23 Mar 2021

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT OF BEING ON THE FRONTLINE

Women on the frontline


For us, everything started on October 15, 2019: The day we became frontliners. That burning flame in us was ignited by the Chouf forest fires that occurred on that same day. 


October 16, 2019

Cynthia: Laet, are you watching the videos? The fires are uncontrollable. They’re ravaging people’s houses. It’s scary. I can’t stay home doing nothing. We have to do something. We can’t stay home. 

Laetitia: Breathe. Let’s think rationally. If we’re going to do something, we better do it right.

Cynthia: Ok how? I can’t believe none of the politicians are helping! I’m not shocked, it has always been this way bass walaw!

Laetitia : Cynthia, write a small text on your Instagram and Facebook account saying that if anyone needs to help, food, clothes or anything that can be beneficial to the victims of the fire, we are willing to pick the items up from anywhere in Beirut and bring them directly to Chouf.

Cynthia: Ok I’m on it, let’s do this.


The pressure went up the second we picked up the first item. We went there alone, at night. We could barely see what was happening in the forest, only some little remaining flames. The smell was still extremely strong. The smoke cast a poignant feeling of despair. We felt suffocated and couldn’t imagine what the victims went through that night. Sadness grew even more. Our heart raced. When we delivered everything, the hope in their eyes was so rewarding: “Ento benten jito la halkon men Beirut la hon?!”. Back home, in the safety of our unburnt walls, we couldn’t sleep well. The smell stuck to our skin, the darkness to our eyes. Our mind was wide awake. We had mixed feelings, between satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness and fear, anxiety, worry. 

Yes, once again: “el cha3eb lil cha3eb”. We couldn’t get over the fact that the ruling class didn’t support the people, in ANY possible way. It was not acceptable at all. We remained angry, furious, frustrated. We were revolted.


October 17, 2019

It’s safe to say that this date is a defining moment. We were not the same anymore. No one was and is. Overnight, everything changed: The uprising. The routine no longer existed, or rather has been transformed. Frustration was transformed to anger, and we needed to act fast in order to keep the momentum going.

A revolution? It was something we had never experienced in our lifetime. Something we don't know anything about. What we knew was the country could not go on as it was, and unfortunately still is. The streets were our new home, all day, every day. As women, we felt so strong on the frontline, like we were wearing invisible armors of steel that made us invincible.

We were happy about it. We never hesitated for a second. “Ma ele jlede enzal lyom” is a sentence that never crossed our minds. This was our new routine, in sickness and in health. 

Going under politicians’ houses, going to the parliament, closing the roads, we couldn’t miss a protest as it was a chance to fight for our rights and our country. Our friends always describe us as strong, as heroes. If being strong or being a hero is acting without fear, then no. We are not. Sometimes, we are scared to death on the streets. We tremble with fear. But the adrenaline helped us go on. It took a revolution to know how courageous we are. Being on the frontline had a strong impact on our psyche. In the beginning, we were like robots, yelling chants and fighting without truly understanding. Then, day by day, it all started making sense. There was a bigger purpose, a national calling and it was up to us to answer that calling. Our mothers’ unwavering support also contributed to our perseverance and determination. Without them, we would not have been able to deal with the psychological effects of being on the frontline. They were always extremely worried about us, but they never made us feel it. Instead, they knew how to give us the motivation and wisdom we needed to keep on going. After all, they are a generation stained by the civil war. They have tasted the endless corruption that these leaders have inflicted on our Lebanon right from their sinister fingertips. Yes, our Lebanon because it is ours for the taking. 


As we are both hypersensitive and overthinkers, sleeping was never easy anymore. Our nights became a series of lingering thoughts. Questions with no answers: What will happen on the streets tomorrow? Are we going to get beaten? Will there be violence? Gunshots? Are we going to make it out alive? What is going to happen on a political level? Protestors are starting to get kidnapped; will we be one of them? Are we doing this right? The questions went on and on, every night. Our bed no longer felt like the haven it is meant to be. Laying our head on the pillow became anxiety inducing because that meant we had to repeat the day all over again. Except there was excitement in that, there was purpose. A kaleidoscope of emotions that contradicted one another.

However, excitement did not help us sleep either. We could not wait to return to the streets and be around our comrades. In a short period of time, we had already become addicted to the streets. It just felt right. We were there, full of passion and love. Full of ambition. Full of pride. The pride of sharing the streets with the “Lebanese Women of the Revolution”.

Being on the frontline wasn't even an option anymore. Nothing could stop us. We bought protection gear (helmets, masks, gloves) to defend ourselves from tear gas and the military that attacked us while we were fighting for their rights, our rights.


“Having returned to work made me feel even more physically and mentally tired. I used to join the people on the street right after work and stay there until late at night, then woke up early to go to work. And when I was not able to be on the street, I felt a sort of anxiety. But I never gave up. Also, the pandemic made it even harder for me to be present as I live with my parents. So today, I am rarely on the street, I sometimes feel the frustration and the guilt of not being on the ground with the people, especially when it gets violent or when protesters get arrested. I try to help from home. Activism defines me today more than ever. The uprising is part of my life” - Cynthia Sfeir


August 4th, 2020 

The Beirut Blast: No break for us in 2020. Our city was destroyed, our houses were ravaged, and our people were left with nothing but trauma. Being there for those who needed help, became our duty.


Once again, “El cha3eb lil cha3eb”.


“The 4th of August I left Beirut at 3pm. I did not experience the explosion. Honestly, when I got the news, I cried a lot while calling my family and friends. But then, nothing. No tears, no anger, I literally felt nothing. Like the city, I was stripped away from emotion. I was not human. I had no feelings. I was empty, very empty. I went to Beirut the day after to clean up the streets and do whatever I could to help. What a weird way to feel angry and sad. The emotions started to appear few days later: I cried almost every day.” Cynthia Sfeir

 

Frustration, anger, at a level even higher. Being part of the revolution awakened the fighter in us. We decided to volunteer with “Offre Joie”. We never thought our bodies could do anything like this: carrying concrete stones, mixing cement to rebuild buildings. Yet another testament that women can actually do everything. That was not all. We went to people's homes to talk and help them release all their fear and stress. Our goal was to give them a good atmosphere of love and hope so that they don't feel alone. We felt a huge heartbreak during these times, we cried almost every night. We felt sad every single time our eyes laid on Beirut’s skyline as we stood on one of the rooftops we were repairing. 


“For a year, the uprising was my life. I no longer knew how to live other than to experience the revolution. On one hand, I felt good fighting for our rights. On the other, I did not feel fulfilled as I was unemployed just like thousands of other qualified Lebanese people. As much as I tried to fight it, the moment came where I had to choose between what felt like a national battle with no end or a mental reboot that would eventually help me figure out what path I wanted my future to take. With a bittersweet heart, today I am based in Ivory Coast in Abidjan, I practice as a psychologist and my goal is to come back to Lebanon stronger to serve my country.” - Laetitia Malkoun


Sometimes we have to know how to withdraw for our mental health and psychic well-being, to be able to come back stronger. Being on the frontline is tough and we all take a break sometimes knowing that the others got our back and that it does not mean we left everyone behind. Making -kind of- shifts is ok, as we are a family walking hand in hand to achieve our goal and build the best future possible for us and the next generations. We will never lose hope as long as we are breathing.


Laetitia Malkoun

Cynthia Sfeir


Thank you for this opportunity. These are stories we never shared, emotions, feelings and trauma we barely talked about and kept to ourselves. Writing them down made us realize what we went through. Writing is a therapy, indeed.