000 wounded in a two-week period, as fighting grew progressively more severe. Lulls have come toward the end of each month, evidently so that order can be reestablished long enough for banks to reopen and gunmen can pick up their paychecks.
Religion a Factor
As in Ireland, this is a war pitting one religious group against another. In Lebanon’s case, it is professed Christians versus Moslems. Back in 1943, when I was only thirteen years old, Lebanon gained independence from France. At that time, professed Christians were said to be a slight majority of the population, and it was agreed that they would prevail over Moslems in the legislative and executive branches of government by a 6 to 5 ratio. It was also agreed that Lebanon would have a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Moslem premier and a Shiite Moslem speaker of parliament.
But circumstances have changed. Moslems now outnumber professed Christians, and they believe that adjustments in government should be made accordingly. Also, some 400,000 Palestinian refugees now live in Lebanon, and many of these are heavily armed. It’s a complex situation, with various competing factions. And the repeated outbursts of violence have caused thousands to flee the country.
My wife and I have chosen to remain so that we can share in bringing the comforting message of God’s kingdom to the distressed Lebanese people. Besides us, there are some 1,800 others of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are doing the same thing. Our completely neutral position has been a protection, although there are isolated incidents of Witnesses being hurt, and even killed.
One Witness died by sniper fire as she was hanging out her wash. And another, who ignored warnings not to leave the house where the Witnesses had gathered, was shot dead when he returned home. Other Witnesses have been wounded by bullets and shrapnel, one by a bayonet. But we are grateful that such incidents have been remarkably rare.
The religious aspect of the war has been felt very strongly, and it is perhaps the most frightening feature of the whole conflict. In areas where the Moslems predominated, professed Christians were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and many of them were never seen again. Professed Christians did the same to the Moslems. But Jehovah’s Witnesses are known to be different.
Peaceable with All
We have always tried to deal with everyone alike, whether nominal Christian or Moslem, applying the Bible counsel: “If possible, as far as it depends upon you, be peaceable with all men.” (Rom. 12:18) On one occasion members of the Maronite League visited a Witness in an effort to persuade him and his children to join the vigilantes and to contribute 300 Lebanese pounds for ammunition.
The Witness told them: “I cannot share in anything to do with war. And besides your war isn’t God’s. In fact, God soon is to bring to an end all men with their guns and usher in a peaceful system under Christ’s rule.” Later, when conditions in the area improved, the Witness noted that his firm and neutral position had won the respect of his neighbors.
This neutral stand has repeatedly worked to our benefit. For example, one evening a Witness offered a ride home to a Moslem fellow worker. They were stopped by armed men who were going to kill the Witness because he was a Christian. But his Moslem companion pleaded for his life, explaining: “This man is different from the others who call themselves Christians. He is neutral. He doesn’t involve himself in politics.”
When the gunmen refused to listen, the Moslem man said: “If you won’t leave us alone, you will have to kill both of us.” Because of this sincere plea, they both were set free.
Another Witness relates that he had no food in his house, and because of the armed men everywhere it wasn’t safe to venture outside. But then a young Moslem boy from a nearby village appeared at his home. “My parents,” he said, “sent you this bread. And whatever else you need, please tell us. We are ready to get it for you.”
Reputation of Witnesses Spreads
In the north of the country there is a “Christian” village that is surrounded by Moslem villages. There are two congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this village. When the Moslems attacked the village and came to the house where the Witnesses had gathered, the gunmen were told: “We are Jehovah’s Witnesses. We have no weapons and we are completely neutral. Here are our houses, do to them as you see fit.” The gunmen were very surprised and promised not to harm them.
In a village I later visited, even the Catholic priest had armed himself with a machine gun. Extreme pressure was put on the Witnesses to give up their neutral position and also to arm themselves for an anticipated attack. Because they wouldn’t, one rightist leader said: “When this war is over we will turn our attention against you!” Yet what happened when the attack began on January 20, 1976?
Regular defenders of the village fled. The priest discarded his weapon and hid. Other villagers who had armed themselves sought to hide their weapons; still others threw theirs away. One rightist leader tried to give his gun to a Witness, saying: “It’s known that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t have weapons.”
Also, many persons sought refuge in Witness homes. In one such home over sixty persons gathered! After one of the Witnesses offered prayer asking Jehovah’s protection, a daughter of the political leader remarked: “Now I feel at ease, for Jehovah is the God who can protect.” Though armed men entered the home and stole some valuables, no one was harmed.
