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Hearing local voices at the “Ground Zero” of climate change

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Bangladesh is facing a climate emergency. Although it is one of the world’s least polluting nations, it is already experiencing some of the most severe effects of changing weather patterns. The country lies close to sea level, and much of the land is river delta that is prone to seasonal flooding, erosion, and salinity intrusion and faces the risk of devastating cyclones, all of which can be catastrophic for local communities and their livelihoods. Many families are unable to recover from such climate disasters and are forced to move to other parts of Bangladesh or across borders to rebuild their lives.

Unsurprisingly, Bangladesh has become a prominent voice in global conversations about climate change and the need for international responsibility-sharing. Developing nations generally shoulder an outsized share of the costs of climate change compared to wealthier nations, a fact recently recognised in global forums such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which convenes the annual Conference of Parties, or COP. In its 27th sitting, in 2022, the COP established a loss and damage fund for vulnerable countries, which was operationalized a year later at COP 28. While proponents celebrated this as a win, many practical challenges remain, including raising sufficient funds and figuring out how to measure losses and distribute resources equitably among nations. The many intersecting consequences of environmental degradation require long-term solutions and a holistic approach. Mechanisms like the loss and damage fund will not increase climate resilience if social, political, and economic factors are not considered alongside the environmental ones. Migration and displacement of affected populations is one of the most significant consequences of climate change. Along with the downstream impacts on labor markets, social networks, and transnational relationships, these will need to be accounted for in national and international climate strategies and development policies.

As “ground zero” for a shifting climate that is turning many environments inhospitable, Bangladesh offers a case study of these overlapping vulnerabilities. In parts of the borderlands with India, longstanding social and political fragilities lie beneath the new environmental stressors. The border itself has been an historical point of contention between the two countries, and security measures in the past have led to violence. The distance from central governance institutions in Dhaka can result in border regions being underrepresented in national climate strategies, including the distribution of resources, which can further marginalize ethnic and religious minorities within border communities. The risks from climate change in such areas of existing vulnerability cannot be overstated: economic instability, food insecurity, unreliable access to justice, and increased inequalities that can trigger communal violence.

Attempts to institutionalise sustainable solutions in climate-vulnerable areas must be rooted in a situated understanding of how communities experience and respond to environmental disruptions. Outsiders may struggle to grasp these nuances, which can lead to poor planning and interventions that cause further harm. In southwestern Bangladesh, for example, seasonal and informal migration to urban centers in India have become more and more of a survival mechanism for those who have lost their agricultural livelihoods. This can clash with policies that regulate cross-border movement, including the steady increase in border fencing. Researchers and practitioners working in affected areas can play an important role in collecting information and building evidence that speaks to local experiences, but this must be done with sensitivity and recognition of the power dynamics of classical research settings. Historically, the study of vulnerable populations in particular has been steeped in inequality and defined by an essentially extractive relationship between researchers and researched.

As the world mobilises to support climate adaptation and resilience, decision-makers need analysis that reflects the needs and priorities of communities at the forefront of climate change. The Asia Foundation is working with the Centre for Peace & Justice (CPJ) of BRAC University in Bangladesh to develop a framework for assessing how existing drivers of fragility interact with the onset of climate change, in order to understand the risks for future climate resilience and development programming in the country. The Foundation’s partnership with CPJ originates in the UK-funded development research program XCEPT, Cross-Border Conflict: Evidence, Policy, and Trends, which works with local researchers to provide analysis of conflicts in border regions that is grounded in the affected communities.

With support from this program, CPJ has developed a new methodology for community-driven data collection, based on “participatory research,” that seeks to avoid the vertical power dynamics inherent in traditional research models. CPJ first employed this methodology among the Rohingya refugees seeking asylum in the Bangladeshi coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, on the border with Myanmar. A network of researchers drawn from within the refugee community itself enabled the affected population to become co-producers of knowledge and solutions, building trust between aid providers and recipients and strengthening the credibility of the research findings. The insights this yielded have helped foreign donors and humanitarian agencies operating in the world’s biggest refugee camp to work more effectively. This approach is a major contribution to localising aid, as it shifts power over information towards the affected populations.

This year, CPJ is piloting the same research approach in southwestern Bangladesh, applying it to the question of how climate adaptation strategies reflect and respond to broader social and political fragilities in the local context. A scoping study first undertaken by the team in 2022 determined that this question is a major factor in the long-term success of such strategies. Subsequently, a research project was designed replicating the approach used in Cox’s Bazar, starting with the recruitment and training of young people to work as “community researchers.”

The team faced some initial challenges: refugee camps are an entirely different operational context than areas of the general population, because of the institutional control within the camps and the relative immobility of the camp population. Furthermore, the severity of the refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar was a powerful motivator for camp residents to participate. In southwestern Bangladesh, on the other hand, researchers wondered how to build interest among local youth in participating in the data collection and how to encourage respondents to open up about their experiences and aspirations. Researchers have also reflected that the obstacles facing Rohingya refugees in their fenced camps are immediate and tangible, while slow-onset climate factors that distress and uproot communities in climate-affected border towns are less immediately apparent.

To apply a proven methodology in a completely new context, both major and seemingly minor aspects of the research study may need to be revised. CPJ’s community-based research approach acknowledges the complexity and unique social order of the borderlands, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of the study sites. Climate realities around the world are not equal. These locally grounded methods of exploration avoid the mistakes of knowledge systems that force top-down assumptions on local communities, and instead empower them to be the voices of their own experience.

The initial phase of this new project is nearing completion, and community researchers are receiving training for the first round of data collection. From where we stand now, there is much to discover, to learn, and to unlearn, and we hope to do it together.

Tabea Campbell Pauli is a senior program officer with The Asia Foundation’s XCEPT program, and Tasnia Khandaker Prova is a research associate with the Centre for Peace and Justice of BRAC University. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Myanmar: Resistance and the cost of the coup in Chin State

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Research supported by The Asia Foundation illustrates how Chin State, on the country’s northwestern border with India, is both a center and a broader microcosm of today’s resistance. Home to half a million people, and with historically strong tribal diversity, Chin State has suffered throughout the years of violence and instability that affected much of Myanmar as the country’s military struggled to impose central rule. The result has been persistent underdevelopment, and many people have left Chin State, often as refugees. They now constitute a substantial diaspora regionally and in countries of the Global North.

Violent crackdowns on the peaceful protests that sprang up immediately after the 2021 coup led many previous noncombatants to take up arms to defend themselves. Tensions grew rapidly as dozens of new, local resistance groups emerged, many known collectively as Chinland Defense Forces. The Chin National Front, an armed group with a long history of resisting Myanmar’s central authorities, which had been closely involved in peacebuilding efforts over the last decade, gained significant popular support.

These armed groups made significant gains in 2023, taking control of resources, territory, roads, and infrastructure in both urban and rural areas. Mirroring the successes of fighters across the country, both the new Chin resistance forces and established armed organizations have pushed back against the military, reportedly capturing 12 military bases and liberating five towns in the last year.

With parts of the country suffering internet blackouts, and information on social media unreliable, it is difficult to grasp a complete picture of the trajectory of the conflict, particularly for observers outside of the country. Airstrikes and arson attacks by Myanmar forces have led to hundreds of deaths and driven tens of thousands of Chin civilians from their homes and livelihoods. The United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 people have fled to the Indian border states of Mizoram and Manipur, while another 61,000 remain internally displaced. Chin humanitarian organizations estimate that the real figures are much higher. Camps for the internally displaced are increasingly insecure as the conflict drags on and resources dwindle, but heavy fighting and the remoteness of the region pose a major challenge for aid and support.

