When the warlord finally tried to repent, no one would accept his apology.
They’d already formed their opinion of Samir Geagea, once the leader of a fearsome Christian militia. His supporters loved him regardless of what he did. And his rivals and enemies would never see him as anything but a caricature of the excesses, brutality and impunity of Lebanon’s civil war.
But there are twists to Geagea’s tale. Unlike other commanders during the civil war, Geagea (pronounced zsa-zsa) paid a price afterward, locked in a windowless prison cell beneath the Defense Ministry building for 11 years. During that time, he said, he studied literature, mysticism and religion, finding spirituality and a longing for salvation.
In September, he told thousands of supporters gathered in the coastal city of Jounieh that he regretted some of his actions during the conflict and asked for God’s forgiveness.
“If you don’t bury the old ghosts, they’ll keep bothering people,” the lanky, balding 56-year-old said during an interview at his party’s mountaintop headquarters here in Maarab, about 15 miles northeast of Beirut. “All in all, we had to do this immediately after the war. Unfortunately, after the war, there was no peace.”
The war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, set the standard for a new kind of lawless, media-saturated civil conflict now common in desperate corners of the world. It left an estimated 100,000 people dead and nearly a million displaced. Palestinians, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Christians and their foreign backers were pitted against one another, and sometimes against their own kind.
Geagea’s story illustrates the complexity of coming to terms with that dark past.
He was a year away from completing medical school at the American University of Beirut when he was sucked into the conflict’s vortex as a member of a right-wing Christian militia eventually called the Lebanese Forces. He gained a reputation for no-holds-barred killing, including violence against rival Christians.
In 1990, Syrian troops occupied the country, ending a conflict already petering out. There would be no truth commission to examine who did what during the conflict.
All parties agreed to sweep the war’s dirty business under the rug. The government offered amnesty to all fighters except those accused of killing foreign diplomats, high-ranking officials and religious leaders.
Geagea immediately alienated other Christian leaders and Syrian-backed authorities, who charged him with bombing a church and assassinating several officials during the war. After a trial that independent observers said was seriously flawed, he was thrown into prison in 1994, in the third basement level, with “no fresh air, no sun, no winter, no summer . . . nothing,” he said.
For 11 years, he was allowed to see only his wife and some relatives, barred from talking politics with anyone or even reading newspapers.
But he was allowed to read books. He devoured philosophy, psychology and religion, twice rereading the Koran and devouring translated works of mystic theologians.
“Always I have a mystic tension, a mystic inclination, because I’m acquainted with the Christian mystics,” he said. “I went deep into the Hindu philosophy.”
Alone in his cell, he began what he called a process of “auto-psychoanalysis” to examine his actions.
“It’s not as easy as it seems,” Geagea said. “This needs fasting all the time. It needs concentration. It needs meditation. Of course, it needs silence, and I had the silence because I was solitary.”
He said he tried to determine what he did right during the war, such as making a tactical retreat that cost positions but saved civilian lives, and what he did wrong, which he declined to specify.
“I would leave that to history,” he said.
In 2005, Syrian forces withdrew from the country and Geagea was pardoned by the parliament. Many hailed the new era, but old political demons emerged: Sunni radicalism, Christian chauvinism, Shiite grievances, Palestinian desperation -- all the ingredients that had ignited the civil war.
Three months ago, Geagea stood before thousands of supporters in Jounieh and made an unprecedented speech.
“I fully apologize for all the mistakes that we committed when we were carrying out our national duties during past civil war years,” he said. “I ask God to forgive, and so I ask the people whom we hurt in the past.”
His supporters hailed him as Lebanon’s Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who was imprisoned for 27 years in South Africa and went on to became president and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
But others don’t buy it. Although many of his Christian and Muslim rivals acknowledge the speech as important, they say he continues to practice divisive politics, emphasizing Christian grievances and suffering, that could drag the country back into war.
“This is a courageous attitude,” one intellectual close to the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah said of Geagea’s stance. “But his current political ideology depends on fear, and his political outlook is in contradiction to his regret, and will not end the logic of civil war.”
Others say that he should resign from politics, that even wars have rules and that his behavior during the civil war was so bad that he should be barred from public life.
Of course, no one really knows who did what during the conflict. Stories of horror continue to float and fester. Few care to open old wounds; the war is even excluded from school curricula.
But Geagea says he wants the younger generation to know the horrors of war.
“They don’t know what the war is, what civil war is,” he said, bowing his head slightly and drawing closer.
“We know. War is the worst thing in this world. You have to try to do anything, but not war.”