“There is a price to pay for peace,” Assaad Chaftari tells Inside Arabia as he sits in the old, bullet-pocked heritage building that serves as his office. “We are ready to pay this price.” As the Vice President of the NGO Fighters for Peace, Chaftari has become one of Lebanon’s most outspoken advocates of non-violence. While there are a wide range of civil society organizations with similar missions, the credibility of this group is uniquely built on the first-hand insights of its members.
Before he was a fighter for peace, Chaftari, like his colleagues, was a combatant who participated in the country’s grueling 15-year civil war. For Chaftari, the transition from being an officer of a militia to disavowing violence was a long and challenging process.
Prior to the civil war, the Palestinian Liberation Organization had relocated to Lebanon, aggravating political and sectarian tensions. As a young, 20-year-old Christian, Chaftari says that he thought of Lebanon as a Christian country and felt that the Palestinians wanted to take the country for themselves.
By the start of the war in 1975, he had joined Lebanon’s largest Christian party and was ready to take up arms as a foot soldier. Chaftari worked hard and proved to be an adept decision maker, ascending through the ranks and serving in a range of positions including telecommunications and artillery. Eventually, he became the head of the united central intelligence services for the Christian forces.
“[I did] whatever you think of. Everything. Kidnapping, bombing attempts, murder attempts on politicians. Disrupting their system and also counterintelligence.”
Chaftari describes his former duties to Inside Arabia, his voice heavy with regret. “[I did] whatever you think of. Everything. Kidnapping, bombing attempts, murder attempts on politicians. Disrupting their system and also counterintelligence.”
Later, he participated as part of a small negotiating team in drafting the Tripartite Accord of 1985. The accord brought together three of the largest feuding militias – Christian, Shia, and Druze – in a treaty meant to end the civil war by granting the occupying Syrian forces greater influence over the country. However, many of his comrades felt that the agreement conceded too much power and a faction within the Christian forces staged a bloody coup.
Chaftari and his comrades were forced to flee east to Zahle, a large Christian village in the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. The war dragged on for five more years and only when Syrians forces launched an offensive against another Christian militia, was he able to return to the capital of Beirut. But the connections he made in Zahle would come to change his life.
As the war came to an end, an NGO based in Zahle, called Initiatives of Change, reached out to his family. “They started speaking of forgiveness, love, and things. Of course, it was very suspect to me. Who is behind them? Is it a conspiracy? But then my wife convinced me to join her [in] the meetings. I did not have confidence in them so I used to go with my body guards. But then I heard them asking some peculiar questions like, ‘You want to change everybody and make them become like you because you think you are a great guy, but are you ready to change yourself?’”
They asked him to take time in quiet reflection on a daily basis and to compare his character traits to four common values shared among the world’s major religions, which they identified as honestly, purity, unselfishness, and love.
“I stood in front of the mirror and saw a beast with blood on his hands and sins, lots of sins.”
“Of course, I refused because I thought that I was perfect,” explains Chaftari. “But little by little I discovered that I was not. I stood in front of the mirror and saw a beast with blood on his hands and sins, lots of sins. . . . And this is where I said, ‘No, I cannot go on like this. I should [commit] suicide. I should isolate myself and cry for the rest of my life.’ Or I could become responsible.”
Most importantly, Initiatives of Change brought him in contact with the people that he had fought against during the war. When asked which moments most encouraged his change of heart, he replies, “[meeting] those that were the others for me and seeing that they have misunderstandings about us, as I had misunderstood them. And then that maybe 90 percent of what I had heard about them was not true.”
By 2000, Chaftari published a letter in Lebanon’s major Arabic newspapers apologizing for his deeds during the civil war and publicly forgiving those who fought against him. As a reinvented man, he later helped to found a coalition of 31 peace NGOs called Unity is Our Salvation (UOS). But only a few years later, in 2012, more sectarian conflict threatened to spread across Lebanon.
In the northern city of Tripoli, Sunnis and Alawites fought each other in the streets, partially fueled by inflamed tensions due to the Syrian war. As hundreds of casualties piled up, UOS leaders assembled to address the situation.
“The Lebanese people needed to see Lebanese coming from different sides who were against each other, fighting each other, ready and able to work together for civil peace.”
Chaftari explains, “We were discussing this in the coordination committee and we found out that five out of the eight on the board were ex-fighters, so we said, ‘Wow, this means something that each one of us who fought felt that he had to do something for society.’ . . . The Lebanese people needed to see Lebanese coming from different sides who were against each other, fighting each other, ready and able to work together for civil peace.”
Thus Fighters for Peace was born in 2014. With Chaftari as Vice President, the group was built on their shared experiences and since has reached over 11,000 of the country’s youth. The NGO is also highly active in Tripoli, bridging divides between conflict ridden neighborhoods. Yet, many of the leaders of civil war era militias have gone on to become major contemporary political figures. Chaftari reports that he receives threatening messages on a routine basis that try to discourage him from speaking about his past.
“Peace does not come for free,” he says. “You have to sacrifice, and some have to sacrifice more than others to bring peace. . . . First, I hated those who were trying to kill me, but now I love them, those who threaten me today, I love them like they were brothers. I don’t think that I can hate anyone anymore.”