Tag Archives: BBC

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.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

BBC World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

From Our Own Correspondent

27 Nov

You can listen to me talking about Lebanon’s architectural heritage and transformation, on the BBC’s From our Own Correspondent program last week. You can also read it (unedited) below:

Dalila Mahdawi in Beirut

They wake me up early every morning without fail. The construction workers in the lot behind my house bang away at steel, shift concrete blocks and yell instructions at one another. Workers on the other side of the street soon join in, busying themselves with the demolition of a building.

Beirut has for so long been synonymous with conflict and destruction.  But now it’s a city in rapid transition, changing into a modern and sleek metropolis. In almost every neighborhood, the sound of building or demolition is constant, ringing out as regularly as a heartbeat.

Lebanon is well versed in destruction – a fifteen year civil war ending in 1990 saw hundreds of thousands die or disappear.  Many buildings became sniper towers and battle grounds between warring militias. A war with Israel in 2006 also saw large swathes of the country reduced to rubble.

The conflicts have left behind a vast number of shambolic buildings in need of demolition or renovation.  But they have also provided an unprecedented opportunity for construction companies and investors to transform the country’s very character.

The current stability has encouraged previously cautious investors, as well as expatriate Lebanese hoping to reconnect with their country, to put up big money for real estate projects. It seems demand for housing has never been higher, and so the pock-marked or low-rise buildings are torn down … and the fancy apartments are bought up even before they are built.

But in the frenzied rush to reconstruct, many structures of architectural interest or historical importance are also falling victim to the wrecker’s ball. Fifty years ago, the Beirut skyline was made up of low-rise apartment blocks and picturesque stone houses.  Those have quickly given way to impersonal glass and concrete tower blocks.

On my street alone, a total of seven buildings have disappeared in recent years, including some real treasures – a 1950s art deco apartment building and two smaller houses that were at least a couple of centuries old. Soon, only the older residents will remember what this area used to look like.

Not everyone in Lebanon is quietly accepting the architectural transformation of their country.

Nestled in the lush Chouf Mountains, the charming village of Deir Al-Qamar, with its 17th and 18th century stone houses is proof that modernization and architectural heritage can find common ground.

The village boasts some of the best-preserved buildings in the country, including a mosque from 1493, winding stepped alleys, the palace of a former Ottoman governor, a restored merchants inn, and a 16th century emir’s palace. The local municipality hopes to preserve the area’s architecture by stipulating that today’s house builders must use traditional limestone brick, and red tiles for the roofs.

Meanwhile, a synagogue in downtown Beirut badly damaged by Israeli shelling is being refurbished after receiving donations both from Lebanese Jews and the international community. It is one of only a few remaining Jewish sites left in the country.

A few activists have also drawn attention to the need to preserve buildings associated with the Civil War. If all signs of war are erased, it makes it all that much easier to repeat the violence, the activists argue. One of these passionate people is architect Mona Hallak, who is largely behind the saving of one of Beirut’s true architectural delights.

The Barakat Building, a magnificent four story Art Nouveau apartment block built in the 1920s, was transformed into a militia headquarters during the civil war because of its strategically important location on the front line between divided East and West Beirut. Every floor had large, stained-glass windows offering views of the streets below, allowing snipers to pick off their targets with relative ease. The building was pulverized by rocket fire, grenades and bullets.

Today the land on which the Barakat Building sits is prime real estate worth millions. Its owners had decided to tear it down and sell it to developers. But Hallak’s efforts meant it was saved at the last minute, even as workers had already begun tearing up the marble tiles and removing intricate iron railings.

With the help of a few like-minded friends, she launched a petition and newspaper campaign demanding the building be preserved. Eventually the demolition permit was rescinded and in 2002 the city government took charge of the gutted structure. The Barakat Building is now set to become Beirut’s first museum of municipal history.

Still standing in spite of all its glaring wounds, and almost in defiance of the glass tower blocks popping up all around it, the Barakat Building offers people here some reassurance … the actions of a dedicated few architecture lovers don’t always go unnoticed. (C) of the BBC and Dalila Mahdawi

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.