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Something amiss? Lebanon’s amnesia for those missing since the civil war

2 May
Dalila Mahdawi
BBC News, Lebanon

The people who went missing during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s and 80s are in danger of being forgotten as their parents and siblings grow older. One mother I knew died without ever discovering what happened to her children.

Audette Salem was just one woman whose loved ones disappeared in Lebanon’s civil war.

Some 17,000 people vanished during the bloody conflict, most – it is thought – abducted and killed by militias. But some believe a few hundred may still be alive in Syrian jails.

Audette outside the tent in Beirut she lived for five years
Audette with photographs of those who disappeared, displayed on her tent

I first met Audette in a tent outside the United Nations headquarters in Beirut.

She, along with other families of the missing, had set up home there to demand an investigation into their disappearance.

A 77-year-old woman with a small frame and a resigned look on her face, Audette quietly told me about the day her son and daughter disappeared.

‘Stop looking’

It was 1985, and 19-year-old Marie-Christine and 22-year-old Richard were driving home for lunch with their elderly uncle George.

Somewhere along the way they were kidnapped.

At home, Audette waited for them to arrive – for hours – anxiously looking out of the window for signs of their orange Volkswagen.

When it dawned on her what might have happened, she went to the militia leaders, risking her own life to glean what information she could.

Invariably, Audette told me, the men would tell her they didn’t know anything.

She never saw or heard from her family again.

Audette would tidy her children’s bedrooms as though they might reappear that very evening

Five years later, when the war ended, Audette again visited the militia leaders, who had, by then, become government officials.

She said they cold-heartedly told her to stop looking and move on.

With the passing of time, the chances that Richard, Marie-Christine and George were still alive diminished.

Yet Audette refused to give up hope – it was all she had left.

She would tidy her children’s bedrooms as though they might reappear that very evening.

She rearranged Richard’s guitars, cigarettes and razors, and dusted Marie-Christine’s bed and make-up.

War amnesia

Audette was interviewed three times by a commission established by the government to look into the disappearances.

But she felt the commission let her down – it never published its findings and did little, she claimed, to investigate the hundreds of mass graves dotted around the country.

Shortly after the war ended, the Lebanese government passed an amnesty law protecting militia members from being prosecuted for war crimes. It also effectively snuffed out any hopes of a real debate about the bloodshed.

Indeed, it seems the war amnesia is no accident. Since I first came to Lebanon 10 years ago, I’ve seen traces of the conflict almost completely wiped away.

Back then, I was stunned by all the bullet-riddled buildings. Now, I’m shocked by how few of those buildings are left to remind people of the war.

West Beirut's Manara seafront promenade
Beirut’s Manara seafront is a holiday destination once again

It is almost as if it never happened.

There are no official war memorials or commemoration dates, and up until a few years ago, the site of an infamous massacre in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps was a rubbish dump.

Because of the reluctance to stir up memories of the war, little has been done by the government to investigate the whereabouts of the missing.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has said he will bring up the issue of the disappeared in talks with the Syrians, whose military were present in Lebanon soon after the start of the civil war and until just five years ago.

But many are sceptical anything significant will come out of it.

“Why,” people ask, “should the Lebanese expect the Syrians to tell them where their missing are, if the Lebanese themselves seem unable to answer that question?”

Too late

As some of my Lebanese friends tell me, the war may be over on paper, but in people’s minds it rages silently on.

Sectarian tensions, mostly between rival Christian and Muslim groups, are still very much a part of Lebanon’s social fabric.

Without a proper discussion of why the war happened and what occurred during the conflict, many believe Lebanon’s troubles will never truly go away.

Photos of Audette attached to the side of the protest tent outside the UN building
A memorial to Audette was attached to her protest tent shortly after her death

For people like Audette, any truth which is uncovered about the war will have come too late.

She lived in her protest tent for 1,495 days, giving up the comforts of a real home to brave hot summers and blustery winters in the company of others who had lost relatives.

But last May she was killed by a speeding car as she crossed the road near her tent.

At her funeral, held at the tent, more than 100 friends gathered to pay their last respects.

They also came to deliver a message to the government: Audette spent the last 25 years searching for news of her children and died no closer to finding it.

This spring, those friends are no doubt hoping Audette’s prayers will one day be answered.

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Syria amends honour killing law

2 Jul
President Bashar al-Assad

Article 548 was abolished by Bashar al-Assad’s presidential decree

THIS FROM THE BBC: Syria has scrapped a law limiting the length of sentences handed down to men convicted of killing female relatives they suspect of having illicit sex.

Women’s groups had long demanded that Article 548 be scrapped, arguing it decriminalised “honour” killings. Activists say some 200 women are killed each year in honour cases by men who expect lenient treatment under the law.

The new law replaces the existing maximum sentence of one year in jail with a minimum jail term of two years. Justice Minister Ahmad Hamoud Younis said the change was made by the decree of President Bashar al-Assad, following a recent increase in “wife-killings… on the pretext of adultery”.

The new law says a man can still benefit from extenuating circumstances in crimes of passion or honour “provided he serves a prison term of no less than two years in the case of killing”. The legislation covers any man who “unintentionally” kills his wife, sister, daughter or mother after catching her committing adultery or having unlawful sex. It also covers cases where the woman’s lover is killed.

