Despair grips families of kidnapped Lebanese
BEIRUT - “I will not be relieved until I hold him in my arms, whether he is dead or alive,” said Hussein Youssef, with tears in his eyes. His son Mohamad is among 25 Lebanese servicemen held hostage for a year now by jihadists from al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and the Islamic State (ISIS).
“For the past 376 days we have been counting every minute, every second, every day with the hope of meeting our sons again,” Youssef said.
He and relatives of other hostages have been maintaining a sit-in camp outside a government building in Beirut for ten months to press it to meet the kidnappers’ demands for releasing the captives.
“More than a year has passed and the state has not been able to give us any positive sign about a possible solution for this tragedy. This makes us feel that we are neglected, and no one cares about our suffering,” Youssef told The Arab Weekly.
The servicemen, including army troops and police, were seized in August 2014, when al-Nusra Front and ISIS fighters overran the town of Arsal on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. The militants retreated to the rugged mountainous border area after five days of clashes, taking more than 30 hostages.
The captors have since executed four prisoners and released six others.
Youssef said there has been no news for almost nine months about his son and eight other captives held by ISIS. “Not a message or a voicemail or even a photo. All our attempts to have some information about them have failed. We know nothing, not even if they still exist,” he said.
Youssef visited his son a few months after his abduction but since then ISIS has ignored the families’ pleas to see their sons or have news about them.
Al-Nusra Front has been more flexible in that regard. Families of the 16 servicemen it is holding were allowed to visit them in mid-July on the occasion of the Eid al-Fitr, which marked the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Zahra Msheik took her three children to visit their father, Abbas, in the “no-man’s land” on the border where militants are holed up with their captives. “When I saw him, he looked totally broken. He has lost any hope of recovering his freedom after such a long time in captivity,” she said.
“He told our 6-year-old boy, ‘Take good care of your mother, sister and brother in case I don’t return.’ The boy broke down in tears and Abbas was crying, too,” Msheik said.
Msheik was two months pregnant when her husband was abducted. Her youngest son, now 9 months old, has never met his father. “My eldest children keep asking me: ‘When is daddy coming back? Why he has not returned home yet?’” she said. “They think there is something wrong but don’t understand why their father is being kept away from them.”
Marie Khoury, whose brother, Sergeant George Khoury, 30, is held by al-Nusra Front said she has visited him three times in the past year. “We are luckier than the families who have their children detained by ISIS. At least we can visit them.”
She said families are informed by telephone about the permission to visit. “The Nusra Front contacts us and sets a date for the visits. They fix the hour, identify the names of the families and even the things that we can bring with us.”
The families inform the authorities and, on the set date, they are allowed to cross the army checkpoint at the border and enter the “no man’s land” where they meet the kidnappers.
“You live in constant fear and ask yourself where are we heading, what’s next?” Khoury said. “We are totally lost, like someone who does not know how to swim and is propelled in the middle of the sea.
“One day we feel negotiations are moving a step forward. Another day it is ten steps backward. Some periods there is nothing, no news, no hint. It is a continuous struggle to keep going,” she added.
While there are barely any negotiations between the state and the captors to release the servicemen, officials over the past year have repeatedly said that talks were on track and on some occasions indicated that their release was imminent.
But nothing has materialised and the families complain that they are being kept in the dark over the case’s progress. At one point, the government sought the mediation of Qatar, which had succeeded in liberating Syrian nuns abducted in 2014 by al-Nusra Front near Damascus.
Al-Nusra Front has previously offered to trade three captives in exchange for women held in Lebanese prisons. These include Saja al- Dulaimi, the ex-wife of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; and Joumanna Hmayed, who was arrested near Arsal in 2014 driving a car loaded with explosives.
Tired of waiting and full of bitterness, relatives of the captives take turns denouncing the government’s failure to secure their release.
“Our sons are paying the price of the failed policies of the state. They are victims,” said Fadi Mzahem, uncle of Sergeant Lameh Mzahem, held by al-Nusra Front.
“These servicemen joined Lebanon’s security forces to serve their country but instead are being used as bargaining chips by the government,” Youssef complained.
He said relatives of the hostages held by ISIS plan to go to Arsal to try to reach the captives. “We want to have news about our sons, regardless of the risks, even if they will shoot us and kill us,” he said.
“Waiting is like cancer that eats you up. But what keeps us going is our hope to see our sons safe and free.”