The principal humanitarian response has come from Mizoram, which is estimated to have received more than 5,000 refugees from Chin State in 2023 alone. Refugees in Mizoram have some access to healthcare and children’s education, thanks to a long tradition of cross-border kinship.

As the crisis in Myanmar competes for global attention, international support has diminished. In the meantime, the Chin diaspora, reaching from the border regions of India to communities across Asia, Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, has mobilized to provide financial and material aid to refugees and those who remain in Myanmar. Local humanitarian responders estimate that up to 90 percent of the funds they receive come from Chin groups overseas, though this support is often distributed on the basis of local or subethnic ties that can result in unequal access.

These developments underscore the central role of Myanmar’s borderlands. Distant from the historical control of the central authorities, these porous, peripheral zones are crucial for the safe passage of refugees, for aid to the internally displaced, and for support of the organized resistance. Border communities in India have set up camps, provided essential services, and even extended financial support to refugees from Chin State. The continued movement of people and goods is critical to maintaining safe havens and humanitarian support for civilians.

Myriad forces are at play today in Myanmar’s resistance. The local roots of the resistance movement have produced a diverse array of actors with different agendas and approaches, and building a united front is challenging. The divergence of approaches and visions among the political leadership and the multitude of armed groups adds a further layer of complexity, as politicians point to their pre-coup electoral mandates, while armed groups cite strong public support. On the ground, communities also hold uncertain views about who is in charge.

Multiple councils and coordinating bodies have emerged from the Chin opposition. Efforts initially focused on the Interim Chin National Consultative Council as a liaison between state actors and the rest of Myanmar’s resistance network, but internal disagreements between a few powerful actors led to a split in early 2023. Subsequently, the rival Chinland Council was created, which has garnered greater support among key resistance forces as well as the public, likely the most crucial factor in its legitimacy as the state’s leading political body. The immediate need is to create a functioning state government and establish statewide systems for public administration and the provision of essential services.

As nonstate forces in Chin State and across Myanmar continue to resist the military’s attempts to impose its central rule, communities caught up in the conflict face severe consequences. International support for civilians is crucial, particularly for the most vulnerable, who have lost homes and livelihoods through violence and displacement. In the immediate term, humanitarian actors can connect with existing local and diaspora networks in the border region to increase the reach and effectiveness of aid distribution. Looking to the future, in Chin State as in other parts of Myanmar, effective investments in peace will hinge on the continuing dialogue between communities and resistance leaders to find common ground for future governance.

Tabea Campbell Pauli is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Conflict and Fragility Unit. She can be reached at [email protected]. June N.S. is an independent researcher whose latest report, Resistance and the Cost of the Coup in Chin State, Myanmar, is the principal source of this story. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

The costs of ignoring conflict trauma in men and boys

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Content warning: contains mention of sexual violence and suicide.

Almost two years have passed since Russia invaded Ukraine, and mental health is high on the agenda for the Ukrainian government. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates approximately 9.6 million people in Ukraine may have a mental health condition as a result of exposure to conflict, while Ukraine’s Ministry of Health expects 15 million people will require psychological support to manage mental health problems caused by the war.[i]

Spearheaded by Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, a National Program of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) aims to provide affordable and effective mental health services for anyone who wishes to use them, while a campaign launched in March 2023 encouraged Ukrainians to look out for each other’s mental wellbeing.[ii] The summit at which President Zelensky made his comments was organised under the theme ‘Mental Health: Fragility and Resilience of the Future’.[iii]

Ukraine has a big task on its hands, and it’s not alone. Around the world, populations in countries affected by conflict are vulnerable to experiences of trauma and its various manifestations. In 2019, the WHO estimated that one in five people living in a conflict zone experience some form of trauma symptom, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, or sleeping disorders. In Gaza, it is estimated that 97.5 percent of 10 to 19-year-olds suffer from PTSD, and this will rise acutely in response to the current conflict.[iv]

Humanitarian aid to help deliver psychosocial support (PSS) is both welcome and necessary. Yet, recent research carried out by the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme suggests that, when it comes to addressing conflict-related trauma, men and boys are often overlooked. Not only does this have an impact on the wellbeing of affected individuals, but research suggests that addressing conflict-related trauma amongst men is also vital for prevention of continued insecurity and conflict transformation more broadly.[v]

Overlooking men in humanitarian responses

In a conflict setting, men and boys are affected by direct violence.[vi] They are most at risk of death by violence or summary execution. They are more likely to be imprisoned or disappeared. They suffer beatings and torture due to gender norms which assume them to be the protectors and leaders of a community, rendering them targets of violence. They also experience conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) to a much greater extent than was previously assumed.[vii]

Yet, male victims are underrepresented in PSS services delivered by humanitarian organisations.[viii] A study for XCEPT of 12 INGOs and NGOs operating in Syria, Iraq and South Sudan found that only two of the organisations operated PSS programmes targeted at conflict-affected men.[ix] These were a trauma awareness training programme run by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in South Sudan and a programme of psychoeducation workshops run by Relief International (RI) in northern Syria.

Although international organisations, such as the United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), have made commitments to focusing on gender-related needs in their humanitarian work, for many this equates simply to focusing on women and children.[x] Common stereotypes surrounding gender reinforce the idea that men are primarily the perpetrators, or that they may not need help coping with traumas.[xi] This means that, while there are already insufficient resources dedicated to helping women and girls, there are even less for men.

Such gendered assumptions around the incompatibility of masculinity and vulnerability permeate academic and policy circles, but it is important to note that this is not clear cut. There is a noticeable imbalance in attention paid to manifestations of PTSD amongst Western servicemen, versus the very limited recognition of trauma experienced by civilian men in FCAS.[xii] These inconsistencies raise questions around how stereotypes of masculinity also intersect with race or other identity markers.

The costs of failing to act

Gendered expectations may result in a lack of attention being paid to conflict-related trauma in men and boys, but such norms also impact on the way trauma is experienced. For example, where men are often assumed to be the defenders and protectors of family or society, becoming unable to safeguard family may perpetuate a sense of trauma-associated stress. Similarly, when men are unable to fulfil masculine expectations of being the provider, this again can impact on a sense of wellbeing, that may manifest in negative ways.[xiii]

Recent XCEPT research on the experiences of ex-military Syrian refugees in Turkey found that, for many, practical concerns about being able to provide for their families were a cause of anxiety, leading them to exist in unstable ‘disturbing’ situations.[xiv] A representative from an organisation based in Syria also noted that such situations exacerbated suicidal tendencies:

Where the men are sitting at home, or looking for a job, and women are the only providers for the family … in mental health terms, this has become one of the stressors for men – that they cannot provide the needed help for the family or children. Actually, it’s one of the suicide situations [amongst men] in this area.’[xv]

Masculine expectations can also cause men to employ maladaptive coping behaviours, such as risk-taking, withdrawal, or self-harm. Such behaviour can be attributed to a desire to avoid ‘displays of emotional distress, which would be discordant with, and threatening to, masculine identity and performance’.[xvi] Men can therefore be less inclined to seek, or accept, help and support, a choice which increases the risk of developing negative coping mechanisms.[xvii] Concerns about stigma are not unfounded. One study on the survivors of male sexual violence in Northern Uganda found that many were refused help as it wasn’t believed men could have been victims of CRSV.[xviii]

Without receiving proper support, male responses to trauma may develop into a normalisation of violence as a coping strategy. In extreme cases, this can lead to appetitive aggression, whereby an individual gains a sense of pleasure out of violence, which could be a way of buffering the development of PTSD symptoms.[xix] Research has found that, in the aftermath of violent conflict, domestic violence tends to rise when former fighters return home. Community violence can also increase as a result of PTSD symptoms and appetitive aggression.[xx]

Addressing conflict-related trauma in men and boys thus benefits not just their own wellbeing, but the wellbeing of their families and the wider community. After taking part in the programme run by CRS in South Sudan, participants reported benefits such as being able to control stress and channel anger in ways which avoided self-destructive behaviour or lashing out at family members.[xxi]

Addressing conflict-related trauma amongst men

Research carried out by XCEPT highlighted four key points to guide the delivery of PSS programmes for men and boys. In situations where there is limited access to basic needs, these programmes are inevitably deprioritised. This is where using innovative and integrative programming can be beneficial. Such programmes may involve mainstreaming PSS interventions into broader livelihood programmes and context-specific services, which encourages participation and complements efforts to cater to primary needs.

