“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.” – Enver Pasha, May 1916
In World War I, aside from the casualties brought by the military operations, Lebanon lost over 200,000 souls to a terrible episode of famine.
But unlike what Lebanese history books teach, the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon was not simply an innocent coincidence of unfortunate events.
True, Lebanon was an unintended victim of the Allies’ blockade of the Eastern Mediterranean, which aimed to bring down the Ottoman economy.
However, the bundles of information omitted in Lebanese history books show that the maritime blockade and the coinciding locust invasion were not really what caused the mass starvation.
As the French, who were the main force holding the Eastern Mediterranean, have stated, Lebanon’s main food imports usually came from the Bekaa and Hauran area, not the open sea, from which only secondary imports arrived.
With that assertion, the French have resoundingly rejected responsibility for Lebanon’s three-year famine.
The truth is, while the Allies tightened their grip on the maritime borders of the Levant, Ottoman ruler Jamal Pasha, adequately nicknamed As-Saffah (the bloodthirsty), was orchestrating the mass murder that would decimate half the Lebanese population.
Because not only did Jamal Pasha inexplicably close the border with Syria, effectively stopping the import of essential food supplies, but he would deliberately confiscate wheat, kerosene, cattle, and poultry from the autonomous Mount Lebanon.
If these goods were taken to feed the army then why did Jamal Pasha order soldiers to attack plantations and forests, and set ablaze what remained of the crops that the locust invasion had eaten away?
Might it be that after guaranteeing no food would reach Mount Lebanon from Syria, he wanted to ensure no food was grown by the Lebanese either in order to effectively kill their autonomy and starve them to death?
And why, by the way, did the Ottomans revoke the agreement that guaranteed the safety of the Christians, with the beginning of the war?
Why, indeed, did they cut all communication between the Lebanese and Europe, by enforcing general censorship and exiling – even hanging – Christian missionaries and bishops, right before the famine began?
Might it be that Jamal Pasha wanted to avoid Europe’s forceful intervention in wake of an obviously planned massacre, like what happened with the civil war of 1860 and Napoleon III’s intervention in Lebanon?
This is not a conspiracy theory; it’s history.
After completely isolating the population of Mount Lebanon, and stripping it from any ability to support itself or seek help from the outside, Jamal Pasha’s soldiers requisitioned everything from food and land to building materials, all for alleged “military needs.”
The result of this was innocent Lebanese civilians selling their furniture, clothes, and houses to lay their hands on whatever crumbs those greedy usurers would give them in exchange.
The abhorrent conditions created by the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon, which killed hundreds of Lebanese daily, were ideal for the diseases that grew rampant among the starving, cold, unhygienic, homeless population.
And here, another compulsory rhetorical question comes up.
Why, after these plagues began to raise the body count in Mount Lebanon, did the Ottomans decide it was time to requisition drugs from pharmacies and send Lebanese doctors to war, away from their dying people?
How eager were the Ottomans to finish off this small, undefended populace?
Despite the censorship, the echoes of the crime were too loud not to be heard by the international community.
This was evident from the diplomatic letters exchanged in the West at that time, denouncing the atrocity and recognizing it as a voluntary act.
But while food aid was consistently sent by several countries in response, it was immediately stolen by the Ottomans.
And the financial aid that barely reached Bkerke through swimmers, sent from the outside, was only enough to save so many out of nearly 450,000 people.
In the end, half of the Lebanese population became but a number, and one that is wrongly and disrespectfully portrayed in Lebanon’s official history as the result of a series of unfortunate and unintended events.
Around 220,000 had no choice but to surrender to an agonizing, humiliating death, and a quarter of the surviving population sought exile abroad.
Only a quarter remained to endure and carry what was left of the Lebanese essence forward through history.
The genocide of Mount Lebanon is only one of many direct and indirect mass murders that the Ottoman Empire was guilty of during its cruel and tyrannical reign.
…What can be done for those who are dying? Our lamentations will not satisfy their hunger, and our tears will not quench their thirst; what can we do to save them between the iron paws of hunger?
Gibran Khalil Gibran, from Dead Are My People.
Where the roaring sword was impossible, the quiet famine was deployed instead, for the glory of the Sultanate.