EIN SAADEH, Lebanon – With pen and paper in hand, it took Assaad Chaftari five minutes at his home nestled in a cluster of pine trees in the mountains overlooking Beirut to write a public apology for his role in the atrocities committed during Lebanon's civil war.
Thirteen years later, he's still the sole senior figure from the slew of militias that prosecuted that bloody conflict to do so. That Chaftari alone has taken that bold step says as much about his own searing sense of remorse and desire to atone as it does about Lebanon and where it stands more than two decades after the country's 15-year bloodletting claimed the lives of an estimated 150,000 people.
Lebanon has veered toward the edge of communal conflict several times since then, but never more so than now as the civil war in neighboring Syria has inflamed sectarian hatreds. Several rounds of fighting between gunmen of various stripes — Sunni, Shiite, Alawite — have broken out. The latest, which erupted last month in the northern city of Tripoli, killed at least 17 people.
Lebanon's fragility stems in part from how it decided to deal with the wounds of its own war.
There has been no truth and reconciliation commission, like the one South Africa created to deal with the legacy of apartheid. Instead, the Lebanese opted for mass amnesty, deciding to try to forget and move on. A few individuals have attempted to make amends for their actions during the conflict, but none of the former warlords, many of whom are now political bosses and members of parliament, has publicly apologized.
The most prominent figure to do so remains Chaftari, who rose to become the deputy chief in the intelligence service of the Christians' feared Lebanese Forces militia. He published his apology in 2000 in a national newspaper, saying in his open letter that he hoped it would help cleanse souls of the grudges of the past and help bring about a genuine reconciliation.
It's a message that he's been trying to spread since then, speaking at high schools, universities and international forums, warning almost anyone who will listen not to tread down the dark path of sectarian hatred.
"It's a call to understand the risks of civil war. What is civil war — the aura of something great, the Arnold Schwarzenegger type?" Chaftari said recently over coffee and sweets at his apartment in the mountains overlooking Beirut. "No. It's death, it's blood, it's ugliness, it's destruction, it's loneliness — it's many things. And we need to be aware of the cycle of ignorance, hatred, violence."
Now nearing the age of 60 with a round face, sagging cheeks and large brown eyes that adopt an expression somewhere between disbelief and mourning when discussing the civil war, Chaftari has returned to the spotlight in Lebanon with the recent release of the documentary "Sleepless Nights." The Lebanese production follows the stories of Chaftari and the mother of a young fighter from the opposing side who disappeared during the conflict.
The war itself played out in several stages between 1975 and 1990. Over that time, Christians fought Palestinians, Lebanese Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Druse. At one point, Christian groups turned their guns on each other, in a nasty episode of fratricidal bloodshed later repeated by Shiite militias.
Society collapsed, and everyday people — students, teachers, mechanics, postal workers — became capable of killing, torturing and massacring civilians and fighters alike. Militias cleared villages of opposing sects. Fighting left Beirut a shattered and pockmarked hulk of its former glittering self.
"You saw Lebanon turn from a very sort of civil, urbane place very quickly to a very criminal, very beastly kind of place, and people like Chaftari, who probably were regular decent people, in this context turned very violent, very ugly," said Paul Salem, vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, who himself is Lebanese.
Chaftari, who grew up in French-speaking home in Beirut's Christian neighborhood of Gemmayze, likes to say the civil war didn't begin for him in April 1975. Rather, it started with the prejudices he soaked up as a child in his community, or as he put it, raising his eyebrows in mock horror, "with the first joke that I heard about 'the others' — the Muslims — the way they live, bad things in general and the fact that we were better than them."
He joined the Phalange Party as a fourth-year engineering student in 1974 — a year before the conflict broke out.
After receiving infantry and artillery training, he helped create the Christian militia's fledgling intelligence service. Still in his 20s, he rose to the organization's no. 2 post, serving as a deputy to Elie Hobeika, whose Israeli-backed gunmen were implicated in the notorious 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Chatilla camps.
By Chaftari's own account, he ran an organization that arrested, kidnapped, tortured and executed people — all in the name of preserving the cause of Christian Lebanon.
He recounted one episode when his outfit felt it had to avenge the deaths of Christians killed in a civilian area by targeting the civilian neighborhood of Hamra in Muslim west Beirut.
"So we called the movie theater and told them there is a bomb inside the theater so that the people would leave in a hurry and be in the street," he said. "And then (we fired) two or three shells in the direction of the theater."
After Chaftari found himself on the losing side of a power struggle within the Christian movement in 1986, he and his family fled to the town of Zahle in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. It was there, he said, that his wife started meeting with a non-governmental organization called Initiatives of Change that prompted him to reconsider his life.
"They told me to compare my life to some moral values — honesty, purity, unselfishness and love," he recalled. "Thinking about love, I think, was the trigger, because you cannot love others and kill in the name of God."
That journey of self-reflection led him in 2000 to sit down at a desk at his home in the Christian town of Ein Saadeh and write his apology.
"I wrote it in less than five minutes. It came out in a burst. It had been cooking for maybe 12 years," he said.
"I knew that this will bring a lot of pressure on my family, but I do believe that for peace there is a price to pay," he added. "For me, the price to pay was myself, maybe. To let others know: take care, this is how I slipped from being the perfect Christian to a killer during a civil war."
His apology met with mixed reviews. Among some Christians, he said, he was "accused of being a traitor for the cause." Others told him he should have waited to let a Muslim apologize first so as to not make the Christian community look guilty or weak.
From Muslims, the response has been more positive, he said. "I felt that they were eager a long time ago to have a good Christian fellow citizen. And they were not able to have him because we were too fanatic."
His experience coming to terms with his past also has given him perspective on the current bloodshed in neighboring Syria — and the demons that those who survive will have to face.
In the end, his advice is simple: "You cannot annihilate one group or another. Tomorrow there will be both of you, so act accordingly."
Follow Ryan Lucas on Twitter at www.twitter.com/relucasz