Programmes should also be designed through a culturally sensitive masculinity lens to ensure uptake. This includes using neutral terminology to avoid stigma surrounding mental health; respecting societal norms by scheduling sessions to work around employment commitments or livelihood activities; and considering under what circumstances it is appropriate to host group or individualised programming. For example, for LGBTQI+ men, or in instances where men have suffered sexual violence, individual, confidential sessions reduce risk to the individual, whereas group workshops may be more beneficial for psychoeducation programmes that benefit from peer-to-peer support mechanisms.

Moral injury, the impact of carrying out an action that transgresses an individual’s ethical or moral standards, is often side-lined in PSS programming due to its association with perpetrators of violence. In some situations, engaging with moral injury-induced trauma can be beneficial, as it allows individuals to deal with feelings of anger, which may otherwise find an outlet in the perpetration of violence in the community.

Importantly, local communities should also be engaged in programme design to ensure services are context appropriate. In the programme run by RI, for example, a scoping exercise was initially carried out to establish themes men wanted to focus on. The themes selected tended to revolve around stress and anger management, for which family members then reported ‘good results’ among participants who had been working on these issues. Involving local communities can also help increase the sense of ownership and legitimacy amongst participants, which encourages attendance and engagement.

Although men are often on the frontline of conflict, they are also often overlooked in humanitarian responses to trauma. This affects their individual wellbeing, and the wellbeing and security of wider society, which may bear the burden of maladaptive coping behaviours caused by unaddressed trauma. To make sure PSS efforts succeed, it is important they take the cultural context and local needs into account. While an increase in focus and resources on conflict-related trauma amongst men is important as a matter of both wellbeing and conflict prevention, it remains crucial that this should not lead to the diversion of services away from women and girls, which also continue to be insufficient and under-resourced.

This blog was originally published by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.


[i] https://www.economist.com/europe/2022/08/06/ukraine-is-on-the-edge-of-nervous-breakdown

[ii] https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/olena-zelenska-rozpovila-yak-vtilyuyetsya-iniciativa-zi-stvo-80109

[iii] https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/olena-zelenska-na-yes-2023-mentalne-zdorovya-osnova-stijkost-85541

[iv] FARAH HEIBA, Mental health in Middle East conflict zones: How are people dealing with psychological fallout? https://www.arabnews.com/node/1894521/middle-east

[v] Heidi Riley, Men and Psychosocial Support Services Programming, XCEPT, 2023. https://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/XCEPT-Briefing-Note-Men-and-PSS-programming.pdf

[vi] KREFT, ANNE-KATHRIN; AGERBERG, MATTIAS. Imperfect Victims? Civilian Men, Vulnerability, and Policy Preferences, 2023, 1-17.

[vii] Philipp Schulz, “The ‘Ethical Loneliness’ of Male Sexual Violence Survivors in Northern Uganda: Gendered Reflections on Silencing,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 20, no. 4 (2018): 583–601.

[viii]  https://pscentre.org/men-dont-cry-a-participatory-workshop-on-mhpss-for-men-and-boys-in-humanitarian-settings/; Brun, Delphine. Men and Boys in Displacement: Assistance and Protection Challenges for Unaccompanied Boys and Men in Refugee Contexts. CARE and Promundo, 2017.

https://insights.careinternational.org.uk/media/k2/attachments/CARE-Promundo_Men-and-boys-in-displacement_2017.pdf

[ix] Heidi Riley, Men and Psychosocial Support Services Programming, XCEPT, 2023. https://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/XCEPT-Briefing-Note-Men-and-PSS-programming.pdf

[x] Gupta, Geeta Rao, Caren Grown, Sara Fewer, Reena Gupta, and Sia Nowrojee. “Beyond Gender Mainstreaming: Transforming Humanitarian Action, Organizations and Culture.” Journal of international humanitarian action 8, no. 1 (2023): 5–5.

[xi] Brun, Delphine. “Why Addressing the Needs of Adolescent Boys and Men Is Essential to an Effective Humanitarian Response.” Apolitical. co. 27 January 2023. https://apolitical.co/solution-articles/en/why-addressing-the-needs-of-adolescent-boys-and-men-is-essential-to-an-effective-humanitarian-response

[xii] Heidi Riley, Men and Psychosocial Support Services Programming, XCEPT, 2023. https://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/XCEPT-Briefing-Note-Men-and-PSS-programming.pdf

[xiii] Brun, Delphine. Men and Boys in Displacement: Assistance and Protection Challenges for Unaccompanied Boys and Men in Refugee Contexts. CARE and Promundo, 2017.

https://insights.careinternational.org.uk/media/k2/attachments/CARE-Promundo_Men-and-boys-in-displacement_2017.pdf

[xiv] Alison Brettle, ICSR, 2023. https://icsr.info/2023/03/29/forgotten-refugees-the-experiences-of-syrian-military-defectors-in-turkey/

[xv] Heidi Riley, Men and Psychosocial Support Services Programming, XCEPT, 2023. https://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/XCEPT-Briefing-Note-Men-and-PSS-programming.pdf

[xvi] O’Loughlin, Julia I., Daniel W. Cox, Carl A. Castro, and John S. Ogrodniczuk. “Disentangling the Individual and Group Effects of Masculinity Ideology on PTSD Treatment.” Counselling psychology quarterly 35, no. 3 (2022): 587–604.

[xvii] Slegh, H., W. Spielberg, and C. Ragonese. Masculinity and Male Trauma: Making the Connections. Washington: Promundo US, 2022.

[xviii] Schulz, 592.

[xix] Slegh, H., W. Spielberg, and C. Ragonese. Masculinity and Male Trauma: Making the Connections. Washington: Promundo US, 2022; Hecker, Tobias, Katharin Hermenau, Anna Maedl, Harald Hinkel, Maggie Schauer, and Thomas Elbert. “Does Perpetrating Violence Damage Mental Health? Differences Between Forcibly Recruited and Voluntary Combatants in DR Congo.” Journal of traumatic stress 26, no. 1 (2013): 142–148.

[xx] Nandi, Corina, Thomas Elbert, Manassé Bambonye, Roland Weierstall, Manfred Reichert, Anja Zeller, and Anselm Crombach. “Predicting Domestic and Community Violence by Soldiers Living in a Conflict Region.” Psychological trauma 9, no. 6 (2017): 663–671.

[xxi] Catholic Relief Services. Strengthening Trauma Awareness and Social Cohesion in Greater Jonglei, South Sudan: A Case Study on the Impact of Social Cohesion Programming. CRS, 2022. https://www.crs.org/our-work-overseas/research-publications/strengtheningtrauma-awareness-and-social-cohesion-greater

Breaking Cycles of Conflict: Violent extremism and adverse childhood experiences

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In this episode, Caterina Ceccarelli examines what we know about the link between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and violent extremism, and explores the pathways by which experiencing tough and potentially traumatic events in childhood might turn someone to extremism later in life.

