In Lebanon, childhoods lost to war
He barely came up to my shoulders, but the submachine gun he was waving at me came up to his shoulders. That was reason enough to stop for his impromptu ''military'' roadblock.
He wasn't more than 14 years old, but the law was on his side - that is, the Lebanese law, the law of the gun.
Since the 1975-76 civil war, that has been the only effective law for an entire generation of Lebanese.
Educators and government officials have grave fears about what will happen to this generation. They say, so far, no scientific studies have been completed to come up with educated predictions.
Anyone who lives in Lebanon, however, can cite example after example of why the minds and values of the next generation can't escape being seriously disturbed and warped.
Standing on my balcony a few weeks ago, I watched the ritual of the first day of school unfold on the street below.
Parents, especially those with 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds, parked their cars and walked the children, decked out in pink and blue smocks, to the classroom for the first day.
With scores of children, parents, and cars, the traffic -naturally clogged up. The traffic jam, of course, was as good a reason as there ever is for armed militiamen to step in.
A truckload of them roared up and shoved their way through the first-graders, shouting and directing people and cars with their submachine guns.
Even at age 3, Natali questions her parents' soothing -explanation that the gunshots that have awakened her are to celebrate a wedding.
''Why do they get married in the middle of the night?'' she asks.
A frequent dinner party comment is ''Wouldn't it be nice if the children didn't have to sleep on the stairs so often?''
Windowless hallways and stairways provide the best protection from ricocheting bullets and shells that whiz through certain parts of Beirut almost every night.
Parents compensate for the restrictions on childhood by giving their children lots of board games and video films, and by traveling out of the country with them as often as possible.
''We took our six-year-old son to Germany this summer,'' said Samir Khalaf, professor of -sociology at the American University of Beirut. ''Suddenly his whole demeanor changed. There he painted post cards with flowers.
''He cried when we were coming back here and then he went back to playing with machine guns and drawing streets filled with garbage and roadblocks.''
Mr. Khalaf's colleague Elie Karam said home and school are the only places where children might be exposed to what is right and wrong.
''But it doesn't happen . . . . Parents are less inclined to be hard on them and don't realize that kids need it.''
Teachers of children of all ages admit fairly readily that they are afraid to discipline their students, fearing their -parents are well connected to a militia that will seek violent revenge even for a bad grade. Only the poorest of the poor attend the public schools, and even the private schools -operate under constraints. They are in demand and therefore crowded. The solution most often has been to shorten class hours and run two shifts.
On top of that, the schools closed two months early last school year because of widespread fighting.
Lebanese have always been renowned for their intelligence and business sense, Karam said, ''so this is a disaster.''
Many adolescents took control of the family during the civil war when they were too young to cope with such power, the professor said.
''In the past it has not been infrequent to find kids 12 and 13 years old fighting in the streets with submachine guns and telling their mothers and fathers what to do,'' Karam said.
''They had the power to make a businessman go on his knees and cry for mercy (at gunpoint),'' he said.
And they used it.
Now these teen-agers are fed up with power and need a very strong law above them, he added.
Khalaf, educated at Harvard University, sees two possible ways to cure the Lebanese.
''It is either a police state, which would kill the Lebanese, or a slow 40- to 60-year process of rebuilding.''
Karam believes Lebanon is breeding a generation of young people who in 15 to 20 years are going to blame their parents for the lawlessness that wrecked their childhood.
And the expression of that blame could be no less violent than today's Lebanon.