In another Witness home about fifty persons gathered. The presiding overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses there reports: “I heard a Moslem neighbor tell the armed men, ‘Don’t touch this house. They are Bible students, different from the others.’ Later, though, gunmen appeared. But I had opened all the doors purposely. So when they called I answered quickly, inviting them in. I spoke kindly and unhesitatingly, explaining that we were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Finding no weapons, they left.” All the homes in the neighborhood were looted except this one.
In the northern city of Tripoli clashes between the fighting factions were extremely violent. Hundreds of shops and homes were looted and burned, including those of my fleshly brothers. It was particularly dangerous for Christians, so one Moslem neighbor told a Witness: “These people don’t know that you’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. So tell us what you need and we will get it for you.”
Getting Away Safe
On occasion the fighting became so severe that flight seemed the wise course. A Witness in Tripoli reported that the four cars in which she and fellow Witnesses were fleeing were stopped on the outskirts of the city by thirty to forty gunmen. She recognized some of them, knowing them by name. So these men spoke up in behalf of the Witnesses. Later, one of them told her: “God was with you. You don’t know how many pieces you would have been.”
Some were forced to flee their homes on several occasions as fighting became very intense. One Witness in a Beirut suburb tells of one of his escapes during the early morning of October 27:
“We discovered that we were surrounded. Out the front window I saw gunmen, and from the back window I saw a rival faction. Neither was aware that the other group was there, but I knew they would soon find out. So my wife and I immediately laid flat on the floor, escaping the bullets that began flying.
“Fortunately none of the gunmen entered our house. We don’t know why, but we thank Jehovah God that they didn’t. At about 9:30 a.m., when the shooting was not so intense, a neighbor, apparently unaware of what was going on, arrived in his car. Just then heavy firing began again. I quickly opened the door and he joined us on the floor.
“When there was another lull in the fighting, we decided to run for it. We rushed for his car, and though there was some shooting as we fled, we weren’t hit. I had sold my car a few days before, and so felt that this man, who provided us a way of escape, was heaven-sent.”
Strange things often occur in the midst of this strange war. A Witness reports the following episode during a fierce exchange of gunfire in a Beirut suburb on December 10: “To our surprise we heard some shouting through a loudspeaker requesting that both sides stop shooting. The speaker was saying, ‘We are brothers, stop fighting.’
“We looked and saw an unarmed army officer accompanied by a priest. As they were walking down the street, many of the fighters came down from their strongholds and joined the march for a cease-fire. Shooting stopped. People were on their balconies welcoming the peace. But after only three hours the fighting began again.”
The renewed battle lasted for many days, and Witness families were in the heart of the area. Eventually they were able to flee. Their homes were riddled with bullets and shrapnel, but none of them were hurt.
We always have our bags packed so as to be ready if we have to make a quick getaway. But only on one occasion have we personally left for safer ground. We remained four days, then returned when conditions apparently improved. Mainly we came back because we wanted to be with our Christian congregation.
Later, the place that we had gone to as safer became a battleground. A friend of ours there told us what happened one Monday morning in December. “At 11 a.m. a huge explosion shook the house. My husband called the children and me together and said, ‘That was a very close call. Let’s thank Jehovah that we’re still alive,’ and we all joined him in prayer.
“After the fighting died down, we opened our front door and saw our veranda covered with broken glass and shrapnel. The mortar shell had landed next to the bedroom where, during the night, we all had been sleeping! Our beds were covered with plaster, glass and shrapnel. If the shell had landed when we were sleeping, we would surely have been seriously injured, if not killed.”
Headquarters Family in Danger
We were interested in our fellow Christians living at the branch headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a Moslem section of Beirut. Before moving from there recently to a safer place outside the city, the headquarters family had some scary experiences. One family member on February 6 described conditions this way:
“For about a month we didn’t even bother to go to bed in our rooms. When it was time to sleep we put mattresses in the little entranceway, as it was the safest room in the house. We all curled up there and slept in our clothes, since we never knew what the night would bring. When that phase of the fighting passed, the rightists tried to get control of strategic buildings on our side of town.
“Then it got down to real street fighting, from street to street and from house to house. It looked like the rightists would come up the street in front of us and the leftists behind us, so we decided to evacuate. However, there was no way to get completely out of the area, but there were safer houses, so we went to the home of a Witness about a mile (1.6 kilometers) up the street from us. We stayed there for two weeks and then we were able to go back home.”
One night was especially harrowing for the headquarters family. It was a night that the main commercial center of Beirut was set aflame, and the section around the branch home was also marked for destruction. Witnesses at the branch give some of the details:
“About 10:30 p.m. we were startled by a burst of machine-gun fire right in front of the house. As two members of our family looked from the veranda, they saw five or six gunmen come out of the hotel directly in front of us—then, suddenly, a loud explosion. What a racket when seven floors of glass windows and doors came shattering down in front of us!
