Tag Archives: Israel

The Killing Fields

24 Oct

Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Technical Field Manager Nick Guest inspecting a Cluster Bomb Unit in the southern village of Ouazaiyeh, Lebanon, in 2006. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari, File)

Last Friday, as all eyes were focused on the assassination of Lebanon’s security chief Wissam al-Hassan, another explosion snuffed out a human life.

An Israeli-launched cluster munition detonated as Ibrahim, a man who had been married for less than a month, was working in a field. According to Al Akhbar, Ibrahim died in hospital seven agonizing hours later.

I’ll be following up on the circumstances surrounding Ibrahim’s death, but it appears he worked as a deminer. Israel, which often refers to itself as the ‘most moral army in the world’, dropped around one million cluster bombs over Lebanon in August 2006, mostly in the last few hours of the conflict when negotiations at the UN had made it apparent a ceasefire was imminent. Of those, up to four million submunitions (explosive bomblets within the cluster bomb) failed to detonate, remaining threats to civilians to this day.

According to the watchdog organization Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor (2011), by the end of 2010 there were at least 16,921 confirmed cluster munition casualties globally, though it believes the real figure may be as high as 54,000 because many incidents are never recorded. Injuries caused by cluster munitions, such as limb amputations, shrapnel wounds and blindness, have catastrophic and lifelong repercussions for victims. Cluster munitions impede the enjoyment of other rights, obstructing reconstruction efforts, hindering freedom of movement, preventing land from being used for livelihood activities, and locking affected communities in poverty for years after conflict ends.

Israel’s use of cluster munitions in Lebanon provided a catalyst for diplomatic action to ban the bombs. On 30 May 2008, a total of 107 states formally adopted the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. The number of signatories has risen to 111, but some of the world’s major users and producers of the weapon, such as Israel, the USA, Pakistan, India, China and Russia, have still not joined.

Whatever weapons ‘experts’ say, there are no merits to cluster bombs. All they do is cause enormous human suffering, destruction and devastation. They are a form of collective punishment that go on killing and maiming years and even decades after a conflict ends. It’s about time they became a thing of the past. Don’t let Ibrahim’s death have been in vain. If you want to help clear landmines, cluster bombs and other explosive remnants of war, please think ofdonating to a mine clearance organisation. I am a longtime supporter of Mines Advisory Group, but any of the below are worthy of support.                                                                     

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Cluster Bombs: The weapon that keeps on killing

12 Sep

By Dalila Mahdawi

A deminer with MAG searches for buried cluster munitions in Kfar Joz village in South Lebanon. Credit: Dalila Mahdawi/IPS.

KFAR JOZ, South Lebanon, Sep 12, 2011 (IPS) – Even in the summer heat, the hills of South Lebanon are an impressive sight – a patchwork of green, brown and red fields interrupted only by sleepy villages, rock formations and dirt tracks.

Most residents here have traditionally depended on agriculture to provide for their families. But instead of sowing crops or herding their flocks through the grassy terrain, for the last five years locals have viewed the surrounding hills with caution. Lurking in these fields are hundreds of thousands of cluster munitions, silently waiting to claim their next victim.

“Every day we find cluster bombs in between the houses and in the fields,” says Ali Shuaib, community liaison manager at the Mines Advisory Group, a British non-governmental organisation clearing landmines and other remnants of war in Lebanon. “There are tens of villages like this all over the South.”

Although Lebanon has been plagued by landmines since its 1975-1990 civil war and subsequent Israeli occupation, it faced unprecedented contamination levels from cluster munitions after Israel launched a 34-day war in July 2006. According to Human Rights Watch, Israel’s use of the weapons was the most extensive anywhere in the world since the 1991 Gulf War.

In the last 72 hours of fighting, at a time when the United Nations Security Council had adopted Resolution 1701 calling for an immediate halt to hostilities, Israel dropped more than four million cluster bombs over South Lebanon. Of those, at least forty percent failed to explode upon impact, according to the UN, becoming de facto landmines across Lebanon’s agricultural heartland.

These are the most indiscriminate weapons of modern warfare; 95 percent of all victims of cluster munitions are civilians, according to the NGO Handicap International. Since the cessation of hostilities five years ago, 408 Lebanese civilians have been killed or injured by cluster munitions, 115 of them under 18 years old. Unless properly disposed of, the weapons keep killing and maiming for decades.