Breaking Cycles of Conflict: Addressing male conflict trauma

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Content warning: This episode contains mentions of sexual violence, self-harm, and suicide.

Dr Heidi Riley and Beth Heron discuss their research into conflict trauma in men and boys, exploring how stigmas and societal expectations can affect the way trauma is experienced, and the dangers to individuals, communities, and wider society if this trauma is left unaddressed.

Offering insights from their in-depth study of two psychosocial support (PSS) programmes delivered by Relief International in Syria and Catholic Relief Services in South Sudan, the pair share what they learned about the way PSS programmes should be designed and funded.

Breaking Cycles of Conflict: Growing up in violent extremist families

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As governments across Europe face the challenge of reintegrating returnees from Iraq and Syria, Dr Joana Cook examines institutional and societal responses to children growing up in violent extremist affiliated families.

Dr Cook talks to Dr Fiona McEwen about the different ways a child’s life can be impacted when a family member is involved in violent extremism, why the narrative of ‘ticking time bombs’ is detrimental to healthy development, and why we need to change the way we engage with these families. 

Read more on Joana Cook’s work.

Breaking Cycles of Conflict: Reconciliation and reconstruction in post-conflict Iraq

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In this episode, Dr Craig Larkin, Dr Inna Rudolf, and Dr Rajan Basra share insights from their research trip to Iraq and discuss the hurdles faced by local practitioners, disillusionment with the ‘industry of peacebuilding’, and the impact that legacies of conflict and violence have had on Iraq’s diverse communities.

War Studies · Reconciliation and reconstruction in post-conflict Iraq

Waiting for War: Escalation on Lebanon’s southern border and the role of conflict memory

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*Information is accurate at the time of writing. The escalation of the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel along the Lebanon-Israel border continues to develop, and therefore assessment is subject to change.

The ongoing conflict in Gaza has precipitated responses from across the region. In Lebanon, a marked escalation in fighting between Israel and the Shi’a militant group and political party Hezbollah is raising fears of a conflict spillover into regional war.[i] For the over 100 dead thus far, and approximately 75,000 civilians in south Lebanon forced to flee the crossfire, the conflict is having a significant impact.[ii] The effect of the violence, however, extend throughout the country, igniting memories which expand far beyond the south. Amongst the population, the conflict is exacerbating anxieties of an ever-present state of war in Lebanon, as well as threatening to re-open schisms between the country’s already disparate communities. Contextualising the current escalation in the context of Lebanon’s legacy of war memory, it is possible to understand how inherited and first-hand traumatic recollections of violence trigger and inform reactions and fissures amongst the country’s diverse populations.

No War, No Peace

Following Hamas’ attacks of 7 October 2023, Hezbollah and Israel have been engaged in a significant military escalation along Lebanon’s southern borders: Hezbollah, alleging it is acting in ‘solidarity’ with the Palestinian people (and its allies, Hamas), and Israel, in defence against its most powerful regional enemy.[iii]  Whilst the geographically localised conflict has not yet led to the formation of a second front against Israel, it marks the most significant escalation since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, and this escalation has shown little sign of abating.

At the time of writing, both the range and intensity of the fighting are gradually increasing, well beyond zones previously marked as red lines, and both Hezbollah and Israel are continuing to employ increasingly heavier weaponry. On 2 January 2024, an Israeli drone strike killed a top Hamas official in the Dahiyeh neighbourhood of Beirut.[iv] It has become difficult to discern which military actions constitute a response, and which are intended as a provocation. It has also become difficult to establish at what point the situation becomes not merely an escalation, but a war between two neighbouring countries. For Lebanon, after four years of economic crisis, successive bouts of ’sporadic violence‘, and traumatic conflict, the current escalation threatens the stability of the already weakened state, and risks widening gulfs between communities, where memories of violence are not unifying but polarising.[v]

Conflict memory in Lebanon

Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-90) constitutes the largest scale conflict the country has experienced within recent years, but a significant proportion of the population do not have first-hand experience of the war’s traumatic events. Rather, they have an experience of what Marianne Hirsch has referred to as ‘postmemory’, and what, in the context of Lebanon, Craig Larkin has described as ‘an inherited form of memory, which carries and connects with the ‘pain of others’, suffusing temporal frames and liminal positions.’[vi] The political amnesty agreement which ended the Civil War has had a further impact on the collective memory of the conflict, with the principle of ‘no victor, no vanquished’ facilitating a top-down driven culture of what has been termed ‘collective amnesia’.

For many of the Lebanese population, recent experiences of war with Israel occupy a position of greater proximity in their memory. The current escalation is not isolated; Lebanon has technically been at war with the state of Israel since its formation in 1948 and the formation of the Palestinian militant group Fatah, who conducted operations from rural areas in south Lebanon in the 1970s.[vii] The subsequent period has been punctuated by some of the most violent episodes in Lebanese living memory, including the 1982 invasion of Beirut by Israeli armed forces, and waves of occupation, skirmishes, and post-Civil War interventions.

In 2006, a Hezbollah operation which killed three Israeli soldiers, and saw the capture of two others, led to an exchange of aerial bombardment and a full-scale war which, over the course of 34 days, devastated the south of the country, as well as the capital, Beirut. During the war, 1,200 Lebanese civilians were killed, 4,400 were wounded, and approximately one million were displaced. The extensive damage inflicted on the Lebanese infrastructure was estimated at USD 2.8 billion, triggering a five percent contraction in the country’s economy.[viii]

Military strategists refer to the 2006 war as the ‘Unfinished War’.[ix] Despite the destruction, Lebanon maintained its territorial integrity, while Israel did not achieve its military objective to disarm all militias in Lebanon – explicitly Hezbollah. The UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which marked a ceasefire between the two parties, did not signal a formalised end to hostilities.[x] Within one year, Hezbollah was able to replenish its military capacity, and the bolstered presence of UN forces along the Lebanese southern border has not prevented exchanges of fire between the two parties, which occur every few years. Prior to the current conflict, the most recent exchange occurred in April 2023, when more than 30 rockets were fired from southern Lebanon into Israeli territories, following attacks by Israeli police on Palestinians in al-Aqsa Mosque.[xi]

The legacy of an ‘Unfinished War’ is a conflict suspended in the present. Writing in 2017, Lebanese author Sami Hermez remarked that ’this lack of resolution practically guarantees that past political violence remains a central concern in the present and facilitates the feeling of its reemergence in the future.’[xii] This state of uncertainty – of no war, no peace – has been compounded in recent years by successive episodes of traumatic violence and political instability. Since 2019, Lebanon has been suffering from an economic crisis which has devastated the country, with over 80 percent of the population now living below the poverty line, and a reduction in 98 percent of the value of the national currency.[xiii] This is in addition to the 2019 thawra uprising, which was accompanied by widespread violence, and the explosion at the Beirut port in 2020. Although few Lebanese leaders have yet attempted to reckon with the lasting impact on the civilian population, the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the centre of Beirut’s port constituted the largest non-nuclear blast in history, killing over 200 and wounding more than 6,000.[xiv]

As with the Civil War, there has been little attempt to constitute a centralised, collective memory of such violent episodes which may be unifying for the country.[xv] At the time of writing, Lebanon has been without a president for one year, and its confessional political system is dominated by competing hybrid sovereignties in the form of sectarian political groups and militias.[xvi] Memory in Lebanon experiences a similar stratification: ‘[t]he past [now] seeps into the present‘,and memorialisation proliferates on a predominantly sectarian basis, driving particular narratives of history and political agendas.[xvii] For Hermez, the combination of past conflict, future threat, and diverging memories imbed a continuous state of uncertainty: ‘[w]hile actual war might not currently afflict any of the interlocutors, they live with the daily expectation of possible future violence, and the recognition of an unsettled past.’[xviii]

