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Beyond the Green Line

by Gray Beltran

THEY were close now. Seta Mergeanian could hear the shells bursting, then raining against her house. She’d huddled deep within the basement underneath her family’s one-story home. Her family hid in the basement with her—parents, younger brother and sisters, her father’s elderly mother who lived with them. Outside, artillery lit the night sky.

Who was bombing Bourj Hamoud? The Phalange? The Palestine Liberation Organization and its Muslim allies? Syria? The Armenian community of Bourj Hamoud was officially neutral in Lebanon’s war, to the resentment of the other Christian militias, particularly the Phalange. Right-wing Christian militiamen had already killed Armenians on the streets of East Beirut.

Seta had ceased to care who was responsible for the bombings. After nearly two years of civil war, she only cared about surviving, which, for many Lebanese, increasingly meant leaving Beirut. When the war started, she asked her father what the fighting was about. But even he, a consummate reader of history, novels, and newspapers, could not explain the conflict.

Whoever was responsible for this night’s shelling, Seta was convinced that they represented a new form of evil. This is not how you fight a war, she told herself. You cannot turn neighborhoods into a battleground.

But they were. Overnight, divisions Seta hadn’t even considered became deadly apparent. We are all Lebanese, she thought. How can you take sides? Still, people did.

The start of the war in 1975 coincided with Seta’s first year in college. She was attending Haigazian University, a private Armenian college in the Riad-El-Solh neighborhood of West Beirut, 30 miles from her house. But commuting between East and West Beirut every day became nearly impossible once the war started. Seta dropped out of college and went to work at a bank near her home.

Seta’s father owned a mechanic shop on the border between East and West Beirut. He commuted to work every day, through roadblocks and checkpoints. Once, he got stuck in West Beirut after work. Seta’s mother was frantic when he didn’t come home for dinner. Had there been a bombing near his garage? Was he kidnapped? Murdered? Often during heavy fighting the phone lines would go dead. Distraught people in East Beirut would ask those coming from West Beirut if they had seen their loved ones. Eventually, Seta’s father called her aunt in West Beirut, who called Seta’s mother in Bourj Hamoud. He was stranded, but alive.

Through her father’s work, Seta’s family became friends with many non-Armenians, Christians and Muslims. A few of her father’s Jewish friends had warned him to leave Beirut in 1975, before the country had been consumed by full-scale war. Don’t stay here, they had said. It’s going to be war. When fighting did erupt in Beirut, Seta’s father could not deny their prescience. Things will get better, he would say. But they never did.

Sometimes Seta and her family would go up to the mountains east of Beirut. After the war started, these family excursions helped Seta forget the violence and chaos of the city. With her family or friends, she would rent a small vacation home, escaping not only the danger of Beirut, but also its oppressive summer heat. In the mountains, Seta felt alive. Yet at times the fighting was so intense that she could see the firefights of Beirut from the mountain towns of Bikfaya and Zaghrine, where Seta usually vacationed. Looking west toward the Mediterranean, she could still see the city—buildings ablaze, black smoke rising into the air—its factional wounds festering without surrender.

By morning, the shelling in Bourj Hamoud had stopped. Seta and her family emerged from the basement to find their house in ruins. All the windows and doors had been destroyed, shattered in a hail of shells. Seta walked out to the back of her house. For as long as she could remember, her family’s large backyard had been filled with fruit trees. Growing up, they used to harvest the sweet mulberries together. Her father would climb to the top of the tall white mulberry tree and shake its branches while the rest of the family, waited below with a wide bed sheet, catching the tiny fruits. Seta’s mother and grandmother would dry the leftover mulberries for winter. Now, amidst the fruit trees and the garden, the backyard was buried in shrapnel, a strange, metallic fruit mingled amongst the fallen white mulberries, figs, and red grapes.

It was Sunday morning in Ain El Remmaneh, a suburb of East Beirut. Armed Phalangists waited outside the newly built Church of St. Maron, named in honor of the monk who founded the Maronite religious movement. On the street, members of the Christian militia diverted cars away from the church. Inside, the leader of the Phalange, Pierre Gemayel, attended a consecration service.

The Lebanese Phalangists took their name from the Falange of Spain, the country’s single official party after the Spanish Civil War. As the Spanish Falange declined, the Phalange gained strength in Lebanon. Officially, the Lebanese Phalange considered itself a secular political party, but, like its Spanish precursor, Christianity remained at the heart of its identity.

The Phalangists heard gunfire. They saw a group of Palestinian militiamen driving towards the church in a Jeep, shooting rifles at the sky. The Phalangists tried to divert the vehicle, but the Palestinians refused to obey their orders. The Phalangists opened fire first and the Palestinians shot back. When the fighting was over, one Palestinian, the driver, was dead. Three Phalangists were killed. Pierre Gemayel and his followers regarded the incident as a failed assassination attempt on his life. Earlier in the month, Gemayel’s son, Amin, had almost been kidnapped by a group of armed men, and the would-be kidnappers were thought to be Palestinian militiamen.

Not two hours after the clash, another group of Palestinians drove towards the Church of St. Maron in a Dodge bus. According to the PLO, the bus passengers were Palestinian families on their way to a nearby refugee camp. The Phalangists opened fire, killing 27 Palestinians aboard. The Phalangists later claimed that the bus carried Palestinian fighters, armed reinforcements sent after the earlier clash. After that, the violent enmity between Phalangists and Palestinians spread far beyond the streets of Ain El Remmaneh. Palestinians attacked Phalangist party offices, launching rockets into neighborhoods occupied by their rivals, while a bomb destroyed a Palestinian-owned clothing store. The fighting kept most of Beirut’s shops, offices, and schools closed on Monday. By Tuesday, nearly 100 people had been killed.

The Phalange began to set up checkpoints and roadblocks in East Beirut while Palestinians began to exert control over West Beirut. The Lebanese Security Forces arrested several people implicated in the St. Maron incident. The Muslim Prime Minister of Lebanon put pressure on Pierre Gemayel to turn over the men who had killed the Palestinian bus driver. At first Gemayel refused, but after meeting with Lebanon’s president, Gemayel agreed to cooperate.

The concession proved to be too little, too late. More and more Lebanese were already splitting off into opposing militias. Smaller Christian militias joined forces with the more powerful Phalange, as Lebanese Muslim militias took sides with the Palestinians. Soon, Beirut would be divided into two halves, separated by what became known as the “Green Line.”

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