The open wounds of Lebanon’s civil war

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Despite his 31-year absence, Imad Ibrahim Abdallah still has a place in the living room of the Beirut apartment where his older sister Samia Abdallah lives.

On the photo that takes pride of place on the low table, the young man sports a fine moustache and a chinstrap beard, the only signs that distinguish him from a child.

Imad was only 18 years old when he was abducted by Syrian armed forces, which were present in Lebanon during and after the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.

That was in 1984 and, since then, his family has been caught between the slim hope of finding him again one day and the inability to grieve his loss.

“Last week, my sister told me she had dreamed about him. I hope it’s a good sign. She also dreamed of our mother, who died from the sadness of having waited too long,” says Samia, with the composure of a doctor.

“We call it ‘ambiguous loss’. The relatives of those who disappeared in the civil war suffer from frozen grief; it’s much harder to cope with than a death,” says Fabien Bourdier, head of the Missing Persons Project at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

13 April 2015 marks 40 years since the official start of the civil war in Lebanon. During this conflict that claimed 150,000 lives in 15 years, abduction was used as a weapon of war by all parties.

In 1992, a police report based on official complaints estimated the number of people missing at 17,415 [page 11], whether they were killed and buried in mass graves or imprisoned in Lebanon, Syria or Israel. It is a figure that remains impossible to verify.

“Following a conflict involving enforced disappearances, a national commission is usually set up or a specialised ministry is appointed to address the issue.

Establishing the truth is a way of fostering national reconciliation. Nothing like this has been done in Lebanon,” explains Bourdier.

“The ICRC therefore launched a missing persons’ programme in 2011, pending the creation of a national commission. We have already carried out 1800 interviews with the families, to gather data that will hopefully contribute to identifying the missing persons when the authorities finally decide to take on the task of exhuming the mass graves strewn across the country.”

“Because, for the families of the disappeared the war is not yet over.”

 

Official denial

On 26 August 1991 the Lebanese parliament passed an amnesty law for crimes committed prior to 28 March 1991, as a means of national reconciliation.

At the same time, however, the families of the disappeared were given no support in their search for the truth.

According to Nizar Saghieh, a Lebanese lawyer supporting the families within the Legal Agenda association: “In the 1990s, the authorities did everything in their power to delegitimise the action taken by the families of the disappeared. ‘You want the war to start again? Renounce your rights, everyone wants to forget,’ they were told. They have always felt scorned, and some interiorised this sense of illegitimacy, which may explain why the movement remained marginal for so long.”

In 1995, a law was even adopted to allow them to declare their relatives dead after four years.

“It was clear, even in its preamble, that this law was aimed at closing the missing persons’ case and turning the page on the war,” recalls Saghieh.

The poorer families, who had nothing to gain from a death certificate, decided to keep up the fight through the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon (CFKD) and Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE).

“I never expected the authorities to make any effort, given that the war leaders who perpetrated this crime against humanity are now the country’s political leaders. They have done everything to bury the case, but we have defended our right to know, tooth and nail,” says Ghazi Aad, the founder of SOLIDE, in an interview with Equal Times.

In 2000, a huge campaign was organised under the heading “We Have the Right to Know” and over a thousand people gathered in the streets to demand the truth about the disappeared.

A commission of inquiry was finally set up. But, as with the two others that were to follow, its findings disappointed the families.

The report, the full version of which remained secret for a long time, refers to the existence of mass graves but considers it impossible to identify the bodies after so many years.

As for the petitions of the families whose relatives were transferred to Syrian prisons, they are deemed inadmissible.

The commission finally identified 2046 disappeared persons considered to be dead and the public prosecutor at the Court of Cassation [Supreme Court] at the time even went as far as to recommend that the families “move on”.

And yet, in December of the same year, around 40 Lebanese men were released from Syrian prisons, offering proof that some of the disappeared were still alive.

Samia has kept a copy of a Jordanian newspaper in which released prisoners say they saw Imad in Tadmour prison in Syria. “He was even able to send us two letters in 2003, after the death of our mother, in which he said he was very ill,” she sighs.

 

Right to know gathers force

On 11 April 2005, faced with the denial of the Lebanese authorities, the associations of families of the disappeared launched a permanent sit-in in a tent erected in front of the United Nations headquarters in Beirut.

Every Thursday, Majida Bachaché leaves her village of Barja to go there. She always takes with her the portrait of Ahmad, her brother who disappeared in 1976 at the age of 18.

“In the beginning, my mother would go and ask all over Beirut to try and find him. Little by little, she lost her mind, then her life. Many mothers of the disappeared have died of sadness,” she says.

Majida says her brother was locked up in Mazze prison in Syria and that she does not expect to see him alive again. But after fighting for the truth for three decades, she has no intention of giving up: “I feel at home in this tent.”

Their tenacity is finally paying off. In March 2014, following a petition filed by Saghieh on behalf of the families, the State Council ruled that the Lebanese authorities should release the full report of the Commission of Inquiry from the year 2000.

The decision was made based on the families’ universal right to know the fate of their missing relatives, be they dead or alive.

The UN International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, of 6 December 2007, obliges states to take every measure to support relatives’ right to know the truth regarding disappeared persons.

Lebanon has not yet ratified this Convention.

Nor has the Lebanese parliament passed the bill introduced in 2012 by a group of lawyers, NGOs and associations of families, calling for an independent commission on the missing persons and the protection of the mass graves, with a view to future exhumations.

But according to Nizar Saghieh, time is on their side: “On the one hand, the more time goes by, the more relatives of the disappeared pass away, but, on the plus side, the political leaders directly involved in the war will not be around much longer and that will assist in exposing the truth. Until recently, the families had not managed to make their voice heard in the face of the powers that be. Now they have the law on their side,” he affirms.

“And the right to know is starting to gather force.”

 

This story has been translated from French.