Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The war goes on for families of the disappeared

Monday marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Lebanese civil war. One of the more tragic legacies of that conflict is the fate of the thousands of people who disappeared, their families still caught in a limbo of uncertainty.

This has personal relevance for me because a friend of mine, along with his sister and uncle, was kidnapped in 1985. For years, my friend’s mother continued to believe they were alive, even if this became increasingly more difficult to accept with time. Her waiting ended in May 2009, when, after leaving a gathering of the families of the disappeared, she was hit by a car and killed.

The number of disappeared is a matter of disagreement. While the official figure is 17,000, the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon has information on about 2,500 people. Someone who advised the committee once told me he estimated the number at 5,000-7,000 people.

The greatest difficulty faced by the families is that discovering what happened to the disappeared was simply not regarded as a priority in postwar Lebanon; reconciliation was, especially within the political class. This included warlords whose men were involved in a majority of abductions.

This approach was upheld by Syria, which dominated Lebanon and relied on the politicians to manage the postwar order. Reflecting this attitude, in August 1991, Lebanon’s government passed a general amnesty law covering most wartime crimes.

A second difficulty was that there remained inherent ambiguity in what had happened to the disappeared. Many vanished in chaotic conditions, at the hands of militiamen only loosely controlled by their leaders. Others disappeared during the Israeli takeover of Beirut in September 1982, when Israel and its Lebanese allies arrested perhaps as many as 1,000 people.

A third difficulty was that the mood at the end of the long Lebanese war was to turn a page and look towards the future. The principal promoter of Lebanon’s revival was the prime minister at the time, Rafiq Hariri, whose focus was on rebuilding Lebanon, not dwelling on the past. The absence of clear-cut solutions to the problem of the disappeared only made Mr Hariri more reluctant to address it squarely.

To the families of the disappeared, this meant delays in finding solutions to the legal problems created by the disappearances. Because the disappeared were not officially dead, families were frequently unable to dispose of their belongings. This could have serious implications for families in dire need of money.

Most repulsive of all was the way the families of the disappeared were exploited by charlatans to extract money. The mother of my friend was contacted time and again with news that her children were alive and given bogus information in exchange for a fee.

In his 1998 film Kidnapped, the Lebanese documentary film director Bahije Hojeij interviewed the father of Andre Cheaib, a senior official at Lebanon’s central bank who had been abducted. The father, who was by then an old man and exhausted by years of trying to elucidate the fate of his son, explained he had sold virtually everything he owned for information.

The scene highlighted the double tragedy of families. Mr Cheaib knew that he was being swindled, but simply could not resist paying those promising him news on the off-chance that it might be true. It was a terrible predicament, one that also illustrated the depths of human depravity.

On this anniversary of Lebanon’s war, it is the families of the disappeared alone who have been denied the means to look back and reflect. To them, the war remains an open wound. Even if very few still believe their loved ones are alive, the burden of not knowing what happened remains insurmountable.

In this regard, the state has done far too little to help the families. This is partly because it is very delicate for the government to declare everyone dead. There are families that to this day refuse to admit such a thing without evidence. But it is also partly because a declaration of death might deny the disappeared their civil rights if by some remarkable providence they are still alive and return.

What the state can do, however, is to officially honour the memory of the disappeared. A memorial may not bring them back, but at least it would indicate that the authorities feel it necessary to acknowledge them. If the government could swiftly pass a general amnesty in 1991, it can also show due consideration to the victims of those it whitewashed.

A museum of wartime memory is to be opened in a landmark building on the old “green line” separating eastern and western Beirut during the war. The initiative is commendable, though how the past will be dealt with remains to be seen. But one thing is worth considering. The families of the disappeared must provide input. If there is one group that can speak best to the ravages of memory it is them.

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