‘Is it war?’ Recurring fears and normalising violence

The current escalation of violence at the border is reigniting traumatic memories of conflict with Israel, and raising fears that continued escalation will lead to a repeat of previous military occupation and destruction. For those living within the vicinity of the border, the practical realities of memory are impossible to ignore. Villages, which were considered in 2006 to be populated by part-time ’village guards‘ mobilised by Hezbollah, are today experiencing similar levels of aerial bombardment.[xix] Many locals recall this memory in anticipating a repetition of 2006. In a recent interview with Reuters, one resident of the southern town of Rmeish commented, ’I was here in 2006 – those were terrifying scenes. And the shelling yesterday was very heavy.’[xx]

Some even perceive Israel’s ability to stoke traumatic memory to be a deliberate strategy. One Lebanese social media user shared Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant’s warning that, ’what we are doing in Gaza we can do in Beirut,’ and stated in response, ‘for anyone still not understanding the PTSD provoked by such cyclical threats, wake up,’ claiming that the Gallant was ‘instilling fear amongst the Lebanese population, a fear rooted in recent collective memory.’[xxi]

Although it is difficult to assess the conflict’s impact on collective memories whilst it continues, anxieties around the escalation are already beginning to undergo a process of normalisation. One month after the initial attacks, the resulting tension was becoming incorporated into an ongoing narrative of violence: ‘we are used to it’, or ‘heyk hayetnā’ (this is our life) is the phrase often used by those in Beirut to describe how they are reckoning with the latest development in Lebanon’s climate of no war, no peace.

According to one resident of a village close to the border, ’it has become a normal matter as we have been through many wars.’[xxii] Life continues, but one bank employee revealed that they ‘go into work, but no one’s working.’[xxiii] This process of normalisation is punctuated by events signalling peaks of violence in Gaza and at the border (such as the killing of journalists in shelling in the south, the explosion at the Baptist hospital and the regular speeches of Secretary-General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah). Such events cause the closure of schools, universities, bars, restaurants, and the cancellation of events both at the borders and in Beirut, as many prefer to stay at home. Yet, as Hermez comments, ‘in contexts of protracted conflict, as in Lebanon, we are always already embedded in political violences in such a way that neither the ordinary/normal nor political violence has any meaning without the other’.[xxiv] The current conflict is an actualisation of fears already anticipated through the continuous presence of traumatic memory. In the words of one young Beirut resident, ‘it’s the uncertainty which is hard. Is it war? Or is this just the situation now?’[xxv]

Whose war is it?

Whilst populations in Lebanon, regardless of ‘their political or sectarian persuasion, will often feel the violence and uncertainty of the future’, reactions to the escalation on the border are both polarised and polarising.[xxvi] This is driven by different experiences of the present situation and by past violence: ‘what is feared, how change will proceed, who will be at most risk, these questions are determined differently across groups and become contested sites for political debate.’[xxvii]

Marches for Hezbollah in support of Palestine continue to attract thousands, and Nasrallah continues to invoke historic as well as present aggressions of Israel, but a petition against Lebanon being ’dragged into another cycle of destruction and bloodshed’ has also gained thousands of signatures.[xxviii] Such stark schisms in conflict memory threaten to exacerbate the already strained relations between sectarian groups in Lebanon.

A significant factor contributing to the polarities of conflict memories triggered by the current escalation is the political and geographic proximity to past and present violence. The south of Lebanon, referred to as al-jnūb (the South), has a particular political and cultural identity. It is mostly controlled by Shi’a militia and political groups Hezbollah and Amal, and has been, as a result, disenfranchised and neglected by any centralised statehood. Poverty levels in south Lebanon are now much higher than the national average. According to one resident from the South, ’people with kids left because in 2006, there was no bread, no milk, no medicine. Lebanon is already like that now, so imagine what it would be like if things escalate.’[xxix] This has led to resentment and further distancing of residents of the South from the political centre. ’Okay, you want to start a war. The least you can do is secure the citizens you have, give them protection or food’, remarked another resident from the South.[xxx]

The defining feature of the construction of the South’s identity and its ostracisation from the centre has been its history of violence, which is distinct from other areas of Lebanon, having been under military occupation by Israel between 1985 and 2000 – for most of this time, travel into and out of the South was not possible – and having experienced first-hand the impact of cross-border violence. This collective memory of violence is enshrined even in popular place names, such as the Hojeir Valley, also known as the Martyrs Valley, Leaders Valley, Death Valley, Resistance Valley, Mirkava Cemetery: all references to sites of conflict with Israel.[xxxi] Such physical locations of memory are what Pierre Nora has called lieux de mémoires – their physical proximity means conflict memories are more immediately accessible to the people of the South than to those in other parts of the country, to whom the South was viewed as ‘an ‘other space’, outside state sovereignty.[xxxii]

For those not close to the border, and without ties to the South or militia groups involved in confrontations with Israel, it is possible to marginalise the current situation as an isolated conflict limited only to the South as a site of exception. As Volk described in 2007, ‘[d]espite being officially liberated, al-jnūb continues to loom large in the popular imagination as Lebanon’s inaccessible and embattled borderland.’[xxxiii] In response to the current escalation, memories of past and present conflict are vastly different according to geography and social ties. In an interview with Le Orient, a resident of a southern village commented, ‘[t]he country is at war, but it’s only in the South that we can see this … it’s as if we were a different country.’[xxxiv] The escalation is also articulated by many as ‘someone else’s war’; whether that is between Hezbollah and Israel, Israel and Hamas, or the US and Iran. A resident of the predominantly Sunni town of Dhayra which was hit with Israeli white phosphorus shells, claimed that Palestinians had ‘infiltrated’ the village in order to attack Israel: ‘we’re used to paying the price for the wars that don’t concern us.’[xxxv] In an interview with The Washington Post, another resident of a village attacked by Israel said, ‘I blame Hezbollah,’ cursing the fighters as ‘terrorists.’[xxxvi]

Memory and mobilisation

Yet it is also likely that the current conflict, and its subsequent, but ongoing, memorialisation has the potential to reinvigorate and mobilise popular support for the axis of resistance (known as al-muqwāma, which refers to resistance against Israel as well as against a US-led ‘Western’ front), and for Hezbollah narratives positioning itself as the defender of the resistance, if not the defender of Lebanon, in the absence of a capable centralised Lebanese state. Following the announcement of the 2006 ceasefire, despite a significant asymmetry in material losses between the two sides, Nasrallah announced a ‘divine, historic and strategic victory’ over Israel, which demonstrated that ’no army in the world [was] strong enough to disarm [them]’.[xxxvii] The Hezbollah museum in Mleeta, south Lebanon, is an example of Hezbollah’s utilisation of 2006 conflict memory to establish legitimacy as national protector of the country against Israel.[xxxviii] This was largely successful: the group’s subsequent memorialisation of their 2006 ‘victory’ against Israel earnt them, to an extent, ‘rare cross-sectarian support’.[xxxix] In a recent interview with The Guardian, a Beirut resident whose home was destroyed in 2006 recollected, ‘before 2006, Israel had a free hand in the south … it’s because of that war and the resistance that we can now stand tall in our villages … the war established a rule: you kill one of us, we kill one of you.’[xl]