Reports say women’s rights activists have given a cautious welcome to the change, with one group calling it a “small contribution to solving the problem”. Their objection remains, however, that the new law still apparently invites men to murder women if they catch them having sex or suspect them of doing so.

Syrian blogger lives precarious life as exile in Lebanon

27 Dec

Abdullah family has paid heavy price for speaking out
By Dalila Mahdawi
Saturday, December 27, 2008

Syrian blogger lives precarious life as exile in Lebanon
 

BEIRUT: Only 26 years old, Syrian human rights activist Mohammad al-Abdullah has already been imprisoned twice, beaten, and forced into hiding in neighboring Lebanon.

Jail has unfortunately become a defining feature of the Abdullah family, which has been all but splintered by the repeated arrests of its male members because of their calls for political reform in Syria.

When Abdullah’s father Ali was jailed in 2005, the son formed the Committee for Families of Political Prisoners in Syria, only to be himself marched off to a cell two days after the launch. His father received a presidential pardon six months later, along with 190 other political prisoners.

Ali, who has been banned from traveling since 1996, was re-arrested in 2006 and then in December 2007 with 11 other members of the Damascus Declaration, which calls for “democratic and radical change” in Syria. All received 30-month prison sentences.

Syria, which has been under the Baathist rule of the Assad family since the 1970s, has long treated dissidents and human rights activists with an iron fist. “In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting,” Human Rights Watch has said.

“They took my father hostage in order to get me,” Mohammad told The Daily Star. “I stayed in jail for six and a half months, two floors underground in a cell smaller than me. After 18 days, they brought someone else and we stayed together there for 42 days. There was no light, the toilet was in the same place – it was terrible.”

During his imprisonment, Mohammad said he was beaten and forced to sign a document he was not allowed to read. “Later I found out it said I would work for the intelligence as an informer.”

Before his arrest, Abdullah had been a law student at the Lebanese University. With his final year exam approaching, he launched an eight-day hunger strike to be allowed to sit the test. “The judge said I would be released on October 4, the day before the exam,” said Abdullah, who wasn’t released until October 5. “I called a friend from university who told me the exam had been pushed back two days, but the authorities monitored the phone call and prevented me from leaving the country.”

In January 2007, Syria granted him permission to make one journey outside the country. “I came to Beirut on  February 1 and have stayed here since,” he said. Without a passport, he is stranded. “The only place I can go is Syria and if I go back I’ll be arrested.” He has been told by a friend who works at Damascus’ airport that there are 13 separate warrants for his arrest.

Abdullah’s younger brother Omar, meanwhile, is currently half-way through a five-year sentence for blogging. He is being held at Sidnaya military prison, the scene of deadly riots this July. “I haven’t heard anything from or about him since then,” said Mohammad. For the first time in the interview, Mohammad’s voice wobbled, his smile vanishing. “I cannot stop thinking about him.”

 

At the third annual Arab Free Press Forum held in Beirut earlier this month, Abdullah spoke of the rising importance of bloggers in the Middle East. Syrian bloggers had “become a source of information for Syrian citizens, despite all the constraints and obstacles for even just being on the internet,” he said. The Syrian authorities require Internet cafŽ managers to monitor the online activities of clients and register their personal details. They have also blocked many prominent blog sites, along with numerous Arabic newspapers, Wikipedia and Facebook.

Repressive governments appear increasingly wary of bloggers, as there are currently more online journalists and bloggers in prison than journalists from any other field. According to a study by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 56 out of 125 journalists imprisoned worldwide worked online, “a tally that surpasses the number of print journalists for the first time.” The reason for the crackdown on bloggers was simple, Abdullah said. “In general, bloggers write about issues that journalists don’t dare write about – about torture, corruption, subjects that the authorities cannot tolerate.”

While Abdullah publishes his blog, “I’m leaving and I’m not coming back,” under his real name, he said Syrian bloggers mainly wrote under pseudonyms. Readers of his blog, which deals with political prisoners and human rights in Syria, were so afraid of reprisals that many left their comments anonymously or sent them to his email account. Abdullah believes Syrian intelligence officers also read his blog, as he received “horrible” comments frequently. “I leave them up for people to see,” he said.

Being a Syrian in Lebanon was not easy, said Abdullah, adding he had experienced some racism. Despite that and the very real possibility of being followed by Syrian intelligence officers, he tries to lead a normal life. “I’m not paranoid, but at the same time I know the Syrians are still here … and in my opinion they are stronger than before. So I have to take care.” Abdullah said he would apply for a passport when the Syrian Embassy opened next week, but said he was not “optimistic.”

Abdullah hoped the thawing of relations between Syria and the West translated into greater rights for Syrians. “I’m not against Western engagement with Syria but it has to be conditional on freedom and human rights. Sometimes I get the feeling that the West is blocking democracy in the Middle East by supporting dictators,” Abdullah said, citing European support for the Tunisian, Saudi and Libyan regimes.

 

For Abdullah’s blog, see http://raye7wmishraj3.wordpress.com