MINA, Lebanon: Almost 30 years ago, Nawaf Kabbara was a paraplegic doctoral candidate, leading a group of physically disabled demonstrators in a procession along the country’s coastline to protest Lebanon’s Civil War. Kabbara was studying at the University of Essex in 1984, but was moved when Lebanese American University student Imane Khalifeh attempted to organized a peace demonstration in Beirut’s Mathaf.
“Imane called upon Lebanese [people] to meet on the cross lines of the Mathaf area to protest against the war, on May 6, 1984,” Kabbara recalled. “It was never realized because militias began bombarding the area in the days prior. It was an indication that fighters were afraid of civil society activists. This failure also prompted my return to Lebanon.”
Having recently watched a film on Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent Salt March protesting British colonial policies, the invigorated Kabbara arrived in war-torn Lebanon, where he would go on to organize a peace march from north Lebanon’s Halba, in Akkar, to the south Lebanon port of Tyre.
“Toward the ’80s, there was a sense among Lebanese that the war had lost its meaning,” Kabbara told The Daily Star, while driving his specialized car. “Militias were acting like mafias looking only for power, particularly after sects began to fight amongst themselves.”
Upon his return to Lebanon, Kabbara met with prominent feminist Laure Moghaizel, radical leftist bishop Gregoire Haddad and activist Maroun Abdullah.
Having grappled with how to ensure that such a march was inclusive and representative of all Lebanese, Kabbara decided that physically disabled people were the best group to reflect the state of the country. “After all, those with physical disabilities were symbols of the war,” he said.
After several years of planning, during which Kabbara traveled between the U.K. and Lebanon to finish his studies, the march was finally realized.
Standing alongside more than a hundred protesters – half of whom were physically disabled – in Halba on Oct. 12, 1987, Kabbara struck out for Tyre with Gandhi in mind.
Surrounded by an international media scrum including reporters from Agence France Presse, Le Monde and The Washington Post – the cohort would snowball as it moved south. “The weather was beautiful, much like it is right now,” Kabbara said.
“The entire march took four days. We took a bus between cities, marching in each one when we arrived,” Kabbara said. “It was amazing. Because of the news coverage and word of mouth, more and more people would join us.”
The march made an impression on local and international media because of the resilience of its disabled members as well as its ambitious journey, crossing through both militia- and Syrian-run checkpoints.
“When we approached a checkpoint, we would exit the bus and physically pass through. At Syrian checkpoints, we sang Lebanon’s national anthem,” Kabbara said, speaking about the breadth of the march’s activism.
“At one Lebanese Forces checkpoint, I remember that a journalist from AFP asked one of the militiamen what he thought of the march. The fighter responded that if he were injured himself, he would be walking right next to us.”
“That,” he said, pausing to laugh, “was interesting.” Two days into the march, on Oct. 14, 1987, the group crossed the Green Line that divided Beirut in two.
“I want to cry,” The Washington Post quoted Kabbara as saying, after crossing the checkpoint in his wheelchair. “This is the first time since the war that I traveled through a long stretch of Lebanon without having to show my identity card,” he told reporters.
At the conclusion of the march in Tyre, the demonstration had amassed about 2,000 people.
“This movement showed that Lebanese were capable of showing their will, even as militias worked to divide us,” Kabbara said, “ and for the disabled, it showed our capacity in the resistance.”
Despite the violence perpetrated throughout the 15 years of the Civil War, Kabbara and Khalifeh – who authored an anti-war poem published in the New York Times – offered glimmers of hope as champions of peaceful activism.
Today, Kabbara is a professor of political science at the University of Balamand and serves as president of the Forum of the Handicapped North Lebanon. Spending his life fighting political corruption and advocating for disability rights, his impressions of the march’s impact have grown more defeatist.
“My biggest disappointment was that we weren’t able to bring any real manner of change,” Kabbara lamented, three decades later, as he looked out over Mina’s corniche. “Everything has remained more or less the same.”