Since 2006, Hezbollah’s involvement in a series of external conflicts and controversies – the group’s takeover of West Beirut in 2008, their intervention in the Syrian Civil War, and even their suspected negligent contribution to the 2020 Beirut port explosion – has marginalised them amongst Shi’a communities, as well as the general population of Lebanon.[xli] Yet the current escalation, and Israeli military activity in Lebanese territory, is revitalising memories of 2006 resistance, and the pivotal role of Hezbollah. For some, these memories are mobilising. In a recent interview with The National, one 22-year-old resident of Qana, a village in south Lebanon which experienced significant conflict in the 2006 war, affirmed his commitment to military resistance: ‘we will retaliate … My mother is the first to encourage me. She lost her sister in 2006.’ Regarding those who did not support the southern factions’ involvement in the conflict, the interviewee responded: ‘they have not experienced what we have, that’s why.’[xlii]

Conclusion

Although the current escalation between Hezbollah and Israel is situated within a context of cycles of violence, it is difficult to predict at the present moment how it will be memorialised. As Lara Deeb has commented, ‘representations of the past are frequently about the present and hold implications for the future’.[xliii] For some in Lebanon, these implications are already a cause for concern: as a southern resident told journalists, as a missile exploded overhead, ’don’t film those who are fleeing … It’s a bad image of al-janūb.’[xliv]

Today, the appetite for a full-scale confrontation with Israel seems limited. Hezbollah has grown in size and strength since the war with Israel,but in 2024, they are now operating in a very different environment.[xlv] In 2006, following the Israeli Operation Grapes of Wrath and an attack on the village of Qana on a previously unprecedented scale, cross-sectarian groups of Beirut residents joined relief efforts to provide refugees from the south with shelter, food and medical supplies in a show of ’unified national grief and outrage‘, where ’Qana became an important symbol of post-civil war Lebanese unity‘.[xlvi]

In the current context, living in a landscape of memories of the damage inflicted in 2006, combined with the state of the Lebanese economy, such a homogenous response is unlikely. One resident of Hamra district in Beirut said that, due to the economic situation, they were ‘not sure the Sunni of Beirut will take in people [predominantly Shia] from the South, as they did last time’.[xlvii] In response to high-level threats from military officials in Israel to ‘bring Lebanon back to the Stone Age,’ one southern resident commented, ‘[y]ou’re in Lebanon, right? Are we not in the stone age already?’[xlviii]

Whether or not fears of a full-scale war with Israel are realised, it seems likely that the ongoing conflict will further drive the diverging of narratives amongst the Lebanese population. The conflicting memory culture in Lebanon, international and local discourse surrounding the escalation, as well as and developments on the ground, will all shape the way in which the current escalation is experienced by Lebanon’s diverse communities in the present, and the way in which it is understood in the future.

Visit the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), where this blog was originally published.


[i] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/10/30/lebanon-fears-regional-war-as-hezbollah-israel-fighting-icntensifies; https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20231123-israel-fm-threatens-regional-war-over-tensions-in-lebanon/

[ii] https://reliefweb.int/report/lebanon/lebanon-glance-escalation-hostilities-south-lebanon-27-december-2023

[iii] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/10/8/israel-hezbollah-exchange-fire-raising-regional-tensions

[iv] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/explosion-southern-beirut-suburb-dahiyeh-two-security-sources-2024-01-02/

[v] Larkin, C. (2010). ‘Beyond the war? The Lebanese postmemory experience’. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42(4), 615-635. 415.

[vi] Hirsch, M. (2008). ‘The Generation of Postmemory’. Poetics today, 29(1), 103-128; Larkin, C. (2010).

[vii]  https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/10/17/beyond-hezbollah-the-history-of-tensions-between-lebanon-and-israel

[viii] https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/palestine-israel/2023/10/26/is-lebanon-on-the-brink-of-a-2006-war-scenario/

[ix] Spyer, J. (2009). ‘Lebanon 2006: Unfinished War’. In Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (pp. 157-172). 153

[x] https://peacemaker.un.org/israellebanon-resolution1701

[xi] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/4/6/israel-intercepts-rocket-fired-from-southern-lebanon-military

[xii] Hermez, S. (2017). War is coming: between past and future violence in Lebanon. 5.

[xiii] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/lebanon/overview; https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/CR/Issues/2023/06/28/Lebanon-2023-Article-IV-Consultation-Press-Release-Staff-Report-and-Statement-by-the-535372

[xiv] Helou, M., El-Hussein, M., Aciksari, K., Salio, F., Della Corte, F., Von Schreeb, J., & Ragazzoni, L. (2022). ‘Beirut Explosion: The Largest Non-Nuclear Blast in History.’ Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 16(5), 2200-2201.

[xv] https://www.xcept-research.org/martyrdom-in-lebanon-an-evolution-of-memory-making/; As Hermez and others have commented, ““Rather than any state-enforced amnesia or remembering, there was an abrogation of responsibility on the part of the state, which left a narrative of the war open to interpretation. In fact, if the state enforced anything, it was to lead the way to multivocal expressions of memory.” Hermez, S. (2017). War is coming: between past and future violence in Lebanon. 5. 148

[xvi] Fregonese, S. (2012). ‘Beyond the ‘Weak State’: Hybrid Sovereignties in Beirut.’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 30(4), 655-674.

[xvii] Schudson, M. (1997). Lives, laws and language: Commemorative versus non-commemorative forms of effective public memory. The Communication Review,2(1), 3-17. 15.

[xviii] Hermez, S. (2017). War is coming: between past and future violence in Lebanon. 294.

[xix] Beirut Urban Lab has provided a comprehensive map of ongoing cross-border conflict events during the current escalation: https://aub.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/2a3cd18fa4f4400ba5ee330273117f95; Spyer, J. (2009). 147.

[xx] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/lebanon-edge-after-deadliest-border-clashes-since-2006-2023-10-10/

[xxi] https://www.instagram.com/p/Czlbyi3Mrsb/?igshid=ODhhZWM5NmIwOQ==

[xxii] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/south-lebanon-town-border-conflict-brings-fear-resignation-2023-10-25/

[xxiii] Researcher’s own fieldwork interviews, November 2023.

[xxiv] Hermez, S. (2017). War is coming: between past and future violence in Lebanon. 15.

[xxv] Researcher’s own fieldwork interviews, November 2023.

[xxvi] Hermez, S. (2017). 87.

[xxvii] Hermez, S. (2017). Ibid.

[xxviii] https://www.change.org/p/lebanon-against-war-sign-the-petition-now

[xxix] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/lebanon-edge-after-deadliest-border-clashes-since-2006-2023-10-10/

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] https://aoav.org.uk/2018/the-reverberating-cultural-impacts-from-the-use-of-explosive-weapons-in-lebanon/

[xxxii] Nora, Pierre. ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.’ Representations, no. 26, 1989, pp. 7–24; Volk, L. (2007). ‘Re-remembering the dead: A genealogy of a martyrs memorial in South Lebanon.’ The Arab Studies Journal, 15(1), 44-69. 47.

[xxxiii] Volk, L. (2007). 50.

[xxxiv] https://today.lorientlejour.com/article/1359221/in-south-lebanon-2023-war-scars-evoke-2006-memories.html

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/11/19/lebanon-israel-border-hezbollah-gaza/

[xxxvii] https://www.muslimobserver.com/victory-rally-speech-transcript-hasan-nasrallah/

[xxxviii] https://lobelog.com/what-does-hezbollah-want/; On Mleeta, Hezbollah’s Landmark to the Resistance, see: Harb, Mona, and Lara Deeb. ‘Culture as history and landscape: Hizballah’s efforts to shape an islamic milieu in Lebanon.’ Arab Studies Journal 19.1 (2011): 12-45; Meier, Daniel. ‘From Frontline to Borderscape: The Hizbullah Memorial Museum in South Lebanon.’ Borderscaping: Imaginations and Practices of Border Making. Routledge, 2016. 77-86; and Larkin, Craig, and Ella Parry-Davies. ‘War Museums in postwar Lebanon: Memory, violence, and performance.’ Power-Sharing after Civil War. Routledge, 2021. 78-96.