Cluster munitions continue to wreak havoc on the Lebanese economy, too. With an estimated 36 percent of contaminated land being used for agricultural purposes, the already deprived South Lebanon has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in income, says Major Pierre Bou Maroun, chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ Regional Mine Action Centre in Nabatieh, which oversees all demining operations in the country. In 2007 alone, Lebanon lost an estimated 126.8 million dollars in agricultural revenue because of cluster munitions.

Israel’s use of the weapon in Lebanon helped galvanise an international ban in May 2007, when 107 countries voted for the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions. The convention prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of all forms of cluster munitions. It also requires countries to clear contaminated areas within 10 years, destroy supplies within eight years and provide assistance to victims.

Lebanon was among the first countries to sign the convention in December 2008 and although it only entered into force in May this year, officials have been keen to take an international leadership role on its implementation. This week Beirut hosts the second international meeting of states parties to the Convention. Delegates from over 110 governments, UN and other international organisations will attend the week-long conference along with survivors of cluster munitions to discuss how to further advance the Convention’s obligations.

The meeting “is a golden opportunity for Lebanon,” says Haboubba Aoun, one of Lebanon’s representative members of the Cluster Munition Coalition and International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and a member of Lebanon’s National Committees on Risk Education and Victim Assistance. “We hope the people of the world will take a closer look at the cluster bomb problem in Lebanon and decide to continue supporting clearance activities and victim assistance activities.”

Clearance teams have made formidable progress in Lebanon despite almost continuous funding concerns. “We have 2,259 well-known minefields” in addition to thousands of other contaminated areas, says Bou Maroun. Some 1,578 minefields have been now been cleared and returned to residents, but 22 million square metres of contaminated land remains. This figure does not include heavily contaminated areas along the so-called Blue Line border area between Lebanon and Israel, whose clearance has been left to the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL.

“Our vision is a Lebanon free from cluster bombs, land mines and explosive remnants of war,” Bou Maroun tells IPS. With sufficient funding and support, he says Lebanon could be cleared of cluster munitions by 2016. Following international pressure, Israel provided the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) with maps showing the areas it targeted with cluster munitions. But, says Bou Maroun, as these maps do not show the coordinates of those targets, they are merely “papers for the trash”.

Mine clearance is painstakingly slow and dangerous work. Deminers sent to the field must abide by strict regulations and are flanked by ambulance and medics. “It’s a calculated risk,” says Daniel Redelinghuys, MAG’s Technical Operations Manager. Two MAG deminers have lost their lives and 18 have been injured in the five years since hostilities ceased, he adds. The LAF and other clearance organisations have also experienced considerable losses.

Yet the possibility of an accident doesn’t deter Hussein Tabaja, a mine clearance site supervisor with MAG. “You’re working for your country,” he says with a shrug. “When you see the faces of people after you have cleared their land, you see how many people you have helped, who can go back and use their fields again, it makes you happy. Sometimes during the holidays I actually miss coming to work.”

While there is growing international support for a universal ban, there remains staunch opposition from the world’s biggest producers, traders or users of cluster munitions, such as Israel, China and the U.S., who have not signed the Convention. As recently as late August, Handicap International censured Israel for laying fresh landmines along the border of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

And for many, any international ban will come too late. “I wish I could change my leg and get a new one,” says 12-year-old Mohammad Abd al-Aal, who has been left with a prosthetic leg after stepping on a cluster bomblet while herding his family’s goats. (END)

Robert Fisk: Western media fails to report ‘real horrors of war’

14 Jan

Journalist’s lecture slams bias in American journalism
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

BEIRUT: Veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, as he notes in one of his books, has lived a “charmed but dangerous life.” He has been a resident of the Beirut seafront for 34 years, covering the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War and its numerous atrocities, most memorably the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militias and their Israeli Army allies. The British-born journalist has reported on 10 other wars, several insurgencies, Iran’s bloody 2009 elections, and has interviewed Osama bin Laden no less than three times.

