“My people died from hunger, and he who did not perish from starvation was butchered with the sword […]” — Gebran Khalil Gebran
I accidentally came across a poem by renowned Lebanese poet, Gebran Khalil Gebran (1833-1931) entitled “Dead are my people”, in which he describes the horrors which had befallen his people and how he felt helpless living in the comfort of his home abroad.
The events of 1915-1918 are usually known as The Great Famine of Mount Lebanon. It is when, in World War I, the allied forces (mostly the British…) and the Ottomans blockaded the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifiate (a semi-autonomous region in the Ottoman Empire). It is also when a swarm of locus destroyed all the crops. This led to a famine in this very small region of the Empire. In fact, this famine created the highest fatality rate in any given population in WWI; 200,000 people out of 400,000 perished (Ghazal : 2015). Most died because of the famine itself, but what is often overlooked by most people is the very important role the Three Pashas, Talaat, Enver and Djamal took to exterminate the Lebanese people from the face of the earth (the latter two especially played a crucial role in this process). Djamal Pasha did not allow any crop or aid to arrive to Mount Lebanon. He knew what was happening in the region because he instigated it himself. His co-partner in crime, Enver Pasha, proudly stated in May of 1916: “the Ottoman Empire should be cleansed of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword, we shall destroy the latter through starvation. I am entirely willing to accept the responsibility myself for everything that has taken place”.
A Genocide is the systematic orchestration of the extermination of an ethnic, racial, national or religious group. It is implemented by the state; as only the state has the power and capabilities to carry out such a crime (see Genocide Convention of 1948). In the case of the Lebanese, this extermination policy was carried out by a forced-mass famine. Again, it was deliberately intended to end the collective existence of the Lebanese.
Post-Genocide amnesia in today’s Lebanon
In 2018, on the centenary of the end of the Lebanese Genocide, a monument was erected at the Saint Joseph University in Beirut, to commemorate this tragic event. This event which theoretically had to be commemorated every year since it happened, and be remembered for all years to come, has been forgotten. Why? do the Lebanese have a short term collective memory? What factors play into this?
For starters, the Lebanese have only recently began seeing themselves as a collective national group. This was not always the case. I believe that since the Genocide mostly affected the Christian Maronites, then the other peoples of the region simply tended to ignore it. Apparently, to them, it might be that it is up to the Maronites to remember and commemorate their dead. But even most Maronites themselves do not know of the mass famine which took the lives of half the population of Mount Lebanon.
Each peoples’ experiences are different. We can draw parallels between how different groups who have suffered similar atrocities (Armenians and Assyrians) commemorate the death of many of their people with vigils, memory sites and a day of remembrance once a year. But again, each group’s experiences are unique.
I do not remember ever seeing or hearing the President of the Republic address the country on live television and speak of this heinous crime. I don’t remember him ever seeking recognition and reparations from Turkey. I don’t remember ever not going to school on the date of which we are supposed to commemorate this Genocide. It was only in our history textbooks that we read of the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon; probably just one paragraph — okay, one page — in a book of 50 pages ! For some reason, students couldn’t realize (refused to realize?) that those who died were not Germans, French, Turkish or Chinese — they were Lebanese; they were of ‘their’ own tribe. Is it sheer ignorance or denial?
If it is not us Lebanese who should/must remember our dead, especially those who died such tragic deaths, then who should do the remembering ? — surely, it is not the Germans, French, Turkish or Chinese !
In a country where the different communities are fighting over post-civil war narratives, we forget that we were ought to be exterminated. We, Lebanese, should not be alive today. Had we died, there would have not been a civil war and its subsequent narratives to fight over.
We proudly read Gebran Khalil Gebran’s poems and writings, but I assure you, he is not proud of us. His poem, “dead are my people” is a must read; it is very very relevant to what the Lebanese are unfortunately doing with regards to their history today.
Finally, to the 200,000 of our ancestors who perished and to the other 200,000 of those who were meant to perish, we have failed you. Please, forgive us.