A Happy Homecoming for Lebanese Christians

May 26, 2014 at 7:54 AM ET

Though barely a dozen miles to the southeast of Beirut, the Chouf Mountains feel a world away from the rest of Lebanon. Many of the roads here are single-lane, partially paved switchbacks surrounded by acres of olive groves that cover the steep cliffs and broad gorges. Stunning Ottoman-era palaces attract a trickle of tourists to the bigger towns, while some of the more remote farming villages seem to belong to a simpler time. But when driving through the area—home to some of the last remnants of Lebanon’s famed cedar trees—it’s hard to imagine the vicious sectarian bloodletting that once took place here.

Before Lebanon’s civil war reached the Chouf in the late 1970s, the village of Brih, the residents of which numbered just a few thousand people, had long been home to a mix of Maronite Christians and Druze, adherents of a monotheistic religion who mainly live in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. But by 1983, a series of battles and massacres between the groups pushed all of the Christians out of Brih and several other Chouf villages.

The fighting here during the civil war consisted not so much of pitched battles, but of ruthless massacres of Christian and Druze civilians.

About five miles over the mountains from Brih, another formerly mixed village, Masser el-Chouf, has yet to fully recover from the war. One day in early September 1983, a group of Druze in Masser el-Chouf butchered dozens of their Christians neighbors in a matter of hours, then torched their church and their homes. Revenge killings continued many years later, residents say. And though many made attempts at reconciliation several years ago, most of the homes today are still abandoned, blackened by fires and overgrown with weeds and bougainvillea.

Yet in Brih, the process has played out differently. Earlier this month, for the first time in 32 years, Maronite families returned to this quaint mountain town to reclaim the homes they had lost during the war, many of which had been occupied by their former neighbors. Recently, contractors also broke ground on a new Saint George’s Church in town. Decades ago, local Druze had leveled the previous namesake and turned it into a parking lot. “It’s very beautiful,” says Elie Lahoud, 27, as he looks at his dilapidated ancestral home for the first time. “We have all been waiting a long time for this day.”

Most people in this nation of 4.4 million have never reconciled with the past. The country has a sense of collective amnesia about the war, which claimed roughly 150,000 lives. To date, only Samir Geagea, a former Christian warlord and current presidential candidate, has ever been convicted of war crimes here.

Such a troubled history is what makes the return of Christians to Brih all that more remarkable. For years, politicians and human rights groups have talked about reconciliation efforts, but the dialogue never moved forward in a country where a toxic mix of religion and sectarian politics typically cripples any semblance of rational compromise.

To be sure, moving past a dark history of ethnic cleansing is never easy. Even Rwanda, where the past is harrowing but the efforts to reconcile have been impressive, still has a long way to go. But Lebanon has been a particularly troublesome case because, in many ways, the conflicts of the past have re-emerged because of the Syrian civil war.

Tahoud, 27, hadn’t been born when his family fled their home for east Beirut in 1983. At the time, Lebanese Christians had allied themselves with Israel, which had invaded their northern neighbor earlier that year. The alliance led to a stage of the 15-year conflict known as the War of the Mountain, pitting Israeli-backed Christians against Druze Muslims and Palestinians. The worst of the fighting here came after Israeli troops pulled out of the Chouf, leaving ruthless and heavily armed Christian militias to lord over their Druze neighbors.

As Tahoud stood near their family’s home, his father Naim joined him and eyed the destroyed buildings nearby. The dozen or so members of their family who came out earlier this month brought arguileh water pipes and a small grill with them. They celebrated their return by picnicking around the shell-pocked remnants of their home and greeting every car that passed by. Similar scenes played out at other houses across the village.

It’s not only the Christians who are happy with what happened, though. Just up the road, 30-year-old Ehab el-Ahli made lunch at his family’s home. His large extended clan, more 75 people, are Druze and have lived in a cluster of stone and concrete houses here for generations.

“Honestly, this is a wonderful thing,” he says. El-Ahli was also born after the Christians exodus and never knew his neighbors until last weekend. “After all these years,” he says, “we know that we can live together again.”

No one in Lebanon was quite sure how the resettlement would play out. Locals say the government paid Druze occupants of Christian land $20,000 each to move, though no government officials would comment. Earlier this month, dozens of banners praising the reconciliation effort were strung across the roads leading to Brih, along with hundreds of freshly wheat-pasted portraits of outgoing Lebanese President Michael Suleiman.

With great fanfare, the day before the Lahoud family returned Brih, Suleiman attended a ceremony along with religious figures and politicians, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, a prominent military commander. During the ceremony, Jumblatt cracked jokes about the current presidential race and greeted his former foes for grip-and-grin photo ops.

“Maybe some older men are unhappy about [the Christians’ return], but we don’t care what they think,” says El-Ahli. “This is a new generation and that was their war, not ours.”

At Salon Wissam, a small barbershop in Brih where many young Druze men hang out, many agreed with El-Ahli. “I think all of us young guys are excited for the Maronite girls to move here,” says Kamel, 28, explaining the lack of available young women in the area. The barbershop erupts in laughter, and then Kamel, who asked I only use his real name, became more serious: “We have always been equals, Christians and Druze, but people’s minds were poisoned so that we would fight each other.”

For all the excitement about reconciliation, there is still plenty to be concerned about here in Lebanon, where sectarianism perpetually seems to flare. A report this year from the International Center for Transitional Justice said that Lebanon “has largely been unable to advance a culture of accountability” and that by failing to prosecute human rights violators the state has perpetuated the type of political gangsterism has paralyzed the country.

It’s this lack of accountability in Lebanon that has tempered even the most upbeat Brih residents’ expectations for a quick reconciliation.

“We have politicians and others who still want to make things difficult for the people of Lebanon,” El-Ahli says, referring to bouts of violence that intermittently spill over from Syria, just 15 miles across the mountains from here.

“This needs time to work out,” he adds. “After 32 years, we can’t expect everything to be fixed in one week.”