“Then shop after shop was set afire, and gunmen drove back and forth in front of the shops adding fuel to the flames, making sure they burned. They shot at anyone who tried to put the fires out. The night sky was red from all the blazes.
“As we were watching the fires from one of the back bedrooms, we were rocked by another explosion. We rushed to the front of the house and saw that a bomb had exploded in a grocery shop in our building. Our own building was on fire! What worried us most was a gas storage room in the building. If the fire reached it, it would probably bring down our building and the one next to us. All the neighbors on the street cooperated and we got the fire out before it did much damage.”
Roadblocks and Kidnappings
When there was a break in the fighting, the city was still paralyzed by mobile roadblocks, kidnappings and snipers. Several carloads of gunmen would suddenly appear on the streets, blocking traffic, and people would be dragged from their cars. Pedestrians, too, were kidnapped right off the city sidewalks. A member of the headquarters family of Jehovah’s Witnesses reports:
“We watched many of the kidnappings from the window of our house. Flying barricades would stop right on our corner and the gunmen would start snatching innocent people. The terrible thing about it was that many who were taken would never return. A few Witnesses were kidnapped and some were beaten, but no serious harm came to any.”
Another member of the headquarters family tells about an experience he had: “After one of the many cease-fires, the government radio announced that the roads were safe. So I left that Saturday morning for the downtown post office, since part of my job at the branch office was to check the postbox. I reached the post office safely, but there I heard talk about kidnappings on the very streets I must use on my return trip.
“I asked a policeman about the safest road back home. He answered: ‘I don’t know. I might tell you about a road that is safe now, but in five minutes it might not be.’ Those mobile roadblocks were set up quickly and were moved from place to place.
“So I decided to follow the traffic. On the way I escaped two roadblocks by turning around and going down one-way streets the wrong way. The next day I read that many of those kidnapped and murdered were on the same roads I had taken.’ It came to be called ‘Black Saturday,’ because on that day hundreds of persons were kidnapped or killed outright.”
Under these circumstances every trip is potentially dangerous—and survival is an immediate question. A missionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses tells about returning with a woman who had fled her home to pick up some belongings. “As we stepped out of the hired car, the doorkeeper of the neighboring building shuffled over and muttered in an undertone, ‘Don’t stay in the area; there is going to be trouble.’
“So we quickly finished our business, and got back into the car, our knees shaking. As we reached the corner, I saw a young man, his face a strange red color. The thought went through my mind, ‘Poor thing, he must have been badly burned.’ Then I looked again, and realized that he had a woman’s colored stocking stretched over his face. And he was not alone!
“There were others with the same gruesome-looking head coverings. Was it a roadblock? I froze! No one in the car spoke. The driver drove as fast as possible, but his hands were shaking. It was as though we passed between those gunmen without their seeing us. We heaved a sigh of relief as we got into the area where we were staying.”
Christian Meetings and Preaching
Throughout the war we have been able to hold our Christian meetings in small groups, and we even have had our circuit assembly program. Meetings are often opened and closed, as it were, with machine-gun fire. Actually, we can sometimes hear gun fire, mortar and other explosions all during our meetings, at times close by. Once when returning from a meeting we turned into a blacked-out street right into the face of two machine guns! We kept going, but our hearts were in our throats.
Also, we have been regularly sharing in our preaching work, showing others the comforting news in the Bible that God’s kingdom will soon solve, not only Lebanese problems, but those of the rest of humankind as well. At first we were hesitant about going out of the house. But soon we did so as a matter of course, taking what precautions we could and trusting in Jehovah God for protection. And we have had many evidences of that protection.
Other Witnesses live with me in my home in a suburb of Beirut. Once, while I was away, the wife of a traveling minister who lives with me was on the balcony hanging out the wash. She happened to look down, and just below were two young men crouched with machine guns. She fell back and went running to the front of the house, catching my wife just before she left the house to go in the preaching work. If she had left at that moment, she would have been caught in the cross fire. For half an hour they remained in the hallway as the gunfire went on.
As another example: My wife and I had a Bible study with a family of eleven not far from our home. The day after one of our studies a rocket came through the roof and exploded in the very room in which we had been the night before! Sad to say, however, two children were playing on the roof; one was killed and the other suffered a head injury.
We have always been able to get our Bible literature. How? Well, those lulls in fighting at the end of the month, which allow the gunmen to pick up their paychecks, have permitted us to transport our Bible literature to where it is needed.
Of course, there is danger in doing this, but in this activity, too, we have felt the protection of Jehovah God. On one occasion a shipment was stopped at a Moslem checkpoint. The gunmen asked: “What are those books?”
