On three consecutive days this month, we were reminded of the importance of remembrance and its impact on the search for justice and the preservation of a collective memory. Why was this important? Because only by remembering can the tragedies of the past be better avoided in the future.
April 13 is the date that many Lebanese choose to commemorate the beginning of Lebanon’s fifteen-year-long civil war, which began in 1975. While historians may argue about whether it is indeed the appropriate date to which one can attribute the beginning of the war, many view the April 13, 1975 bus massacre that took place in the Beirut suburb of Ain el-Remmaneh as the spark that set off armed clashes that soon spread throughout Lebanon.
During the civil war, Lebanese and foreign militias and armies fought over territory, killing or injuring hundreds of thousands of people and displacing hundreds of thousands of others. The civil war represented the most sustained period of violence that the Mediterranean nation had faced, yet to this day those involved have not gone through a formal reconciliation process. Instead, in August 1991 Lebanese leaders enacted a general amnesty law and decided that they would impose collective amnesia on society about what had happened during the conflict.
In protest against this step, intellectuals, artists, and activists have since the mid-1990s campaigned for a public process of memorialization. They have joined the families of the kidnapped and disappeared, who since the 1980s have campaigned for clarity on the fate of their loved ones. In many cases they have sought to have them declared dead due to the complex ramifications of their legally being considered still alive. Yet there are few if any national monuments to the war, or official research centers or national discussions about the conflict. Lokman Slim, who was assassinated in February 2021, was among the few working indefatigably to memorialize what had happened.
April 14 is the day that Lebanon’s government this year, seemingly without any sense for irony, chose to approve the demolition of the damaged grain silos in Beirut Port, the site of the 2020 explosion that killed at least 218 people and displaced tens of thousands from their homes in adjacent neighborhoods. Until now, Lebanon remains unable to arrive at a convincing common narrative of what happened, nor is the Lebanese state and its judiciary any closer to doing so. Almost two years on, no one has been held accountable for one of the most traumatic days in the country’s history.
For many people, the damaged silos are a reminder of this unresolved crime in a country where accountability is virtually nonexistent. That is why the decision to demolish them, because of their purported structural fragility (a claim disputed by the head of the Beirut Order of Engineers and Architects), has been controversial. The silos are a mark of shame on officials, one that must remain, according to relatives of the victims of the explosion and other Lebanese. Many are concerned that the demolition is simply the latest effort by the political class to impose amnesia on society, as the politicians have for countless other national crimes. The only ones keeping the investigation of the port blast, and its memory, alive are the families of the victims and those supporting them.
On April 15, in another part of the world far away from Beirut’s shores, the people of another port city, Liverpool, commemorate the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. In contrast to what is happening in Lebanon, their efforts have shown the value of remembering. The disaster occurred in 1989 during an FA Cup football match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, when a fatal crush on an overcrowded terrace allocated to Liverpool supporters at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield resulted in the death of 97 people and the injury of 766 others. It was the highest death toll in British sporting history. The behavior of Liverpool fans was initially blamed for the catastrophe, until this was shown to be incorrect.
Almost everyone in Liverpool knows someone who was affected by the disaster, and to date the families of the victims feel that justice has not been served by the government. Over the course of three decades, these families have campaigned tirelessly for truth and justice. Nobody has been held accountable for what happened, nor for the efforts to shift the blame onto the victims by police and media outlets. Any supporter of the Liverpool team will be familiar with the phrase “Justice for the 97.” The number “97” is engraved on the back of every Liverpool jersey in memory of those who died.
It is one slogan, however, that particularly captures the spirit of the Hillsborough campaigners for justice, and it can be found on a large banner on the Kop, the most-renowned stand at Anfield stadium. The banner reads, “We Climbed the Hill in Our Own Way,” a lyric taken from Pink Floyd’s 1971 track “Fearless” (a song that features a sample of the Kop in full voice). As Liverpool journalist Dan Kay explains, the banner’s wording “commemorate[s] the unstinting efforts of the countless people who fought against seemingly-insurmountable odds to change the public record of what happened at Hillsborough and overturn the initial flawed inquest verdicts of accidental death.”
In Liverpool, while justice for victims of the disaster remains elusive, their memory will live on for as long as the community and the football club keep it alive. Because of this refusal to forget, stadiums in England were redesigned so that a repetition of Hillsborough would be much less likely to happen.
While the underlying causes of tragedy in Lebanon and England are vastly different, the reality is that real change is especially hard to come by in the Lebanese context. Nevertheless, in Beirut as in Liverpool, community initiatives to fight for what is right, against the odds, seem to be the only serious path to preserving collective memory and preventing a reoccurrence of the worst. We must stand with such campaigns despite the steepness of the hills we may have to climb.