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Remembering the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon (1914-1918)

Before the existence of modern-day Lebanon, a devastating famine wiped out a third of the population of the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate

What: Before the existence of modern-day Lebanon, a devastating famine wiped out a third of the population of the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate, which was nominally ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

When: 1914-1918

Where: Mount Lebanon, a special administrative unit within the Beirut Vilayet, part of today's Lebanon

What happened?

Originally established in 1861 as a semi-autonomous subdivision of the Ottoman Empire as a result of pressure from European powers following civil conflict between Druze and Maronite Christians, Mount Lebanon became an important producer of silk, accounting for 50 per cent of the local revenue. However the country's silk economy would collapse at the onset of the First World War in 1914, following a retaliatory Allied blockade on the Eastern Mediterranean, intended to cut supplies off to the Ottomans who had entered into a fateful alliance with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary).

The Great Famine of Mount Lebanon claimed an estimated 200,000 lives, a third of the region's population, forcing another third to emigrate. Several factors are to blame for the famine, not only the Allied blockade, but an invasion of locusts in 1915 which decimated crops which also stripped Palestine and Syria of much of their vegetation. However, a land blockade implemented by the Ottoman General Jamal Pasha was significant in starving the largely Maronite population, fearing they would support the Allies due to their close relations with France. The famine would be worsened by the fact that the Ottoman authorities prioritised and redirected food and grain supplies to feed their soldiers as part of the war effort.

Mount Lebanon is said to have suffered the highest per capita mortality, more than any other bounded territory during World War I. Such was the severity of the starvation that people were said to resort to eating cats, dogs and rats, even cannibalism. On 26 May 1916, Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran described the situation in a letter: "The famine in Mount Lebanon has been planned and instigated by the Turkish government. Already 80,000 have succumbed to starvation and thousands are dying every single day. The same process happened with the Christian Armenians and applied to the Christians in Mount Lebanon."

It remains an issue of debate whether or not the Ottoman authorities deliberately engineered or envisioned a Maronite genocide as some have argued, however according to the Washington Institute, "There were neither coded Ottoman instructions to murder Maronites en masse nor a fatwa by religious authorities to attack Maronites, as there had been for the Armenians."

Yet a quote attributed to Ismail Enver, one of the "Three Pashas" during that period said in 1916: "The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword, we shall destroy the latter through starvation."

READ: Remembering the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire

What happened next?

Lebanon's food shortages and the maritime blockade remained in place throughout the duration of the First World War only to be lifted when the Allied powers occupied Beirut and Mount Lebanon in October of 1918.

In 2018 marking the 100th anniversary after the famine ended, Lebanese artist Yazan Halwani designed a memorial for the victims of the famine called 'The Memory Tree', a steel tree with quotes on the leaves from prominent Lebanese contemporaries of the famine, including Gebran whose poem "Dead Are My People", dedicated to the victims forms one of the excerpts:

"But my people did not die as rebels;

They were not killed in the field

Of battle; nor did the earthquake

Shatter my country and subdue them.

Death was their only rescuer, and

Starvation their only spoils."

The artist's website states: "It is said that the Lebanese suffer from collective amnesia, and that Beirut finds it difficult to recall its brutal past. It is also said those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

"This event and many others, have not had a memorial erected for them in the past century. A hundred years later, only the trees can bear witness to the events that occurred."

The current political and economic crisis facing Lebanon, exacerbated by the Beirut Port blast and more recently, the diplomatic fallout with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states has raised fears of unprecedented hunger amid soaring fuel prices and food shortages. According to a UN policy brief published in September, almost 75 per cent of Lebanon's population is living in poverty while 82 per cent lives in "multidimensional poverty", almost double the figure from 2019.

This comes at the backdrop of US-imposed sanctions against the Iranian-supported Hezbollah movement and its considerable political and military hegemony in the country, the impact of which had similar parallels with the Allied blockade imposed on Lebanon during the war. Nevertheless the Great Famine remains an often overlooked episode of the war's history in the region, when compared to the Gallipoli campaign and the Armenian genocide. However, for the Lebanese nation – and in particular the Maronite community – it has had a lasting imprint on its collective memory where for generations, the First World War was referred to as the "War of Famine".

READ: Remembering the Taif Accord

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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