When truth is a provocation

We are mourning the death of our friend and longstanding partner, activist, journalist, publisher and intellectual Lokman Slim. He was murdered on 3 February 2021.

Four shots in the head and one in the back. That is the horrifically matter-of-fact description of an execution. The murder of Lokman Slim on 3 February was a political murder of a person many colleagues at medico had worked with for many years.

Lokman Slim was a shrewd customer, which probably also explains why he was not a fan of easy answers. When he spoke, he always went beyond the horizon of traditional world views, beyond entrenched divisions and false certainties. He countered the culture of violence and animosity with a universal idea of Lebanon and the region, unflappably pursuing the idea that perceived enemies and fronts can only be loosened if everyone confronts the truths that are uncomfortable or inconvenient for them.

Lokman exposed the truths of the present with his keen intellect. Those of the past - especially of the civil war - by meticulously retracing what happened. Lokman literally left no stone unturned. His idea of working to ensure the past is remembered and commemorated was almost unique for the Arab world. He used to say: “It is obvious that a strategy of amnesia is doomed to fail”- without overestimating the impacts of these efforts to raise awareness of and remember the past. Together with his partner and wife Monika Borgmann, he founded the Lebanese initiative UMAM D&R in the summer of 2004, which is dedicated to dealing and reckoning with the past events of the war.

medico's cooperation with UMAM began when 2005 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the Lebanese civil war. But then – as now - the war was still present and it was always front and centre in Lokman’s thoughts. Because the Lebanese model of reciprocal “amnesty” at the end of the war went hand in hand with amnesia, a public forgetting and suppressing of the past.

Which stories are heard and which are not? How are the consequences of political violence individualised and how can dealing and coming to terms with the events of the past and remembrance be re-politicised? These were the starting points of Lokman’s work, who had already begun compiling the only comprehensive archive of the Lebanese civil war to this very day even before UMAM was founded - and had to fight again and again to preserve it: When Israeli bombs reached targets all the way in the south of Beirut during the two-week escalation with Hezbollah in 2006, Lokman Slim's life’s work was in danger. The residents and the archive had to be evacuated at short notice because the blast waves had also damaged the Slims’ next-door property.

Confronting history and its truth, a history he himself was also a part of and an actor in - as the son of a respected, wealthy Shiite family in the south of Beirut; as an intellectual with a career path at French universities “typical” for this class, who founded an important publishing house in Beirut, running it until his assassination; but above all, time and again as a journalist, politician and artist who intervened, who wanted to influence history: this was Lokman Slim’s life’s work.

The places these interventions took place were as important as their content. The southern outskirts of Beirut, which during and after the civil war were to become strongholds of the majority Shiite Lebanese and their powerful parties Amal and Hezbollah, were still “no-go areas” for the capital’s liberal middle and upper classes in 2005. It was here, in Dahieh, that Lokman lived. This is where UMAM has its base and where events are regularly held. This was how UMAM wanted to overcome visible and invisible divisions with its activities - in both directions: not only was the idea for the rich come to UMAM, to the “hangar” for exhibitions, film evenings and debates, conversely UMAM organised events in Beirut’s city centre with young people from the outskirts who could never afford the “glitzy Beirut” of the post-war period themselves.

UMAM’s film productions, headed primarily by Monika Borgmann, also deliberately pointed their finger to where no one in Lebanon wanted to look: With their first film “Massacre”, the two addressed the mass murder in the Palestinian districts of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. The film is a long, almost unendurable sequence of emotionless or even vain confessions by the perpetrators from the Falange militias, who were never held accountable and who, under the protection of anonymity, were speaking for the first time about what they had done in the film. “Reliving the memory is like a sentence and its enforcement,” says a former militiaman in the film, which won an award at the 2005 Berlinale. At the time of the massacre, Lokman Slim was living just one kilometre away from the camps in the Shiite district of Harat Hraik in the south of Beirut. This is another reason why it was important for him to get to the bottom of what caused people in his immediate neighbourhood to literally succumb to a bloody frenzy.

With their last film together, Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim entered a zone of silence that frequently had the potential to end fatally in Lebanon: They traced the Lebanese prisoners who were abducted and taken to Syria by pro-Syrian militias or the Syrian army during the civil war and imprisoned there. Whilst almost every Lebanese prisoner imprisoned in Israeli jails during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon was celebrated and honoured by the Lebanese public as a “martyr of the resistance”, there was a veil of silence over the Lebanese prisoners in Syrian prisons, making all those imprisoned in Assad’s torture dungeons outcasts without a name and without a story. The film “Tadmor” tore down this veil of silence. Tadmor is the name of what is perhaps the most horrific prison in Syria. A place of torture, torment and tyranny. A place without time, where humiliation reigns supreme. Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim found the few prisoners who had survived this hell and gave them the chance to speak; first to each other, then publicly.

In the last two years, medico became part of the “Mena Prison Forum”, a new regional network of organisations, initiatives, artists, lawyers and journalists co-initiated by Lokman. The forum’s objective is to examine the brutal past and present of detention and torture in the Arab world and to identify counter-strategies. The great ambition that Lokman’s ideas harboured was also evident in this initiative: the forum brings together local activists and their experiences against a political instrument of power that may vary in terms of its manifestations and violence but that follows same principle of brutal repression and oppression.

Anyone doing this and other things is living dangerously in Lebanon. Lokman knew that. But there were things that were more important to him than his own safety. The fact that Lokman became an outspoken critic of Hezbollah also made him known in the West. But he was not only interested in defending a secular understanding of politics and society. He repeatedly argued above all against the sectarian “hostage-taking” of their respective communities engaged in by Hezbollah, but also all other political-sectarian forces in Lebanon.

Lokman Slim was a longstanding companion and partner to medico international. We all knew him, even if not all of us knew him personally. But thanks to him and Monika Borgmann we knew that calling out unjust conditions in the world also means noticing the authoritarian tendencies of the elites in the South. Their anti-imperialist rhetoric often conceals a religious fundamentalism that, with the end of secular utopias of freedom, continues to spread further and further in its violence and monstrosity.

People like Lokman have taught us that you should never allow yourself settle into convenient political positions with clear perceived enemies. The place between the chairs is where emancipation starts today. For us here, this place is just uncomfortable. For our colleagues in the South, it is often life-threatening. Lokman was virtually inundated with death threats. Each one had to be taken seriously. He knew that. Yet he refused to be silent. Even during the uprisings in Lebanon in the autumn of 2019, he and others organised a tent at the central protest camp where political debates were held - until Hezbollah infiltrated and destroyed the camp.

We will miss Lokman, not only as a partner and political companion, but also as a unique, joyful, courageous, intelligent and impressive human being.

Lokman’s murder is not the first of its kind in Lebanon’s recent history. Far too many people have died in the last few months alone, be it as a result of assassinations or the organised irresponsibility of the elites that led to the appalling disaster at Beirut port. So far, no one has been held accountable for these victims and these crimes. It is sadly fitting of the situation of the country that exactly six months after the Beirut explosion, Lokman’s assassination is now severely shaking both society and the protest movement in Lebanon.

Lokman’s life was dedicated to fighting for real and fundamental change in Lebanon - not least for a country in which murder is no longer committed with impunity. Despite his astute mind and realism, he never abandoned this horizon and the hope for a just and peaceful region. When that day comes, he will be far from forgotten.

Published: 05. February 2021

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