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Lebanon’s Long Civil War Has Robbed Beirut’s Children of Their Youth

Times Staff Writer

Rima Torbay is 24. She never was a teen-ager.

“I was 11 years old when the war began,” Torbay explained, recalling the fighting that severed Beirut at the outset of the Lebanese conflict in 1975-76. “We lived on the demarcation line. There the shooting never stopped, never in all these years.”

Life on the Green Line, as the informal boundary between the predominantly Muslim west side of the city and the Christian east is known, spared no time for the awakenings of adolescence among Torbay and her Christian companions.

“My friends died because of this war,” she said dryly. “It was not easy to even think of fun.”

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A lithe brunette, Torbay said she never had a boyfriend in her teen-age years, never wondered what to do with her summers.

“We were pushed to an early maturity.”

Torbay channeled her energies into her studies and her commitment to the Christian cause. She is studying psychology at a Beirut university and working on the headquarters staff of the Lebanese Forces, the Christian militia, which she joined when she was 20.

“Under this war situation you get more"--the French-speaking young woman searched for a word in English--"more force, more spirit.”

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Her militia office has become a study hall. Often she goes home only to sleep.

“I’m here 12 hours a day,” she said. “It’s an extra benefit because we have a generator.”

At home she usually studies by candlelight. Beirut’s power station is producing only two hours of electricity a day, and the timing is irregular.

“I passed my last exams under shelling at the campus,” Torbay remarked.

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A pile of textbooks sits to one side on her desk at the militia headquarters where, when time permits, she works on her thesis, the study of a schizophrenic child. Beirut itself is an open book for research into the mental health effects of war.

“We have a lot of depression, a lot of very nervous people,” said Torbay, who insisted she has surmounted her fears, though she was chain-smoking and repeatedly flipped a lock of brown hair from her forehead.

“In the shelling,” she said, “you couldn’t go outside, you never see the light. For me it’s become a habit. I don’t care about death anymore.

“But I have a friend who has these panic attacks. She begins trembling, and then just breaks into tears.”

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Psychologists are just beginning to assess the damage of war, Torbay said, but they have no yardstick. There were no prewar studies of depression in Lebanon.

Nevertheless, researchers have found that the children of Beirut “are very badly damaged,” she told a reporter. In the midst of war, their street game is playing soldier. They have become more independent, resisting parental direction.

“The parents try to help,” she observed. “They’ll take their children out of the shelling, up to the mountains, and explain to them the reasons for the fighting so they can understand it realistically.”

Some of Torbay’s own childhood friends have fled Lebanon for good. She left once herself, to school in Paris in 1978.

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“But I simply couldn’t stay there when I read of the shelling in Beirut,” she said. “I came home.”

But not since she was 11, when war descended, has she been to the western half of her native city.


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