Nature has a way of quickly reclaiming what people leave behind.
Even at the best of times, it’s a strange sensation walking into an abandoned home – the rooms and hallways, once so full of the bustle and noise of daily family life, now silent except for one’s echoing footsteps.
Imagine, then, how much more unsettling this feeling would be with the added knowledge that those who left the house – one day in September 1983 – may well have met a grim fate, massacred by their own neighbors and people they once called friends. Others were more fortunate – forced to flee their ancestral homes, yes, but at least managing to escape with their lives. Yet many would never return.
Maasser el Chouf certainly doesn’t look like the setting for a horror story. Located in scenic pine- and cedar-forested mountains, close to Lebanon’s largest nature reserve, it seems the epitome of an idyllic Mediterranean village. Yet the streets are quiet between its old, white stone houses – deserted or otherwise – and tension still exists between the Christian and Druze communities here. Indeed, the roots of the conflict run deep, long predating what happened in 1983, when 63 Christians were killed in the village, and many more left forever.
These arched, shuttered windows must have been an attractive feature before the house fell to ruin.
In 2011, a university assignment brought Samer Noun – whose photographs are featured in this article – to Maasser el Chouf. When he arrived in the village, it was the abandoned houses that really encapsulated for Noun the almost desolate atmosphere of the place. How would he describe the feeling of entering the empty homes?
“Weird,” says Noun. “I was interested in them (the houses) and in taking pictures, but in a way I was trespassing, since this was someone’s house, people used to live here.”
“I couldn’t help but imagine a family gathering around the dining table,” he goes on to say. “A grandmother cooking in the kitchen or children running around.” A cheerful domestic scene whose absence seems all the more poignant in view of the fate met by the long gone family who actually lived here.
The sad state of what was no doubt somebody's beloved family home, now little more than rooms full of rubble
With their human occupants gone, other more silent forms of life are now creeping into the empty buildings. “It’s strange to see nature take over a home,” says Noun. “There are branches coming through the windows and grass growing from underneath the tiles. So the atmosphere is a bit eerie, especially when the village is so quiet.” It’s an unnerving quality Noun has certainly captured in these photographs.
Spiders and vines have claimed this kitchen, once the heart of the home for its human occupants.
Little evidence remains today of the panic and distress that must have been felt within these walls all those years ago. In fact, according to Noun: “It didn’t seem like people left in a panic; in most of the houses it looks like the owners left with all their belongings.” Yet his experience was, of course, long after the fact.
People were forcibly taken from their homes and executed, and those who went willingly must have fled in fear, desperate to get away. Many would have left with the suspicion that they would never return to the homes they loved.
While some of the massacre's victims were reportedly shot in their own doorways, others died nearby: a large number of Maasser el Chouf’s Christians – including women, children and the (allegedly armed) parish priest – were gunned down in the local church.
One of the Druze locals who was present at the time defended the slaughter, saying: “We went to their weddings and they came to ours. But the day we saw the Christian militias bringing arms to them from Beirut, they ceased to be our friends. They kept arms in the church down the road. We had to fight the Christians in the church after they attacked Marouf Azzam (the Druze militiaman accused of orchestrating the butchery).”
Furniture lies wrecked scattered, presumably broken up by thugs or looters looking for items of value.
According to Noun, the houses vacated by the people who fled or died remain mainly empty to this day. “One house that had leftover debris didn’t have furniture,” he says. Instead, it contained “weapon cases and old ruined clothes that belonged to certain militias.” There is also evidence of vandalism in the abandoned houses, although Noun is unsure when this occurred. “It could’ve very possibly been any time during the last (nearly) 30 years or so;” he reckons, “although it’s obviously not recent.” No doubt houses left unoccupied for any reason are tempting targets for those intent on either wrecking or looting them.
Perhaps children once bounced on the cushions of this sofa, now home to little more than mold, fungi and insects.
