Refreshing Lebanese memory
“For your freedom we have lived and for your independence we are dying”, Abdul-Karm al Khalil, with the rope around his neck, May 6, 1916.
The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 brought Lebanon further problems, as Turkey allied itself with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Turkish government abolished Lebanon’s semiautonomous status (al-Mutasarifiah) and appointed Jamal Basha, then minister of the navy, as the commander in chief of the Turkish forces in Syria. Known for his harshness, he occupied Lebanon and replaced the last mutasarrif, Ohannes Basha, with a Turk, Munif Basha.
In February 1915, frustrated by his failed attack on the British forces protecting the Suez Canal, Jamal Basha initiated a blockade of the entire eastern Mediterranean coast which indirectly caused thousands of deaths from widespread famine and plagues. Lebanon suffered more than any other Ottoman province, loosing over one third of its population. In addition, a military court was established in Aley and thousands of Maronites were imprisoned or exiled for little reason. The Druze fled to Houran. The land of Mount Lebanon became a paradise for disease and plagues which claimed thousands of souls. Furthermore, the Turkish army cut down trees Cedar forests, for wood to fuel trains. The Mount Lebanon cedar forests lost over 60% of their trees in three years. In 1916 the Turkish authorities publicly executed 16 Lebanese in Beirut, for alleged anti-Turkish activities. The date, May 6, is (was) commemorated annually in Lebanon as Martyrs’ Day, and the site in Beirut has come to be known as the Martyrs’ Square. Hence Jamal Basha earned his new title of al-Saffah, the blood shedder.
For the Lebanese to ignore (or not know) this part of their history is an insult to all those who died during that period. The evidence is still fresh in the form of the ruins of houses in every village in Mount Lebanon and the stories that the elderly passed on to anyone willing to listen. Officially, the statement of Enver Basha is the first indictment of the atrocities when he declared on the 19th of May 1916 that “The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword; we shall destroy the latter through starvation”.
What is more intriguing to me is the “Lebanese” part of the quote! History books attribute this genocidal act to WWI, as a war atrocity, a historical event rather than a criminal act committed (and admitted) by the Turks against the Lebanese.
The public statement of Enver leaves no room for interpretations; the Turks were hell-bent on exterminating the Lebanese. They committed genocidal acts against them. A plethora of books describe the Armenian tragedy, yet I have not seen any materials published that discuss the Lebanese starvation and its cause. Close to 250,000 (1/3 of the population) Lebanese perished in Mount Lebanon due to the Turkish policy of “starvation”, and yet we forget and forgive without making the criminal to apologize to our country, if really the Turks respect our people then at least they must apologize and compensate.
I cannot forget what Gibran wrote about the 200,000-300,000 Lebanese who died in the 1916 famine:
“My people died of hunger, and he who
Did not perish from starvation was
Butchered with the sword
They perished from hunger
In a land rich with milk and honey
They died because the vipers
Sons of vipers spat out poison
The space where the Holy Cedars and
The roses and the jasmine breathe
After 96 years now, unfortunately the tragic events are being filtered out of the pages of the history. What are we doing as Lebanese to keep this dark page of history alive and to learn from the lessons of the past and honor those who sacrificed their lives for us? We should not be selective towards our history and the history of humankind. After 10 years how should we remember those who sacrificed their lives for Lebanon? Hence we must remember our martyrs and condemn everyone trying to remove them from our collective memory. A nation without a memory is always doomed to repeat its own mistakes!!