[xxxix] https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/palestine-israel/2023/10/26/is-lebanon-on-the-brink-of-a-2006-war-scenario/

[xl] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/27/fear-and-defiance-in-lebanon-as-the-threat-of-new-war-opens-old-wounds

[xli] https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/palestine-israel/2023/10/26/is-lebanon-on-the-brink-of-a-2006-war-scenario/

[xlii] https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/palestine-israel/2023/10/17/survivors-of-lebanons-qana-massacre-defiant-as-israel-fight-looms/

[xliii] Deeb, Lara. ‘Exhibiting the “Just-Lived Past”: Hizbullah’s Nationalist Narratives in Transnational Political Context.’ Comparative Studies in Society and History 50.2 (2008): 369-399. 370.

[xliv] https://today.lorientlejour.com/article/1359221/in-south-lebanon-2023-war-scars-evoke-2006-memories.html

[xlv] https://aoav.org.uk/2018/the-reverberating-cultural-impacts-from-the-use-of-explosive-weapons-in-lebanon/#_edn3

[xlvi] Laurie King-Irani, ‘Commemorating Lebanon’s War Amid Continued Crisis,’ Middle East Report Online, 14 April 2005; Volk, L. (2007). 49.

[xlvii] Researcher’s own fieldwork interviews, November 2023.

[xlviii] https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2023/10/13/israel-hamas-war-sparks-south-lebanon-exodus-as-people-flee-border-areas

A selection of XCEPT research from 2023

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Research on borderlands

Research report, Rift Valley Institute

Civil war and fragile peace in Sudan and Ethiopia’s borderlands

This report explores how marginalised borderland communities in Sudan and Ethiopia use regional interstate tensions to negotiate political and military support. Read more.

Article, Malcom H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Centre

Border crossings: The unholy alliance between Iran and Iraqi militias

This article explores why, despite the Iraqi population’s desire to distance itself from Iran, it is unlikely that the government will engage in border crossing reform anytime soon. Read more.

Blog, Conciliation Resources

Sustaining peaceful pastoralism in Cameroon’s borderlands

This blog explores cross-border pastoralism, environmental change, peace, and conflict along the borders of Nigeria and Cameroon. Read more.

Research report, The Asia Foundation

Resistance and the cost of the coup in Chin State, Myanmar

This report explores conflict and instability in Chin State, Myanmar’s western border region in India following the 2021 military coup. Read more.

Research report, Karamoja/ Turkana Community

Pastoralist researchers on the Uganda/ Kenya border

This image-rich report examines insecurity and pastoralism along the Uganda-Kenya border. It was developed by the community members who took part in the research. Read more.

Article, Frontier Myanmar

Border battles: Fighting for control in Rakhine

This article explores how seizing Myanmar’s borders with Bangladesh and India has become central to the Arakan Army’s dream of autonomy, and has driven its strategy during both war and peace. Read more.

Research on conflict dynamics

Research report, Chatham House

Coordinating international responses to Ethiopia-Sudan tensions

This report examines how cross-border tensions and interlinked crises in Ethiopia and Sudan jeopardise security and development in those countries and across the Horn of Africa. Read more.

Research report, Centre for Peace and Justice and The Asia Foundation

The Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh

Six years after the displacement of over a million Rohingya people from Myanmar, this report looks at the impacts of the governance of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Read more.

Briefing paper, Rift Valley Institute

Sudan conflict: Assessing the risk of regionalisation

This paper focuses on the potential for a regionalisation of conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces. Read more.

Research report, Rift Valley Institute

The political economy of checkpoints in Somalia

This report explores the political economy of checkpoints in Somalia: what drives their formation and their impacts on trade, society, and politics. Read more.

Research report, Chatham House

Navigating the regionalisation of Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict

This report identifies opportunities for Ethiopia to leverage its external relationships to strengthen regional mediation mechanisms and secure peace. Read more.

Blog, Chatham House

How a transnational approach can better manage the conflict in Sudan

This blog explores how approaching conflict as a national issue sidelines a complex web of transnational influences and threatens prospects for sustainable peace. Read more.

Podcast, Chatham House

A tale of two border towns

As part of a series, this podcast episode explores how efforts to secure Iraq’s borders after the defeat of ISIS has created new sources of instability, as conflict supply chains adapt to new circumstances. Listen back.

Podcast, Chatham House

Human smuggling and trafficking in Niger

As part of a series, this podcast episode examines the violence and harm caused by the illicit practices of human smuggling and trafficking, and international responses to these practices. Listen back.

Podcast, The Asia Foundation, Malcom H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Centre, and Rift Valley Institute

Localising conflict responses in contested areas

In this podcast episode, local research partners in Bangladesh, Somalia, and Syria discuss how the global push for aid localisation applies to research. Listen back.

Blog, David Mansfield

Why we continue to misunderstand conflict economies

This blog makes the case for a more skeptical view of official data reported by fragile and conflict-affected states and explains how monitoring corrupt cross-border trading can help develop a clearer understanding of Afghanistan’s economy. Read more.

Research on violent and peaceful behaviour

Briefing paper, King’s College London

Controversies and challenges of peacebuilding in Nineveh: Revisiting post-IS reconciliation in Iraq

This paper highlights principles for better embedding international and federal support for post-conflict social recovery within local Iraqi contexts. Read more.

Article, King’s College London

Distinguishing children from ISIS-affiliated families in Iraq and their unique barriers

This article explores how labelling Iraqi children as ISIS-affiliated has far-reaching consequences for their future, whether living inside or outside Iraq. Read more.

Briefing paper, King’s College London

Men and psychosocial support services programming

This paper explores humanitarian responses to conflict-related trauma amongst men and boys, and finds that addressing male trauma supports individual and community wellbeing, as well as helping to prevent further violence. Read more.

Research report, King’s College London

Memory, violence, and post-conflict reconstruction: Rebuilding and reimagining Mosul

This report examines Mosul’s ongoing reconstruction initiatives, shaped by competing memory narratives and societal actors vying for the right to reimagine the city. Read more.

Podcast, King’s College London

Breaking cycles of conflict: Episode 2

This podcast episode explores the impact of imprisonment and Lebanon’s criminal justice system upon radicalisation and violent extremism, as part of a wider series on the drivers of violent and peaceful behaviours. Listen back.

Blog, King’s College London

What do we mean when we talk about ‘resilience’ to violent extremism? 

This blog explores what we really mean when we talk about resilience in the context of violent extremism, and challenges some of the assumptions and potential biases of resilience-based interventions. Read more.

Four years on from Lebanon’s 17 October revolution

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Lebanon’s difficulties are manifold: deliberate economic depression orchestrated by the country’s ruling elite;[i] political paralysis caused by the Lebanese parliament failing to elect – for the 12th time – a president;[ii] and unhealed psychological scars following the Beirut Port blast in 2020 that ranks as the third largest urban explosion in history, after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.[iii] But this veil of despair masks what was once a vibrant undertone of optimism and joy – four years ago, Lebanese people from all walks of life came together to reclaim their bodies, their streets, their city, and their country, in hope for revolutionary change.[iv]

Today, Lebanon marks the anniversary of the October 2019 uprising, alternatively called thawra (revolution) by idealists. On 17th October 2019, Lebanese people from all walks of life coalesced and rose up against a ‘kleptocratic ruling class of sectarian leaders and financiers that had captured and bankrupted the state after fifteen years of civil war (1975-90) and three decades of post-war neoliberal policies’.[i] Demonstrators objected to endemic corruption and demanded instant reforms to an absurdly clientelist and sectarian system ingrained at the heart of Lebanon’s political and economic system.

