Founded in Beirut, UMAM Documentation and Research (UMAM D&R) was officially recognized by the Lebanese Ministry of Interior and Municipalities as a non-governmental organization in 2005.
The idea behind its creation (the seeds of which were sown in 2000) can be attributed to a group of individuals who shared concerns about Lebanon’s present and hoped that it could someday achieve genuine, enduring stability. The kind of stability they envisioned would guarantee the development of a real and inclusive political life, free of inherited or imposed taboos, or legacy alliances. Yet another perspective included the assumption that it would be impossible to contribute to the achievement of such a lofty (near idealistic) goal as long as Lebanon retains its culture of denial, and as long as its citizens reject the responsibility they share in both areas. These are (a) the country’s successive conflicts and cycles of violence and (b) their tolerance of a political system that propelled an enforced national amnesia into the quasi-official State religion. Among other unfortunate consequences, these painful entanglements have propelled the country—very effectively—from one deadlock to the next. Accordingly, a fundamental effort that must preface any genuine recognition of that responsibility centers on revisiting a number of essential, contributing factors. This mandate entails collecting and examining the facts behind this cyclical violence (including its deep social and cultural roots that seem to have become part of the Lebanese landscape), the underlying sources of conflict, the astonishingly incomprehensible way Lebanon’s civil war (1975 – 1990) ended, and most importantly, why Lebanon continually fails to move forward….
The pressing need to do something was also motivated by the worries and hopes that influenced Lebanon at the time UMAM D&R emerged. Some fifteen years after the Taif Agreement, it had become very clear that the approach used to pacify this small (210 kilometers long and 50 kilometers wide) strip of land, one that has repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny ability to both suffer and cause headaches, could not be sustained.
With reference to Lebanon, Klemens von Metternich advised his colleagues more than a century ago to be aware of small countries, and history has proven him right not only with Lebanon, but with a host of other small countries as well. Consider, for instance, the Hollywood-esque explosion that destroyed an otherwise peaceful Monday, February 14, 2005 and obliterated reconstruction magnate and former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Not only did the UN consider the attack a threat to regional stability, but it also became the catalyst for opening a number of interlocked Pandora’s boxes within and beyond Lebanon. The questions that began swirling after those boxes were forcibly opened heaped scrutiny even on the reconstruction philosophy Hariri promoted. After all, it seems boldly surreal that the Assad-run Syrian dictatorship was tasked with helping the Lebanese people implement a peace agreement that was intended, among other things, to modernize the country’s political system by introducing greater openness and inclusivity. Similarly, it seems bizarre that Beirut’s reconstruction was occurring at a time when foreign forces were still occupying some parts of the country. How could Lebanon ever hope to emerge as a State of law (in even the weakest sense) when the warlords responsible for orchestrating and then prolonging the country’s cataclysmic war were awarded blanket amnesty and then reemerged within its postwar society as board members of a “peace corporation” tasked with steering the country? And while the Taif Agreement touted an unprecedented liberalization of Lebanon’s economy, the intent behind doing so was not to help develop a culture of accountability, but rather to introduce a culture of braggarts and egotists. Of course, these concerns are just the tip of the iceberg….
Obviously, the successive opening of Lebanon’s Pandora boxes has not always been peaceful. Indeed, some of the very real worries that haunted the Lebanese after Hariri was murdered in 2005 included what might happen because of the withdrawal of Assad’s Syrian troops from Lebanon (which had spent decades in the country) and whether the country might become embroiled in yet another conflict. As luck would have it, however, the episodes of domestic Lebanese violence that followed these developments paled in comparison to the remorseless bloodshed the country experienced during its civil war—yet their significance and impact were every bit as important. Amidst this complex context, those who conceived UMAM D&R believed, then and today, that the need to revisit Lebanon’s conflict-laden and war-loaded past, aggravated by State-mandated amnesia, is vital to understanding and influencing the country’s present and future.
One of the enduring historical features that reemerged during the post-civil war era in Lebanon was a prevailing and demonstrably narrow-minded moral discourse, which generally continues to characterize the war as little more than an interruption in the otherwise peaceful course of events in Lebanon. That impression was reinforced by a persistent tendency to blame Lebanon’s long-term problems on foreign interference, an opinion that ostensibly excused Lebanon—and the Lebanese—from taking any responsibility for the war. Conveniently, the most vehement promotion of that discourse was championed by the same warlords who had been absolved of their battlefield sins. For these and other reasons, the critical need to audit the past leads inexorably to the necessity for a careful and determined inspection of the present.
In an effort to boost discussion of specific facts and episodes related to Lebanon’s war (and its legacy) while overcoming the self-imposed boundaries of good and evil, it became obvious that a citizen resource center, focused primarily on the Lebanese civil war, had to be developed. In order to be effective, that resource had to convey two notions. First, it had to disclose and acknowledge every one of the taboos related to Lebanon’s past (and that continue to influence its present). Second, it could not be governed by the same types of restrictions applied to State or academic institutions.
At the simplest level, any genuine exploration (and eventual understanding) of Lebanon’s recent past demands the meticulous collection, protection and promotion to the Lebanese public of documents, evidence and artifacts from that period in the country’s history. Realistically, however, that approach contrasts starkly with the reality that Lebanese political elites and governmental officials continue—albeit selectively—either to ignore or feign ignorance of the gravity of Lebanon’s violent past. That same treatment is given to the broad, Lebanese pool of conflicting memories which date to that murky era (and sometimes before), and the legacy of which is refreshed constantly through the violent, cyclical disturbances that roil Lebanon to this day.
The abject failure to appreciate the gravity of the country’s past and understand the significant weight it exerts on the present is evident in the conspicuous and deliberate lack of any State-sponsored institution specialized in the collection and dissemination of such information. Thus, it is little wonder that no official accounting of the country’s past has ever been conducted. Further, the very notion of dealing with the past in an effort to appreciate and improve the present is still fighting for legitimacy in Lebanon.
While UMAM contributes to the ongoing debate over Lebanon’s past and what it views as the country’s faulty collective national memory, it exists and operates in an environment that is exceptionally hostile to historical reflection. Under these conditions, it is considered acceptable to affect, on a national scale, the systemic ignorance of the past as a shared platform. Tangentially, sects and communities within the country continue to build their respective myths, narratives and histories, none of which hesitate to leverage strained, fragmented memories for the achievement of short-term political gains—rather than long-term national stability.
UMAM D&R began work in 2005 with an exclusively Lebanese focus. Soon enough, however, the organization realized that it could not remain passive about the swelling number—and severity—of regional issues. The momentous developments that began to unfold in 2011 and continue to affect the entire Middle East, have long since escaped the bonds of the region. These upheavals have called forth the ghosts of antiquated religious and sectarian/ethnic conflict and have given them new names. Among other outcomes (some positive, but most negative) these changes demonstrate the calamitous outcome that follows ignoring all or some of the past, particularly since the deep-seated roots of those challenges are today emerging as full-grown hazards.
Ten years after its establishment, the new challenges in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East (that are at once theoretical and practical) validate the basis of the idea behind the creation of UMAM D&R. In a nutshell, the efforts UMAM D&R expends to keep pace with the regional situation and remain true to its original Lebanese perspective are not only its raisons d’être, but also represent the bulk of its organizational agenda.