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Peace-building for the long haul

Credit: Samir Jeraj

In a country that’s undergone significant conflict and a multifaceted civil war (1975-1990), Lebanese people have an annual rallying point to promote peace. Last weekend, thousands gathered for it, running in the 16th Beirut Marathon.

The usually jammed streets of northern Beirut gave way to runners from around the world. In the Women’s Marathon, Medine Deme Armino and Seiamawit Getnet Tsegaw from Ethiopia finished first and third, with Nazriet Welda Gebrehiwet coming second. The Men’s Marathon was won by Mohamed Reda El Aaraby from Morocco, with Felix Chemonges from Uganda and Deresa Geleta from Ethiopia coming third.

El Aaraby, who was elated to have won, said: ‘All sports can help bring the world together in peace.’

Among the competitors were several ambassadors to Lebanon, runners from Bosnia, Brazil, Serbia, Lithuania, Poland, the UK, US, and a contingent of UN Peacekeepers from Malaysia who were serving with United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL).

The Beirut Marathon was founded by May El-Khalil, an entrepreneur who moved back to Lebanon following the civil war and then had a near-fatal collision with a van in 2001. She spent nearly two years in hospital recovering from her injuries.

‘The idea of bringing us together under the umbrella of peace gave me the energy to fight and make this event happen’

‘I underwent 36 surgeries. During my recovery time I felt that I needed something to help get me out of my ordeals. Lebanon, as well, was broken,’ she explained. ‘The idea of bringing us together under the umbrella of peace gave me the energy to fight and make this event happen.’

May believes bringing people together can be translated into more meaningful peace-building for the nation.

‘It was not an easy thing to bring [together] those who were once fighting and killing each other and ask them to run next to each other… In 2003, we had an amazing number of people who came dressed in white; they left all their political slogans at home and they came united.’

Local charities, as with many marathons, use it as a way to raise money. Hana Nimer founded an NGO called SAID following the death of her husband from colon cancer. She said ‘This cancer can be prevented but there is no awareness in Lebanon about it.’ Aged 58, this is her first marathon.

The parathletic men’s race was an all-Lebanese finish with Ahmad Al Ghoul, Edward Maalouf and Hassan Dia finishing first, second and third. The women’s parathletic marathon winner, Anna Orozoua from Slovakia clocked a time nearly three minutes ahead of the men. She was followed by the British athlete Elizabeth Mcternan and Mona Francis from Lebanon.

The route of the marathon goes through parts of the city that were once impossible, or at least very dangerous, to cross. Runners start from the seafront Corniche area, where the old Holiday Inn building has been left as a monument to the civil war. The conflict saw Beirut divided between the Muslim east and Christian west along the Green Line.

The seafront area has since become the centre of a transformed Beirut, with old buildings controversially replaced by more upmarket housing, restaurants and shops as part of the ‘Solidere’ regeneration scheme. Several of the local shop-workers were sceptical about the marathon and other races, saying it makes it difficult for them to get into work on time.

‘It was not an easy thing to bring [together] those who were once fighting and killing each other and ask them to run next to each other’

From there, the runners travel west along the coastal path and then back into the city, through Mar Mikhael, the traditionally Armenian area of Bourj Hammoud, originally settled by refugees a hundred years ago. Since then Lebanon has hosted refugees from Palestine and most recently from the conflict in Syria.

The marathon route does not go south towards the Palestinian refugee camps, heading further east and turning round the relatively less complicated northern part of the city, which perhaps shows there is still work to be done to bring together all of Lebanon’s communities.

Across the other side of the city in the metropolitan area of Hamra and into downtown Beirut, a series of shorter community runs and walks also took place. These community runners opted for a one, five or eight kilometre run or walk. One of the aims of the organizers – the Beirut Marathon Association – is to step up these runners into the half-marathon and full marathon through a training programme.

James Thie from Cardiff Metropolitan University ran the half marathon but is here mainly as a coach on this programme. He said: ‘It is so inspiring. These people go from often total inactivity to completing one of the toughest challenges in running. What is really special is they create a community around it.’

At the finish line in Martyrs’ Square, thousands of finishers, friends, family and strangers cheer for the runners and recover from their races. Young people are particularly out in force, with many volunteering to staff the water stations and stewarding the event.

‘We’re doing a water station so we can cheer up people,’ said volunteers Rayane and Keren at the 20 kilometre mark. ‘They can run and they can feel free of cars and pollution. All of the city is together.’

By mid-afternoon the roads are open again and traffic resumes as the runners filter back along the streets to cafes and their homes for lunch and a shower. The marathon might promote unity in this city, but there are still challenges: the legacy of the civil war, the impact of the Syrian conflict and ensuring that the poorest and most marginalized people feel the benefits of development. As May El-Khalil says, ‘Peace-making is not a sprint, it is more of a marathon.’

Additional reporting provided by Baraa Seraj Aldin.


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