Interview with Dr. Kamel Mohanna, President of the Amel Association and President of the Collective of Lebanese NGOs
Dr. Kamel Mohanna is President of the Amel Association (www.amel.org.lb) and President of the Collective of Lebanese NGOs. He recently spoke with WSN’s Manuela Paraipan.
WSN: I know you worked in the humanitarian field even before Amel. Tell me about it.
KAMEL MOHANNA: Before Amel I worked in the Palestinian camps. I founded the association Social Help. It was and still is a serious association. It is still working.
I am from Khyam, in Southern Lebanon. During the first Israeli aggression in 1978, thousands of people had to leave. Only women and old men remained and it was a collective massacre against them. It was a difficult time. In that context we decided to create an association for the Lebanese areas too, not only for the camps. In time, Amel become very strong. We founded three hospitals, several civil centers, we had ambulances, and a full-time staff and we were able to treat more than 1,000 wounded people outside Lebanon.
WSN: How did you manage to do all this work back then?
KM: It was not easy. We weren't sectarian. That made our work even more difficult, but we did it.
WSN: You mentioned your work in the camps. Where exactly did you work?
KM: Before Amel and Social Help I was a volunteer in Tel Zataar and Nabaa during the siege. In '75 and '76, General Aziz Ahdab led a movement against the government. The road between Tel Zaatar and Nabaa was closed and I was at that time in Nabaa.
WSN: How did you meet Bernard Kouchner?
KM: Kouchner knew Musa Sadr. He founded a hospital and Kouchner came with a team of surgeons. Due to the conflict, the surgeons left. I was the only doctor in the whole area. I worked with Kouchner and others. Then the Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) decided to leave the area two months before the end of the siege. Kouchner tried to convince me to go with them. I refused. I wanted to stay and help. We met in a difficult situation at a time when we both worked in the humanitarian field and we became friends.
In 1989 during the conflict between Aoun and Geagea, Kouchner came back to Lebanon as Minister of Humanitarian Action. He asked me why I didn’t want a career in politics, and I said that I found it more challenging to do my work in a non-sectarian environment. During all this time I worked to develop the culture of rights in Lebanon. Through the NGO network and through Amel we want to develop the spirit of citizenship in Lebanon, without taking into consideration religious or political affiliation.
When Kouchner came as the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, we met at the residence of the French Ambassador in Beirut and he asked about the current situation. I explained it and he had this idea of inviting the representatives of the civil society to Paris. After the meeting, I told Kouchner that he should also invite the politicians so that we can have a dialog. It was the first time that both politicians and civil society representatives met and talked about the problems of the people, not the conflict of the politicians. We have a socio-economic crisis; we have the immigration of young people, of Lebanon's elite, the risk of not electing a new president and the urgent need to build a civil state in Lebanon.
Both the majority and the opposition appreciated the meeting. There were five of us in France. It was suggested that a follow-up committee be formed with broader participation. We just launched a campaign called “Khalas” which means “enough” in Arabic. We are tired of all this internal conflict and we wish to see Lebanon saved. We are trying to collect one million signatures and to create a civil ambiance in the country. In 2006, one million people were displaced from the South. They all came to Beirut, to Mount Lebanon and other places. They were received with open arms. Now people returned to the primary affiliation. Why? Because of the policy of the political leaders. People are wonderful – it’s just that they follow the bad policies of the political leaders. Instead of doing what we are doing now, Lebanon should play a leadership role in the Arab world. We succeeded through resistance to have a victory during the Israeli attack. We were an example of solidarity for the Arab world. Now we have to continue to build citizenship, to promote the right to speak, the right to nutrition, healthcare, education, work and to encourage youth, women and marginal groups to be more active. This is our mission.
WSN: Who are you working with to achieve these goals?
KM: We work with the NGO network, with the French government as well as with other governments. Now that some of our politicians have met and spoken with politicians in France, we hope to be able to maintain the relationship. We have to develop a social and civil responsibility. We did not choose our religion, or the area we are from. We inherited them. What we are doing now matters and can make a difference. It is a great challenge to work together.
WSN: What do you think of Lebanon's present situation? Are you optimistic?
KM: I am optimistic. Lebanon is an international necessity. Yugoslavia is now separated into four states. We lived through 16 years of civil war and occupation and Lebanon is still Lebanon. We are a kind of mirror for the area. Neither the Arabs nor the West, the EU, the US or other actors will accept chaos in the country. France has a political interest in Lebanon, we share a common history and Lebanon is Paris’s door to the Arab world. France is now trying to establish dialog with Syria, Iran, Cairo and others to solve this problem.
WSN: Is it likely to have two governments if the political class fails to reach a consensus?
KM: This is a possibility. However, with the Iraq problems and the problems between the West and Iran, with the UNIFIL soldiers here and with a weak government in Israel, I don't believe there is interest in a broader chaos in the region. If that were to happen, UNIFIL would leave and the resistance would be in the front line with the Israeli army. I don't think Israel is ready for a new war. A friend of Mr. Bush, Musharaff, told him that the solution to terrorism around the world and to the problems of the region is to find a fair answer to the Palestinian problem. We have 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon. A just solution has to be found.
WSN: Thank you, Dr. Mohanna.