Unending ordeal for families of the missing in Lebanon
Beirut - Odette Salem never gave up searching for her missing children until the last minute of her life. She died six years ago while crossing a road to the tent in Beirut where families of thousands of Lebanese who disappeared during the 1975-90 civil war had been campaigning to clarify their fate.
For each family there is a painful moment when a loved one — a father, a brother, a mother or a child — disappeared. Dalal Mortada, remembers hers clearly. Now 45, with children and grandchildren of her own, she was 12 when her brother Youssef went missing during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
“Youssef disappeared in Khalde (south of Beirut) along with 18 other comrades while fighting against the Israelis. He was 21,” Mortada said.
“We searched for him everywhere, paid a lot of money to have some news, without success. Every time, there was a repatriation of bodies from Israel, we hoped to find him but he was not among them.”
Mortada said her mother died without knowing what happened to her son but made her other children promise to continue the search. “She had this only wish in her life, to see Youssef before she died,” Mortada said.
For Racha Jomaa, the pain is vivid. She was 5 years old when her mother went missing while travelling from Sidon to Beirut in 1986. As a child, Jomaa could not understand why her mother was absent.
“They told me she had travelled but, when I became 15, I knew what happened and have since started contacting NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and families of missing people to push for a clarification of their fate,” she said.
Her brother gave up on finding their mother five years ago but Jomaa, now 35 and the mother of an 8-month-old boy, is not budging. She said, friends and relatives try to discourage her. “I tell them this is my mother and it is my right to know if she is still there. Even if she is dead, I want to know,” Jomaa said.
A quarter of a century after the war, there is no official count or list of names of the missing in Lebanon, although they are believed to total as many as 17,000. That figure is largely overestimated, according to NGOs and human rights organisations. The government passed a law in 1995 declaring anyone missing for more than four years legally dead. Most of the missing are likely dead after being kidnapped by rival Lebanese militias during the war, which saw multiple sectarian massacres. Lebanese officials, some of whom are former militia leaders, have been reluctant to deal with the issue, fearing that digging too deep could inflame old hostilities.
Many families believe their missing kin are held in Syrian prisons. Damascus had the upper hand in Lebanon for many years, during and after the civil war.
Justine Di Mayo, director of Act for the Disappeared, a Lebanese human rights association, contends that the delay in resolving the issue is due to the lack of political will in addition to economic, political and security crises the country has faced since the end of the civil war.
“The issue of the missing is far from being a priority in Lebanon,” Di Mayo said. “When we tell the public we are working on clarifying the fate of the disappeared, they respond ‘Since they are all dead what are you looking for?’ or ‘We have crises and more than 1 million refugees’ from Syria to worry about.
“It is very difficult for them to understand that even if they are all dead, the families need to know what happened to their loved ones in order to find closure.”
The families have pushed for a national commission on Lebanon’s disappeared and a draft law calling for the creation of such a body to investigate the fate of the missing and locate and exhume the mass graves and identify remains is before parliament. However, given Lebanon’s general parliamentary deadlock, the law is not expected to pass soon.
Humanitarian organisations have stepped in to help resolve the issue.
The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has conducted extensive forensic interviews with families of the disappeared and awaits government approval to establish a DNA database to help identify bodies when mass graves are opened.
Act for the Disappeared started a project to locate burial sites and determine who might be buried in the graves. The hope of knowing what happened to their loved ones is what keeps the families of the missing fighting.
“Even if he is dead, we hope to bury his (her brother’s) remains and have a tomb for him, which we can visit,” Mortada contended.
“I always feel that she (her mother) is alive. Thirty years of our life together are gone. I have to know what happened to her. This is the least of my rights,” Jomaa said.