Four years on, however, the legacy and significance of the uprising remain a matter of controversy. For its critics, the thawra is synonymous with negative emotions and distressing memories, due in part to the internal divisions among protestors, increased state repression, co-optation strategies by the ruling elites, and the ongoing economic meltdown which all characterised the failure of the revolution.[ii] Advocates, on the other hand, argue that the thawra remains an ember of optimism in a gloomy mist of political hopelessness.[iii]

I spent two months in my Lebanese homeland earlier this year to carry out fieldwork for my PhD, which focuses on geographies of emotions within Lebanon’s October 17 protest movement, exploring how spaces, places, landscapes, and memories affect protestors politically and influence their feelings and emotions regarding the thawra and its aftermath. I was able to gather personal testimonies of Lebanese youth who recall complex emotions and painful memories encountered during the thawra. Here are some of their stories.

Political awakening and a new hope

Amongst the demonstrators in October 2019 was 20-year-old undergraduate student at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Fatima,[1] who is part of both the AUB secular club and organisation Mada, a political network and movement constituting of secular clubs in universities and syndicates across Lebanon.

For Fatima, the thawra was a revelation and a conviction that it was no longer a choice to be politically neutral, as she proudly reveals: ‘I was raised in a repressive and infantilising atmosphere where my family attempted to repress my political opinions and silence me, making me this numb machine that succumbs to their political ideologies. This made me feel isolated from what was going on in the world consider[ing] I was being sheltered from something I was going to be inevitably exposed to at university’.

When the protests broke out on 17th October, Fatima was finishing school, and she admits being conscious of certain aspects of her own political ignorance. She witnessed her friends embracing their own political activism, which motivated her to rebel with them. ‘I saw all kind of things happening, especially the teach-ins and heated debates that made me more politically aware. I witnessed violence, I saw people falling in love, I saw people rejoicing, dancing, and cursing politicians. For the first time I got this multi-faceted view of what Lebanon is’.

Four years later, Fatima still views the thawra as part of her daily life. ‘The way we do it for me and for those in Mada and the AUB secular club is that we run for elections, we hold daily discussions, we protest, we hang posters, we invite experts to give a talk, we go on television to speak’. It seems that there is no one dimension or direction to resisting amongst youth today, and there is hope this will bring change. For example, one year after the thawra, thanks tostudents like Fatima, there was unprecedented success for independent secular groups in student council elections, over those aligned with the traditional political parties.[i]

The thawra encouraged many to see another side of Lebanon, and of themselves. ‘This is where my feminist political identity developed,’ Fatima professes. ‘I saw women being at the forefront of the revolution. I saw brave women standing up for themselves and fighting against the sectarian class, like the heroic women that kicked a police officer in the face. Seeing this as someone who was still in school was a steppingstone for my adulthood and shaped who I am. I felt that one day I can be one of those women. In fact, I am now’.

Deep despair and hardship

The legacy of the thawra is one of political activism, but also one of distress. Anger and humiliation are common shared sentiments amongst youths I interviewed, as they revealed painful memories of this mass revolt that continue to affect them today. I spoke to 24-year-old graduate, Mona, who worked with think-tanks in the Middle East, researching youth participation in the thawra.

‘The thawra was the first time I participated in a protest movement and will be the last,’ she told me in a dispiriting tone. ‘I was very hopeful at first, I sensed a feeling of solidarity I never experienced before. I felt that people had my back, and we shared the same vision for this country. I started asking political questions when we used to have dinner with my family, which was a taboo back then. I questioned my aunt about the reasons she supports Hezbollah. I am not scared or intimidated to ask questions anymore. I felt the urge to learn and the right to know, unlike in the past where I believed it was too complicated to understand politics’.

Unfortunately, this optimism for change was soon overshadowed by utter hopelessness. Mona shares a painful memory of the march to mark the first anniversary of the Beirut Port explosion on 4th August 2021 which impelled her to distance herself from activism. As protestors expressed their outrage over the political elites’ ineptitude and corruption in the aftermath of the blast that killed 180 people, injured more than 6,000, and caused massive destruction across the city, the Lebanese military used lethal force against them.[i]

‘I had some hope that the Lebanese authorities will be afraid of us as we were well equipped with tear gas to protect ourselves from the brutality of security forces. Like cockroaches they compelled us to leave. I remember this vividly as I was with one of my closest friends. We started crying, we literally failed, there was nothing we can do. Everyone was fleeing from the tear gas and water cannons. I kept crying for feeling hopeless. That night completely changed my perception towards Lebanon. I now separated myself completely from Lebanese politics as a result of [the] hopelessness I felt after that night,’ she cried.

Today, Mona lives in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and works as a senior communications executive. She is one of many who have joined the exodus of Lebanon’s most educated citizens, to search for jobs and education abroad in the aftermath of the thawra, because of the continuing social, economic, and political crisis.[ii]  

On the four-year anniversary of Lebanon’s thawra, the impact and significance of this historic event remains unresolved. This transformative moment is also one of the most disputed protest movements in contemporary Lebanese politics. It is crucial to revisit personal testimonies and critically reflect on these competing emotions and painful memories to understand the myriad ways Lebanese youth currently engage with and feel about the thawra, their perceptions of change, and how this influences the actions they will take in the future. The hope, despair, fear, and joy embodied in the diverse Lebanese narratives reflect diverging perspectives and timeframes, but also attitudes to Lebanon’s convoluted past and the quest for a better future.

Visit The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), where this blog was originigally published.


[i]   Human Rights Watch (2020) Lebanon: Lethal force used against protestors [Online] available from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/26/lebanon-lethal-force-used-against-protesters

[ii] Financial Times (2023) More than half of young Arabs in Levant and north African pin hopes on emigrating [Online] available from https://www.ft.com/content/0ef960d8-1282-4fa9-a009-e24eebeab0e7


[1] Interviewees names have been changed to ensure anonymity.


[i] Arab Reform Initiative (2021) Lebanon’s student movement: A new political player? [Online] available from https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/lebanons-student-movement-a-new-political-player/


[i] Makdisi, K., 2021. Lebanon’s October 2019 Uprising: From Solidarity to Division and Descent into the Known Unknown. South Atlantic Quarterly, 120(2), pp.436-445.

[ii] LCPS (2021) Why did the October 17 Revolution witness a regression in numbers? [Online] available from https://www.lcps-lebanon.org/articles/details/2462/why-did-the-october-17-revolution-witness-a-regression-in-numbers

[iii] LSE (2023) Lebanon Unsettled: The contentious geographies and histories of the October 2019 uprising [Online] available from https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2023/07/31/lebanon-unsettled-the-contentious-geographies-and-histories-of-the-october-2019-uprising/


[i] World Bank (2022) Lebanon’s Crisis: Great Denial in the Deliberate Depression [Online] available from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/01/24/lebanon-s-crisis-great-denial-in-the-deliberate-depression

[ii] Al Jazeera (2023) Lebanon’s parliament fails to elect president for 12th time [Online] available from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/6/14/lebanons-parliament-fails-to-elect-president-for-12th-time

[iii] Al Hariri, M., Zgheib, H., Abi Chebl, K., Azar, M., Hitti, E., Bizri, M., Rizk, J., Kobeissy, F. and Mufarrij, A., 2022. Assessing the psychological impact of Beirut Port blast: A cross-sectional study. Medicine, 101(41).

[iv] Cornet, L. (2022) An Emotional Diary of the Lebanese Revolution [Online] available from https://phmuseum.com/news/an-emotional-diary-of-the-lebanese-revolution