During his exploration of the derelict and gutted houses, Noun felt dejected because of their run-down state. Of one homestead that left a particular impression on him, he says: “The most surprising, or saddening, thing to me was the state of that house. It was a really beautiful house, architecturally, that was completely ruined.”
In fact, for Noun the urge to photograph these houses was partly motivated by a desire to preserve Lebanon’s architectural history. “There are beautiful traditional Lebanese houses all over Lebanon that are sadly being destroyed at a fast rate,” he explains, “so I think capturing these historical landmarks is important.” It’s a reminder that war causes not just loss of life but also the destruction of landscapes – both physical and cultural.
It's been many years since these walls were painted, and, like the debris scattered within them, they seem to be going to ruin.
As far as Noun knows, there are no plans to restore the houses. He did enquire about the handsome house just mentioned, asking a local shopkeeper if the owners were alive and planning to sell. “[He] told me that renovating the house requires a budget so high it’s almost impossible to do anything,” Noun recalls.
“As for the owners,” he says, speaking more generally, “some of them died a long time ago, and most of them live outside of Lebanon. So it appeared to me that the these houses would stay this way for a very long time.”
And the locals? “It seemed to me that (they) were indifferent about the houses,” says Noun, “especially since they can’t do anything about them.”
The hint of lush greenery outside the window contrasts with the urban decay within.
Three decades after the massacre, things are still not right in Maasser el Chouf. “The village is very tense,” says Noun, “as it is divided into a Druze area and a Christian area. Everyone goes about his day and does his own thing with the least interaction possible (between people of the two religions).”
Are the abandoned houses constant reminders to the villagers of the past bloodshed? “They’re not over the massacre that happened, but it’s not the houses that remind them of it,” is Noun’s response. “It does remind outsiders of the massacre, in a rather obvious way, but I think that for locals who lived through it, the houses aren’t that relevant.” Rather, he says: “They’re reminded of the massacre every time something (sectarian violence) happens in the country.”
With its bright blue walls and colorful light fitting, this room provides a visual clue about the era in which the house was abandoned.
The fighting between Druze and Christians in Lebanon began a long time before 1983: in the 1860 Lebanon conflict, for one, tens of thousands of Christians were killed by Druzes, who also suffered heavy losses. There have been atrocities on both sides over the decades, and sadly the old wounds don’t heal quickly.
“The Chief of Municipality told me that sometime before the (Lebanon) war of 2006 (also known as the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah War; or the July War, in Lebanon), the village had started to grow out of its divided state;” says Noun, “but during and after the war, things were back to the way they were: tense, cold, and quiet.”
Looking at these pictures, Noun’s words ring true. When he visited in 2011, Maasser el Chouf’s sparse population struck a chord with him. “The streets are empty most of the time, and the inhabitants are mostly over 60 years old,” he says. It seems that when the houses were abandoned back in 1983, the life of the entire village left too.
There is little left of the walls or flooring in this house, but the still-ornate doors are a reminder that this was once a treasured home.
All is not lost, however, for this picturesque yet forsaken village with the tragic past. Some Christian families have begun to tentatively return, and a few have even been able to restore their old homes to their former state. What’s more, some – including those who have come back – are hoping that ecotourism, spurred on by the nearby nature reserve (which was declared a UNESCO Biosphere in 2005), will encourage reconciliation and cooperation among the locals.
Perhaps the area’s magnificent cedar trees, and the diverse animal and plant species that live among them, will help bring peace to an area that has suffered human conflict for so long. If so, it would be a good ending for such a sad story.
This unusually intact room looks like it might have been left only months ago, rather than nearly 30 years in the past.
As for Samer Noun, he sees the abandoned houses of Maasser el Chouf “as a kind of ruins, as you would call the temples in Baalbek or other historical sites.” With dwellings that are either splendid to this day or which once were before they were vacated and left to ruin, this village must surely have a rich history. It’s only hoped that certain chapters will never be repeated.
With special thanks to Samer Noun for sharing his beautiful photographs and his insights into Maasser el Chouf. If you’re interested in more of his work, it can be found at his Behance page and his own website.