Assaad Emile Chaftari (Lebanon)

“ I would venture into the jaws of hell if my story could shift just one person's views and move them away from violence.”

Assaad Emile Chaftari served as a senior intelligence official in the Christian militia during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and was responsible for many deaths.  In 2000, he wrote a letter of apology to all his victims which was then published in the national Lebanese press. Since then he has dedicated his life to peace building and promoting personal change.

I was educated in a Christian school and studied at a Christian university and although a few of my fellow students were Muslims I told myself these were not true Muslims as they were well-mannered and almost Christianised in their ways.

My war against the Muslims began on the 13th March 1975 at the start of the Lebanese Civil War.  By now friends, teachers, and everyone around me, would describe Muslims as ‘dirty’, ‘poor’, ‘lazy’. They would say: “Look at the ridiculous way they pray…look at all the children they have.”   This is how my perception changed.  We believed Lebanon had been given by the French to the Christians and that we were the rightful inhabitants while the Muslims were invaders and traitors.  We also hated the Palestinians, who by now had made Lebanon their headquarters, gaining support from the Muslim Lebanese in their fight against Israel.

I started off disliking the Muslims and Palestinians, then I hated them, and eventually I was afraid of them and wanted only to destroy them.

When the war began I joined the telecommunications unit in the Christian forces and later did an artillery course. I was responsible for many deaths whilst shelling the Muslim quarters and it was very easy for me to justify my actions.  As our resistance movement grew, I grew with it and eventually became second in command of the Christian intelligence unit. My task was to decide the fate of all those rounded up at check points – whether someone should be spared, exchanged, or killed.   By now a human being was little more than a product to me. During all this time I still went to Sunday Mass and if I had anything to confess I would confess just small mistakes, like losing my temper. I never confessed to killing because I didn’t see it as a sin.  I was a crusader.

By 1985 the war was getting us nowhere and we decided to negotiate with our enemies.  We signed an agreement which in principle put an end to the war.  However, 15 days later there was coup by our fellow Christians.  All of a sudden we weren’t seen as Christian heroes anymore– but as Christian traitors.  The agreement disintegrated, many of us were killed and I fled from my home with my wife and baby son.

We were thrown into our enemy’s mouth and for the following six years we had to live close to the Muslims and Palestinians, protected by the Syrians who were by now our only allies.  No one liked the situation and many attempts were made on my life. My wife said she understood the hatred in the eyes of the Palestinians because now she knew what it was like to be despised.

It was in 1988 that my wife attended her very first meeting held by the Initiatives of Change movement. As a good intelligence officer I asked her what their hidden agenda was but she had no answer for me and invited me along to their next meeting instead. So I went, but with a gun hidden under my belt and two body-guards waiting outside.  At this meeting something began to change in me.  It happened when they asked me to look back over my life and all I saw was a path full of blood.

Gradually I discovered I was not the perfect guy I thought I was.  I had so much to change on every level.  I was still involved in the war but two years later I was invited to my first dialogue meeting. I was told some Muslims would be there and so I’d prepared a very long list of grievances. When my turn came to speak I took out the list but as I read it everyone just smiled. Later a Muslim explained he had brought an even longer list.  I discovered many things at those meetings. I discovered Muslims had real names, they had families, dreams, and expectations and that if we did not have the same political opinion we could at least still respect each other.

In the year 2000, when my son was 13, I heard him repeating some very ugly words about Muslims.  I was so shocked because this could have been me 40 years earlier. I said to myself, “do we really need another civil war for my son’s generation to discover that this way of thinking is wrong?”  And I realised then that nothing would ever change if people like me, who had discovered the truth, kept it to themselves. And so, some days later, I decided to write an open letter in the press to the Lebanese people, asking for their forgiveness.

Since then I’ve given my life over to working for peace, even if it means sometimes making great sacrifices. I would venture into the jaws of hell if my story could shift just one person’s views and move them away from violence.