MARGARET WARNER: Thirty years ago today -- April 13, 1975 -- Lebanon plunged into civil war. The conflict raged for 15 years among a dizzying array of Christian and Muslim groups. The fighting ravaged the country, killed some 150,000 people and triggered a nearly 30-year occupation by Syrian troops.
Yet this week Lebanon is actually celebrating this anniversary with a six-day festival in the newly rebuilt heart of Beirut. The so-called celebration of unity was organized in part by Bahia Hariri, sister of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. His assassination two months ago triggered an outpouring of public mourning, protests and calls for political change.
Last Sunday, some 20,000 people took part in a "Run for Unity," running past the site of the bomb blast that killed Hariri toward the finish line in Martyr's Square, a killing field during the civil war and more recently the site of demonstrations after Hariri's death.
Today, Lebanese thronged the streets again; they carried signs calling for unity among the country's many ethnic and sectarian communities.
MARGARET WARNER: And now, some reflections on the civil war and how its effects linger today. We get them from Nabil Mallat. He was born in a Lebanese village the year the war began and spent most of his childhood in war-torn Beirut. He's a lawyer now and teaches law at Saint Joseph University in Beirut. And he's in Washington today to speak at Georgetown University, where he earned his master's in law.
And Nabil Mallat, welcome. Explain to people who aren't Lebanese why Lebanon would be holding what it calls a celebration of the beginning of this horrific war.
NABIL MALLAT: Because I think that the Lebanese people must not forget the war. The war has caused a lot of damage to Lebanon and all the Lebanese parties have in a way lost something during the war. No one has won anything from the war.
MARGARET WARNER: And do you think there's -- from people you know -- do you know think that there's a collective recognition of that, that in the end all the Lebanese were losers?
NABIL MALLAT: I think that today, especially today, there is an acceptance of this fact that actually every Lebanese has lost during the war.
MARGARET WARNER: So how else did this very long civil war affect the political culture of your country?
NABIL MALLAT: Well, the war affected the culture during the war; there was a separation as you know between what is referred to as Christian areas and Muslim areas. And in a way Christians -- the new generation, the new Christian generation and the new Muslim generation grew up a little bit apart, let's say.
But hopefully today I think they are all in agreement that Lebanon is the place they want to live in, a unified Lebanon, that is a strong Lebanon because when Lebanon is strong, they are all strong with it.
MARGARET WARNER: Now when Rafik Hariri was assassinated and again we have witnessed so many assassinations not only during the war but since then and attempted assassinations, I think the world was surprised to see the outpouring not just of mourning but of protest, the calls for the Syrians to leave.
How do you explain that? Why was the Hariri assassination such an apparent turning point?
NABIL MALLAT: Hariri actually enjoyed a lot of services in the countries. Many Lebanese are employed in Hariri's companies. And you certainly know, Hariri is a tycoon, a billionaire. And, moreover the Lebanese -- Hariri represented hope for the new generation. He represented job opportunities. He represented investments.
So he represented a genuine opportunity for every Lebanese from the new generation in particular to live in Lebanon and not to have to find a job abroad. This assassination has come as the extra thing in addition to all the bad economic situation, the bad political situation, the bad social situation, and it was just like a timely bomb that has unleashed these protesters.
MARGARET WARNER: Now these protests took place in the face of and confronting the Syrians who not only have troops in your country but secret police and tentacles throughout the political system. Did the fact that so many Lebanese came together to publicly protest that, did that in turn have an effect in terms of giving people there a sense of political power?
NABIL MALLAT: It is a very good question actually. I hope so. The Lebanese actually are unified. It is a very important fact. During the war, some of the Lebanese were calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops. It didn't happen because the leaders of the other Lebanese did not favor this request. Today they all want a free and sovereign Lebanon. They want to see the Syrians out.
MARGARET WARNER: But as you said, I mean, you're of the generation, you've literally spent half your life in civil war, 15 years and 15 years without. You said that your generation was really separated so you didn't know many Shiite Muslims probably growing up. Is that right?
NABIL MALLAT: Until 1990, I've known some who have decided to remain in the Christian area, but there were many few of them. But during my years at the university and later on, the great thing about it is that what you realize is that you are not so different after all; that we can live together and we can have a unified country together, and build it together also.
MARGARET WARNER: Now many of the people who demonstrated certainly in the anti-Syrian demonstration -- of course as we noted there were also pro-Syrian demonstrations -- were appeared to be very young. I assume maybe some of them are your students.
Do you think from talking to them, from knowing them, do they have the capacity and the sort of staying power to really do the hard work that's necessary for political change? Let's say after the Syrians leave, if in fact they do leave on April 30 as they say.
NABIL MALLAT: I was actually impressed with my students. My students, some of them, took part in the anti-Syrian protests and some of them took part in the pro-Syrian protests. And I was amazed, really amazed of how civilized they are in discussing, in talking with each other. I believe that they can do a lot of good for this country. And I really think that they can take -- not now maybe take power but they will be all great leaders.
MARGARET WARNER: Give me a flavor of that conversation. I mean, what would they say to one another?
NABIL MALLAT: Well, they would joke sometimes. For example, if I'm giving a class on Thursday and on Friday there's an anti-Syrian protest, I would hear the pro-Syrians saying, you are going tomorrow to -- you know, just some sort of a joke sometimes -- sometimes arguments, political arguments -- but always in a peaceful way. Everybody agrees that the war has destroyed Lebanon and has caused a great loss for a once prosperous country.
MARGARET WARNER: So you don't think that, for instance, the fact that there are still sectarian divisions at least in their feelings about Syrians remaining that that could explode into violence, that that could be easily reignited?
NABIL MALLAT: Well, traditionally in Lebanon, you very rarely or you do not have an explosion unless there is some sort of a foreign intervention. The Lebanese do not have the means, do not have the money, do not have the weapons to do it.
They need to get financed and they need to get armed. So if -- I hope that there is no foreign intervention in that sense, in the sense toward the war -- I think that the chances for explosion are very remote.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have seen some bombings, a few attacks in Christian neighborhoods since the Hariri assassination and since the protests. What does that tell you about your hopeful vision?
NABIL MALLAT: First, it doesn't scare me, and it doesn't scare the Lebanese people. If it is true that these explosions have occurred in Christian neighborhoods, the Muslim -- all the Muslims were unanimous to condemn these bombings. And they are all asking for the truth: Who is planting these explosions?
I don't think that this can degenerate because I do not believe that these explosions are related to some sort of a project to cause a new civil war in Lebanon.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, though you are very young, you are a teacher, a professor to these even younger students. What is your guidance to them about how they can be the generation, maybe and with your generation to rebuild your country politically?
NABIL MALLAT: First I've always got to tell them, even last year when actually we had some protests last year, I always them take care of yourselves because you are the new generation; you are the new leaders. You are allowed to liberate and to have a sovereign state, but take care of yourselves because you are able to build a great country in the future.
MARGARET WARNER: Nabil Mallat, thanks so much.
NABIL MALLAT: Thank you for having me.