Families of Lebanon’s war missing keep searching for truth

Families of the missing endure pain, hardship and political neglect.
Sunday 02/09/2018
Scars of war. Francois Zimeray, France’s top human rights official, looks at portraits of people who disappeared during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). (Reuters)
Scars of war. Francois Zimeray, France’s top human rights official, looks at portraits of people who disappeared during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). (Reuters)

BEIRUT - “We will not stop demanding to know what happened to them. We want them back, dead or alive.” The common painful call of the families of the missing of war in Lebanon has been falling on deaf ears of the government since the conflict ended in 1990.

“My mother died from pain. She kept on telling me don’t forget your sister. We have no confidence or trust in the authorities but we will continue asking for our right to clarify the fate of our beloved until the last day of our life,” said Yusra Mahmoud, whose sister disappeared at the peak of the war in 1982.

“The political leaders have their children and their families around them. They have no idea about the pain we are living. We need a solution but no one cares about us,” Mahmoud added.

More than 36 years have passed since families of the missing in Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90) established a committee to pressure the government to determine their relatives’ fate, to little avail. Although a post-war amnesty law pardoned crimes during the conflict, absolving militia leaders-turned-politicians of responsibility, there is no political will to resolve the issue.

The Syrian military presence that followed the conflict, a brief war with Israel, an influx of refugees from Syria and protracted economic and political instability have pushed the issue of the missing to the bottom of the government’s agenda.

It is unclear how many people went missing in Lebanon’s war. The government puts the figure at 17,000 but activists say that number double counts many of the missing and that a more realistic estimate is around 8,000.

The International Day of the Disappeared — August 30 — is a day that Wadad Halwany, who heads the Committee of the Families of the Missing and Disappeared in Lebanon, never misses to keep the cause alive.

“It is a shame to say that for more than three decades we have been demanding the right to know and still we don’t know,” said Halwany, whose husband disappeared in 1982. “We want the public to be more aware and interactive and to show solidarity with the cause of the families of the missing.”

“The authorities have been lying to us while giving fiery speeches about human rights. We do not want to hold anyone accountable. We’re telling them to unearth the mass graves like you do archaeological excavations, identify the remains and give them to the families so they can bury and mourn their loved ones.”

In 2014, a draft law for the missing and forcibly disappeared was submitted to parliament basically providing for the establishment of an independent national commission charged with discovering the fate of the missing.

“It is expected to be discussed and voted upon in the first plenary session of the newly elected parliament,” Halwany said, stressing that creating the commission would constitute a major step towards fulfilling families’ right to know if the law is effectively implemented and enforced.

The risk of losing important data increases with time and identifying the fate of the missing becomes harder. NGOs and international organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have been documenting data on the missing and collecting biological reference samples for DNA identification.

“We have been working on this project since 2012,” said ICRC’s Jerome Thuet, who leads the project. “We are collecting data on those missing since 1975, which, in due time, would help authorities identify them, whether they are dead or alive. To date, the ICRC has collected data on about 2,900 missing persons and 1,400 biological reference samples from their families.”

For three years, Rania Halawi has been helping the committee of the families of the missing preserve paper archives about the disappeared by transferring them into digital formats.

“They are mainly paper clippings, articles and reports about the missing that Wadad (Halwany) has been collecting since her husband disappeared,” Halawi said. “They will eventually become accessible on a special website to encourage people to know more about this issue.”

Although she has not suffered from the disappearance of a loved one, Halawi is a staunch supporter. “It is about the only cause that I believe in in Lebanon. If there is no closure of this file, we will not be able to overcome war and move on,” she said.

The Lebanese experience proves that if a society does not swiftly tend to the wounds inflicted by war, those wounds will not heal for generations and will constitute a major obstacle to peace and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the plight of the families of the missing in Lebanon has been largely ignored by the authorities. Families of the missing endure pain, hardship and political neglect. Without serious attention and earnest efforts to address their suffering and fulfil their right to truth, the families will remain in limbo and be a constant reminder of an unresolved past.