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Formerly Bitter Enemies Become Promoters of Peace

By Nora Boustany
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page A14

No formal truth commissions were set up in Lebanon to help Muslims and Christians overcome the religious phobias and feelings of vengeance that ripped the country apart for 17 years.

But 15 years after the end of the civil war, some of the most hardened fighters have used a period of relative tranquility to examine their darkest impulses. Many have found a new resolve to guard against violence and destruction after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on Feb. 14 and the demonstrations that followed.

Assaad Chaftari, left, and Mohieddine Mustapha Chehab, who were enemies during Lebanon's civil war, have reconciled. (Courtesy Of Initiatives Of Change)

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.

"It was the match that set fire to desires to bury the ugly past, but we had been working on it since 1990," said Mohieddine Mustapha Chehab, a former fighter in a Sunni Muslim militia and now mayor of a district of Beirut, the capital.

"Except the fire is giving off white smoke," chimed in Assaad Chaftari, who served as a senior intelligence official and an artillery commander of the Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces. Today, he is a high school principal.

During the merciless madness of the war, which began in 1975, Chehab and Chaftari were mortal enemies, fighting on the front lines and ordering the shelling of residential areas.

On March 21, 1976, Muslim militias stormed a hotel, ousting Christian rivals from their last line of defense in a decisive battle for control of a seafront hotel district. Chehab led his men up a staircase that was littered with corpses, while Chaftari was holed up on a top floor, taking aim at anyone who moved. The two men could have been among the numerous combatants who fell that day.

On Wednesday, they sat together in a Washington restaurant, completing each other's sentences as they discussed how they learned to accept their differences and embrace their likenesses.

Their visit was sponsored by Initiatives of Change, a nongovernmental organization that was founded after World War I.

Chehab and Chaftari were accompanied by two other Lebanese, Ramez Georges Salame, a lawyer, who during the war gave up his gun and worked to build bridges among the different communities, and Roweida Saleh, a Druze Muslim woman who is active in reconciliation efforts.

The group spoke at the Cosmos Club on Tuesday and on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, and met with State Department officials and Hill staffers yesterday, sharing wartime stories and painful journeys of repentance and reconciliation.

"The Lebanese people are making peace with themselves," said Chehab, 49. "They have been slowly walking back from the brink. That is what I did."

As a young man, Chehab fought in the major battles that reduced a once vibrant capital to a rat-infested wasteland. The Green Line, which demarcated a no-man's land where only fighters brandishing Kalashnikovs and shoulder-held missile launchers dared tread, split the city into mainly Christian and Muslim halves.

"We thought the other side was evil," Chehab said. "There were relentless attacks and kidnappings of people just based on religion. I was a military person, a Muslim who thought he was fighting an extension of the Crusades."

After 1990, when the fighting was finally over, Chehab started venturing into Christian areas, visiting villages and mountain hamlets. He would strike up conversations when he stopped at shops. Chehab said he wanted the Christians to say negative things about Muslims so that he could justify his past actions, but said that rarely happened.

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