Lebanon is using the 30th anniversary of the bloody civil war this week to spawn a fresh spirit of national harmony even as this tiny nation grapples with renewed violence and a protracted political crisis.
Dubbed "national unity week," a series of concerts, exhibitions, sporting events, and children's activities have been organized to bring Lebanese together to mark the civil war as well as help revive the economic fortunes of Beirut's central district, which has suffered from the turmoil brought on by the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, two months ago.
"Today, we declare war against war," said Marwan Hamade, a senior aide to Walid Jumblatt, the Druze and opposition leader, as Wednesday's activities began.
Although the war ended 15 years ago, it is the first time that the Lebanese have held such a broad public commemoration, an attempt to come to terms with its bloody past and bridge the sectarian divide.
The April 13 anniversary was marked by a series of events including planting a huge Lebanese map made of 18 separate pieces of cloth, symbolizing Lebanon's 18 religious sects. In northern Lebanon, some 15,000 youths formed a five-mile human chain linking the Maronite Christian town of Zghorta to the mainly Sunni city of Tripoli.
The spark that led to the war occurred on April 13, 1975, in the Beirut neighborhood of Ain al-Rumaneh, when Christian gunmen ambushed a bus of Palestinians, killing 27. The initial stages of the war were marked by a series of brutal massacres where life and death was often dictated by the religious affiliation inscribed on an identification card. Foreign troops arrived and died in Lebanon - some, like the US Marines, in the name of peace, and others, like Israel's army, in the course of invasion and occupation.
By the time the war ground to a halt in 1990, some 150,000 people had perished, a huge number for this country of almost 4 million. From 1990, Lebanon enjoyed relative calm, albeit under the military and political dominance of neighboring Syria.
Now, 15 years after the war's end, Syria is pulling out its last remaining troops. Many Lebanese see the Syrian departure as a fitting moment to reflect, for the first time, on the violent past and to attempt to forge a new sense of unity.
In 1985, the relatives of 17,000 missing people formed the Committee for the Wartime Kidnapped to press the authorities to discover what happened to their loved ones. It has been a long, fruitless struggle. At the end of a seven-month investigation in July 2000, the Lebanese government announced that all 17,000 missing were "probably" dead.
A 1991 law granted blanket amnesty for all wartime crimes, and many of the militia leaders became politicians. "The Lebanese war was stopped on the premise of forgive and forget, but that's not sufficient. There are forms of accountability. You can't just push back history and say nothing happened," says Chibli Mallat, professor of international law at Beirut's St. Joseph University.
The February assassination of Mr. Hariri and the subsequent political turmoil have sparked some concerns that the country could return to civil war. "[Sectarianism] has grown sharper," says Samir Khalaf, professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut, citing last month's competing demonstrations in Beirut sponsored by the Shiite Hizbullah and the opposition coalition grouping of Christians, Druze, and Sunni Muslims. "The cultural rifts between groups is very immense," he says. "But we should find out how to mitigate and neutralize their divisive elements and how to make them more sources of pluralism and vibrancy rather than paranoia and fear."
Despite the sectarianism, few here have an appetite for renewed civil conflict in Lebanon. The wounds of the 1975-1990 war are still too fresh. Furthermore, analysts say there is a generation of young Lebanese educated in Europe and the United States who have little regard for Lebanon's politicians, whose bickering will likely lead to the postponement of next month's parliamentary elections.
"The young are antithetical to such a political class," says Mr. Khalaf. "And I hope that what we are witnessing is the demise of this political class, because if the elections result in the breakthrough some of us expect, hopefully it can begin to bring people together to consider issues that transcend confessional loyalties."