As the 33rd Anniversary of the Start of the Lebanese Civil War passes, many, although not the government, are still asking: where are the ‘disappeared’?

13 Apr

(By Dalila Mahdawi, Published in the Middle East Reporter)


April 13, the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating Lebanese 1975-1990 civil war, came and went quietly and perhaps even unnoticed for many in the capital city Beirut.


For many families, however, the anniversary was a painful reminder that the war and all of its consequences still haven’t been properly addressed. Even on the symbolic level, there is no official day to commemorate the war, nor any monument or memorial to honor the dead.


Around 100,000 people were killed in the 15 years of fighting and it is thought that up to 17,000 individuals ‘disappeared’. Many of those were arrested, kidnapped or killed by the Israeli and Syrian armies or by the Palestinian and various sectarian Lebanese militias that were involved in the fighting. Hundreds are thought to still be in Syrian and Israeli prisons. After the 1989 Taif Accord ended the civil war, the government was keen to leave issue of the war behind, and declared an amnesty law for all crimes perpetrated before March 1991. As a result, the fate of most of those who ‘disappeared’ remains largely unaccounted for and ignored to this day.


Civil Mobilization

In the face of governmental inaction, it has been left up to civil society in Lebanon to mobilize. There was a surge in activity in the weeks leading up to the April 13 anniversary. Offre Joie, the Lebanese Association for Human Rights and other local NGOs organized a peace march through Beirut that day. On April 10, the NGO Support of the Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE) held a press conference outside the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) building in downtown Beirut, where several families have been holding a sit-in protest for the last three years to demand an investigation into the fate of their loved ones. Speaking to the assembled press, SOLIDE Director Ghazi Aad lamented the failure of the Lebanese government to investigate the ‘disappeared’, saying, “Lebanon is party to this crime in its refusal to take the issue seriously.” Another Lebanese NGO, UMAM- Documentation and Research (UMAM-D&R) organized a talk entitled “What is to be done? Lebanon’s War-loaded Memory”, together with an exhibition of photographs of hundreds of the disappeared, “MISSING”. At the talk was Dr. Alex Boraine, deputy chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and chair of the International Center for Transitional Justice, who stressed that an open and honest assessment of war crimes could help to heal traumatized societies, citing South Africa’s experience as an example.


Just days after the anniversary, Lebanese authorities examined what was thought might be a mass grave on the Halat highway, near Byblos in northern Lebanon. Although nothing was found, the investigation testifies to the fact that Lebanon still has a long way to go in addressing its war memories, on both a symbolic and practical level. Further evidence attesting to that fact is the vicious criticism that Michel Aoun, head of the opposition Free Patriotic Movement, received from other MPs after alleging that a mass grave was located at the Halat site. AS SAFIR reported Amin Gemayel, head of the Phalange Party, as accusing Michel Aoun of “digging up the past,”  whilst AN NAHAR reported Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea as criticizing Aoun for “lying”.


Amnesty Law

A key factor in the collective amnesia on the issue of the ‘disappeared’ is a 1991 Amnesty Law which absolved all individuals of accountability and prosecution for crimes committed before March 28, 1991. After that, many former militia men shed their combat clothes for expensive suits and took up ministerial positions in government, thus rendering the chance of any governmental probe into the civil war impossible. According to the brochure for UMAM-D&R’s MISSING exhibition, “The Lebanese choice-opting for amnesty and “turning the page of the past” – has clearly been a fiasco… The rationales for the amnesty laws demonstrate the factors that led to the complete absence of serious governmental or civil initiatives to deal with the past.”


The current political climate is not helping advance the demands of the families for an investigation into the disappeared, either. Lebanon has been in political deadlock for the last few years- parliament has not convened for the last sixteen months and no President has been elected to replace Emile Lahoud, who ended his tenure in November 2007. A bitter battle between the parliamentary majority and the opposition over the formation of the new government is to blame. The tents of the families camped outside ESCWA are almost invisible amongst those of the opposition, which have brought the area to a complete standstill.


In a related development, the Christian Phalange Party and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) on April 15 held a conference aimed at reconciling the two parties that were vicious enemies during the war. According to the official Phalange website (, Phalange chief Amin Gemayel stated at the conference that “we should – rather than remembering the battles and heroism that occurred between us and the Palestinians – recall the relationship between Lebanon and Palestine before the Naqba [Israeli victory of 1948, resulting in the “Catastrophe” of around 800,000 Palestinians being made refugees] … the social, cultural, and spiritual proximity between our two peoples that made Palestine, of all Arab states, closest to Lebanon.” The conference follows an apology to the Palestinians by 44 Christian figures who participated in the war, which was itself preceded by an apology in January on behalf of the Palestinians to the Christians by PLO representative in Lebanon Zaki Abbas. Although certainly positive steps towards reconciliation, it is to be seen whether these developments will lead to any admissions by either side over the fate of missing persons, or an investigation into their whereabouts.


With no end in sight to the political stasis strangling Lebanon, the families of the ‘disappeared’ look set to face more years of inaction. But, as the activities of SOLIDE, UMAM-D&R and other NGOs testify, those families do not appear willing to remain silent about their missing loved ones, even if their politicians do.


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