Marina Chamma
Last updated: 21 November, 2012

Enough waiting: Beirut refuses to forget the disappeared

For the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and children of the 17,000 disappeared during and after the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, the war is still not over. Whether dead or alive, in a mass grave in Lebanon or locked up as political detainees in Syria, the families continue to wait for answers.

On November 17, Lebanese NGO ACT for the Disappeared, the Committee of the parents of the disappeared and kidnapped in Lebanon, and Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE) held a gathering of around 200 people in Beirut. They denounced the government’s inaction in uncovering the fate of the disappeared and called for the protection of designated mass grave sites. 

The demonstration began in front of the National Museum, the Mathaf area, which marked the civil war’s “Green Line,” demarcating East and West Beirut, where many people were forcibly and arbitrarily abducted by local and foreign militias. Relatives of the disappeared and activists were also taken on a bus tour of three locations that in 2000 where recognized by the Lebanese government as sites of mass graves.  

The date of the gathering wasn’t randomly chosen. Following the disappearance of her husband in 1982, Wadad Halawani who is President of the Committee of the parents of the disappeared and kidnapped in Lebanon sent a radio call to all family and friends of disappeared to gather to demand their release. On November 17, 1982, she was surprised to find many fellow citizens who heeded the call only a couple hundred meters from Mathaf.

“We have come a long way since then,” Halawani said. “And we now count on you, the younger generation to join us and continue the fight for the truth. It is only until we know the truth that we can write history, that we will become citizens, that we will become human.” 

Sitting on the stairs of the National Museum, Emm Talal held on tightly to black and white picture of a young woman in a faded green frame.

“This is my sister. She was a doctor, she was traveling to continue her studies abroad and was on her way to Syria because Beirut’s airport was closed at the time. They were four women and one man and they took them, they took them from here,” she said pointed to the east. “And I don’t know why they took them.”

Two hours after my initial encounter with Emm Talal, I realized I had not asked for her sister’s name, hoping not to further deepen the wounds of her past, but I did, if only to put a name to the portrait’s face. “Samia, her name is Samia,” Emm Talal said, as a couple of tears rolled down her cheek.

The stories of these families are sadly very similar. They tell of unexplained disappearances and decades-long individual struggles in search for their loved ones.  Many seem certain of the political party or militia responsible for their despair, but there is no way to bring any of the accused to answer for their alleged crimes. What deepens the pain of the families even more is that many of the warlords and heads of militias that fought during the war, all of which abducted innocent civilians throughout the country, have now become heads of political parties, ministers, and members of parliament and have never been brought to answer for their past dealings during the war years.

Civil society activist and former Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud also joined the gathering, noting that it was everyone’s responsibility, whether government official or not, to try to bring this humanitarian issue to a close. Asked whether he believed there currently was any political will to provide answers and the necessary closure to thousands of families, he said “no comment.”

Ironically, the only three sites named by the government as sites of mass graves  – in Horsh Beirut, Tahwita and Mar Mitr – are cemeteries themselves. As if the sadness of death is not enough, many of Beirut’s cemeteries carry an added bitterness of sheltering anonymous men and women stripped of any decency during their final hours.

The gathering culminated at the premises of Solide’s seven-year sit-in in downtown Beirut, focusing mainly on victims of enforced disappearance and Lebanese political prisoners in Syria. Ghazi Aad, head of Solide, welcomed everyone with a smile and greeted the relatives and families as if one of his own. At its helm since Solide’s establishment over 20 years ago, Aad reiterates his commitment in never giving up to uncover the fate of the disappeared, no matter how hard the challenges faced.  

ACT has now finalized its draft law on missing and the forcibly disappeared, which it now hopes to lobby the government to adopt for an all-inclusive framework to find answers in a transparent and responsible manner. ACT’s head Justine de Mayo and a myriad of young volunteers seem committed in following through with their pledge. Such commitment by volunteers, as well as interest of activists that do not necessarily have a disappeared family member or friend to draw them to the cause, is what truly maintains some hope to be able to properly close this painful chapter of Lebanese history.