Over the years, Fisk has provoked as much anger as admiration, enduring two kidnap attempts and a beating by a group of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. His critics dismiss his writing as lies and embellishments, and his numerous awards and books, which have sold millions of copies around the world, are a source of some jealously for other correspondents in the region. No one in the world of journalism, it seems, is quite as divisive as Robert Fisk.
Kicking off a series of “Distinguished Journalists” lectures at the Lebanese American University of Beirut on Tuesday, however, he was firmly among friends and admirers.
Speaking to hundreds of journalism students, Fisk was quick to condemn “the lethal way in which [Western] reporters support war,” manipulating language to change meaning and historical context. Editors were also to be criticized for avoiding shocking photographs of war victims, an act which he said sterilized and hid the consequences of conflict.
One example of this was a newspaper that published a photograph of an Iraqi father carrying his supposedly injured daughter. The girl, Fisk said, was in fact already dead and her feet, which had been blown off in an explosion, had been tidily cut out of the photograph. “I’m against all violence, but because we protect our own readers from it, we produce a clean war,” he said. “For all the criticisms I have of the Arab press … at least your pictures in your newspaper … tend to show the real horrors of war.”
“A lot of journalists do not see their job as a vocation,” he continued. “Many journalists regard their job as the same as working in a bank, driving a truck or becoming a lawyer  … But I think journalism should have responsibilities over and above just earning a salary to pay off the mortgage.”
His strongest criticism was reserved for the American media, where there was an “osmotic parasitic relationship between journalism and power.” Since the Bush administration, for example, Fisk observed US newspapers had followed on from Washington’s example in referring to the occupied Palestinian territories as the “disputed territories” or “the so-called occupied territories.”
Such glaring bias and half-truths have led, Fisk argued, to the “normalization of war” among Westerners. An additional reason for this was journalist’s obsession with reporting “50/50” from all sides of a story. “But the Middle East is not a football match, it’s a bloody tragedy,” Fisk said, adding journalists had a “duty to be unbiased and neutral on the side of those who suffer.”
Though he is best known for his reporting on Arab countries, Fisk avoided discussing the problems faced by the region’s journalists or the political woes of the Middle East, dedicating only a few closing lines to the subject.
But does Fisk, with over three decades of experience in the region tucked under his belt, see any prospect for peace? “I have no optimism about the Middle East. The chances of a Palestinian state are less by the day,” he said. And as for Lebanon, where Fisk calls home, it is a “Rolls Royce with square wheels” that won’t be a modern state until it has secular governance.

Lebanon closer to signing land-mine-ban pact

16 Nov

Country’s actions in sync with global trend to curb use of mines, cluster munitions
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Monday, November 16, 2009

BEIRUT: Despite not signing the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, Lebanon has made considerable progress on mine clearance operations in recent years and appears to be moving closer to signing the treaty, a report by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) has said. “Landmine Monitor Report 2009: Towards a Mine-Free World,” released Thursday at the UN, said that although Lebanon was continuing to carry out mine-clearance activities, these efforts were facing significant set-backs because of a lack of funds.

Lebanon’s actions were in sync with a global trend to curb the use and effects of mines and other unexploded remnants of war, the 1,253-page report said.

“The norm against mine use is firmly taking hold,” said Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch, Landmine Monitor’s Ban Policy editor. “Antipersonnel mines have been stigmatized as an unacceptable weapon globally, including by countries still outside the Mine Ban Treaty.”

Lebanon is contaminated by land and sea mines laid by Israel during its withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 and during a 34-day war in July 2006, and to a lesser extent, by mines planted by Syria during the 1975-90 Civil War. Around 5 percent of the country’s agricultural land is affected by cluster munition contamination.

Some 80 percent of the world community has signed the Mine Ban Treaty, and though 39 countries, including Israel and the US, have yet to join, most are more or less in compliance with the treaty’s core provisions.

“Positive movement toward [Lebanon] joining the treaty in 2005 and 2006 was set back” by a war with Israel in 2006, ICBL said. Like Israel, Beirut has cited regional tensions as the reason why it can’t sign the document, although it appears to be slowly moving towards formal acceptance. “Lebanon’s signature of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions has given rise to hopes it will also join the Mine Ban Treaty,” said the report, adding Beirut “appears generally committed to mine action.”

Although there are thought to be at least 2,720 mine and explosive remnants of war survivors in Lebanon, victim assistance programs fall short of expectations, ICBL said, citing a similar global trend.

“Victim assistance has made the least progress of the major mine action sectors over the last decade, with both funding and the provision of assistance falling short of what is needed,” said Stan Brabant of non-governmental organization Handicap International, a Landmine Monitor editorial board member. “Progress in the most affected states has been variable, with some countries actively engaged, and others hardly at all. Hundreds of thousands of people need more and better assistance, and they need it now.”