The traveling overseer, who was carrying the shipment, explained: “These books are about the Gospel.” The armed men said: “Imshi, Maa Salami,’ that is, “Go in peace.”
Traveling Ministers’ Visits
We have also been regularly receiving the upbuilding visits of our traveling ministers, or circuit overseers, as they are called. One of them explained to me:
“Due to the continuous heavy fighting, it has been very difficult to have a regular full week of activity with each congregation. I often go to a congregation, and as soon as the fighting subsides a bit, the elders quickly congregate the brothers and sisters and we hold all our regular meetings at one time.
“I remember once when I was serving a group of Witnesses in the mountains. My next visit was to be to a congregation in Beirut that was situated in an area of heavy fighting. So it was decided to let the Witnesses in Beirut come up to the mountains for their circuit overseer’s visit. This had to be planned just right, for there was only one road open from Beirut to the mountains; the others were closed due to the presence of gunmen. “The elders of the congregation assigned a set time for each family to arrive at our place of meeting. That Sunday morning, in a very orderly way, the Witnesses from the city began to arrive. What a wonderful sight to see over sixty in attendance! The meeting started at 9 a.m. and lasted till 2 p.m., and the brothers and the sisters were ready for more. Some of them had not seen one another for quite a while, so it was very touching to see them greeting one another. We didn’t have the heart to break them apart, yet we had to encourage them to leave and get back home before it got dark and the road would be closed.
“Often we had close calls and narrow escapes. Once when visiting another congregation in a Moslem community, we could sense trouble in the air. So we shortened the meeting to give us all an opportunity to return home before it got too dark. The family that I was staying with and myself were the last ones to leave. Incidentally, the week before, many atrocities had taken place in that same area.
“By the time our turn came to leave, it had gotten dark. So, as we headed home, we felt very uneasy. We were the only ones on the road, and we could hear the echo of every step we were taking. We felt as if eyes were looking at us from all directions. The closer we got to the house, the faster we picked up the pace. As we made the last turn, we suddenly heard voices shouting at us to stop.
“Fearing that we might be shot, we obeyed immediately, asking ‘Who do you mean, us?’ ‘Yes,’ they said, and ordered us to follow them. They were three young men with machine guns and who had their faces covered.
“They never really took a close look at us, but just told us to come with them. We did so, with our knees knocking, and with prayers in our hearts to Jehovah God. As we continued walking behind them, the mother of the family I was accompanying spoke a few words to her son. At that, suddenly, one of the armed men turned. He had recognized her voice and realized that she was a neighbor. He quickly apologized, and told her that they thought we were outsiders coming to spy out the neighborhood. But since she was from the area, they advised her to go home quickly, which, of course, we did.”
Confidence in the Future
At this writing, the fighting goes on despite periodic cease-fires. Kidnappings, murders, looting and other crimes are rampant. One news report observes: “Moslems on the left and Christians on the right live and die by the gun. . . . Christian-Moslem hatreds run deep. Their thirst for revenge runs strong. A quick return to anything resembling normalcy is unlikely.”
The breakdown of law and order has contributed to a weakening of moral standards. For example, a military camp came under siege by gunmen and was overrun. The camp had a commissary with food, clothing and other items. When those in the area saw what had happened, they joined in the looting.
A family of Jehovah’s Witnesses was encouraged to share, but they declined. This amazed the neighbors. In fact, they couldn’t believe them, and so they brought things from the army camp to the Witnesses. However, the offer was refused, with the explanation that taking these things would violate their Bible-trained consciences.—Heb. 13:18.
Yes, one thing is sure, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lebanon are holding fast to a course of true Christian integrity and complete neutrality. And we will continue to share with all Lebanese people the comforting message that soon God’s kingdom will remove all reason for sorrowing by ushering in a righteous new system. Serving as ambassadors of that kingdom has helped us to survive amid civil war in Lebanon.—2 Cor. 5:20.
[Blurb on page 17]
“The religious aspect of the war has been felt very strongly.”
[Blurb on page 18]
“The priest discarded his weapon and hid.”
[Blurb on page 19]
“People were on their balconies welcoming the peace.”
[Blurb on page 20]
“It got down to real street fighting.”
[Blurb on page 20]
“Seven floors of glass windows and doors came shattering down in front of us!”
[Blurb on page 21]
“We watched many of the kidnappings from the window of our house.”
[Blurb on page 22]
‘The day after one of our studies a rocket exploded in the very room in which we had been.’
[Blurb on page 22]
“We could sense trouble in the air.”
[Blurb on page 23]
“Christian-Moslem hatreds run deep.”