In Lebanon, the report found the cost of services and transport, insufficient psychological and financial support, and lack of awareness of services available were barriers to the rehabilitation of survivors. Risk education programs also needed improvement.

The ICBL report also noted that although Lebanon was the fourth top recipient of mine action funding in 2008, receiving some $28.2 million, donor fa­tigue has since led to serious cut-backs in clearance operations.

There were 64 mine-clearing teams operating in Lebanon in the months following the war in 2006, with Hizbullah volunteers also working to clear an unknown number of cluster submunitions. Today only 18 teams remain. But with seven deminers and peacekeepers killed and 12 injured since 2002, 352 people injured or killed by cluster bombs since the cessation of hostilities in 2006, and the fact that “areas contaminated by cluster munition remnants [in the agriculture-dependent South Leba­non] … are very difficult to mark,” clearance efforts are es­pecially urgent, the report noted.

ICBL used its annual report to encourage states that have not acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty to sign up, and urge signatories to make greater efforts to protect their citizens from the effects of war. “The Mine Ban Treaty has led to lives and limbs saved over the past decade,” said Jacqueline Hansen, Landmine Monitor’s Program Manager. “In the next decade more countries must meet their clearance obligations and efforts to educate affected communities about mine hazards should be sustained to ensure no more people are killed or injured by these indiscriminate weapons.”

UN Chief ‘Urges Israel to Pay Lebanon $1 billion’

10 Sep

UN chief ‘urges Israel to pay Lebanon $1 billion’
Request aims to compensate environmental damage
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Monday, September 08, 2008

UN chief 'urges Israel to pay Lebanon $1 billion'

 

BEIRUT: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has renewed calls for Israel to pay Lebanon around $1 billion in compensation for damage inflicted during the summer 2006 war with the Jewish state, news reports said on Saturday. The figure, which is based on calculations made by the World Bank, is intended to reimburse Lebanon for environmental and material damage it suffered during the war but most notably Israel’s bombing of the Jiyyeh power station, said the daily Al-Akhbar newspaper.

The attack, considered to be Lebanon’s worst ever environmental disaster, released between 12,500 and 15,000 tons of fuel oil into the Mediterranean Sea, polluting two-thirds of Lebanon’s coastline and endangering already vulnerable marine life. It also affected northern neighboring countries, including Syria.

Ban will present a report on the oil spill to the UN General Assembly before October this year, said Al-Akhbar. The report is said to include findings by the Lebanese National Center for Scientific Research and the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea, both of which have gathered evidence in Lebanon showing the increase of such medical conditions as skin diseases and pneumonia following the war.

In addition to environmental destruction, Lebanon suffered substantial damage to its infrastructure during the 34-day war, in which 1,200 Lebanese – mostly civilians – were killed and 4,409 wounded. Throughout and following the conflict, Israel maintained a tight sea and air blockade on the country, hampering humanitarian assistance and evacuation efforts.

A report published by the UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Lebanon in November 2006 found that Israel had used “excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force” during the conflict, which followed Hizbullah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers.

The Lebanese government said 32 “vital points” came under attack, with 109 bridges, 137 roads and 137 factories targeted by Israeli air strikes. Thirty UN positions came under “direct attack,” added the report, resulting in the death of internationally “protected personnel.” A number of medical facilities and private homes also came under fire.

The UN report said it was “convinced” that the bombing of Jiyyeh was a “premeditated” attack and that it “considers that it will take years for Lebanon, with the help of the international community, to be able to rebuild all the damaged buildings and other facilities.” Israel’s actions, which the UN dubbed “collective punishment,” led to the internal displacement of 735,000 people and the evacuation of 230,000 others.

The report also stated that the “failure” of Israel “to take the necessary precautionary measures violated Israel’s obligations to protect the natural environment and the right to health. In particular it caused significant damage to the Byblos archaeological site, included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.”

Lebanon also continues to suffer from the presence of unexploded cluster munitions. Israeli artillery and warplanes dropped an estimated 4 million cluster bombs over South Lebanon, most during the last 48 hours of the conflict – after a cease-fire was assured – the UN estimated. Earlier this month, the body responsible for de-mining efforts in Lebanon, the UN Mine Action Co-ordination Center, said it would be forced to halt its work due to a lack of funds.

Israel has ignored all UN requests made since August 2007 to compensate Lebanon.

Family of Dalal Mughraby awaits return of remains

17 Jul

Family of Dalal Mughraby awaits return of remains
Mother recounts last visit with iconic Palestinian resistance fighter
By Dalila Mahdawi
Special to The Daily Star
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

 

Family of Dalal Mughraby awaits return of remains
 

Interview

 

BEIRUT: The last time Amina Hassan Ismail saw her daughter, Dalal Mughraby, she noticed something unusual about her behavior. “Dalal came and told me she was going to visit her friend at the Ghazi hospital in Sabra. She gave me a framed photograph of herself, which was odd. I said to her, ‘Why are you giving me a picture of yourself when I have the real thing?’ … I felt something was strange about the situation,” Ismail recalled, with tears welling in her eyes.

“A few days later, many people came knocking at our door. Journalists came, wanting to know what the mother of Dalal was like, what kind of house she had lived in. I didn’t know what had happened.”

The Mughraby family turned on the television to see Ehud Barak, Israel’s current defense minister, shooting bullets into Dalal’s corpse and dragging her body across the ground.

More than 30 years later, Mughraby’s body will be returned to Lebanon as part of the prisoner swap between Israel and Hizbullah expected Wednesday morning, in which the Jewish state is to hand over five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of about 200 Palestinian and Lebanese fighters killed over the last few decades.

In return, Hizbullah will give back Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two soldiers the group captured in July 2006, and the remains of other Israeli soldiers killed in the 34-day war that followed the operation.

Three decades on, Mughraby is still reviled by Israelis as the notorious “Coastal Road killer.” But many Palestinians and Arabs regard her as an icon of the resistance and as one of Palestine’s first famous female fighters.

On March 11, 1978, Mughraby was just 19 years old when she led a unit of 11 other Lebanese and Palestinian Fedayeen fighters on an operation that killed 36 people. The unit set out for the mission by boat from South Lebanon, sailing to the coast of northern Israel, where they killed American photographer Gail Rubin and hijacked a bus on the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway. The bus was eventually cornered at a police roadblock by an Israeli Army unit led by Barak, who would later become Israel’s prime minister and then defense minister. Refusing to surrender, Mughraby declared an independent Palestinian state and after a long standoff with the Israeli Army, blew up the vehicle.

In the Mughraby family home in Tariq al-Jdideh, Mughraby’s mother and brother Ahmad sit in a living room decorated with portraits of Dalal and two large Palestinian flags.

Ahmad told The Daily Star that the family feels conflicting emotions over the impending prisoner swap.

“Hizbullah actually asked us in 2000 whether we wanted Dalal’s body to be brought back to Lebanon but we said no. We wanted Dalal to stay in Palestine because she loved and died for her country. She went there to fight for the Palestinian people, for their rights and for Palestinian children. We are proud of what she did for her country.”

It is not clear what has changed in the last eight years, but, according to Ismail: “We are so glad she is coming back now. Dalal was both Palestinian and Lebanese – she belonged to both countries. As a mother, I will be very happy to have Dalal so near me after all this time. I think it is what Dalal would have wanted too.”

Ahmad chimed in with words of agreement. “We are happy because after 30 years, we have started to talk again about Dalal, about the Palestinians. We will have a big wedding for her when she returns. Although she was never married, Dalal had thousands of children,” he said, in a reference to the children of Palestine and to fighters who have been martyred in the name of the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance.

Over the weekend the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) representative in Lebanon, Abbas Zakki, visited the Mughraby family to congratulate them on their daughter’s anticipated return.

But like Mughraby’s family, the Palestinian leadership has had a mixed response to the prisoner exchange and has previously expressed a desire to have Dalal’s body remain in Palestine. An article in last Thursday’s Palestinian Authority-financed daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda criticized Hizbullah for allowing Mughraby’s body to be buried in Lebanon and called for her body to be buried in Ramallah alongside the late President and PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

Although her body will rest in Lebanon, Mughraby will likely remain a symbol of the national resistance in Palestine, where a girls’ school in Hebron, summer camps, soccer teams and police training courses, among other things, bear her name.

But Mughraby’s involvement in the national resistance remains a mystery to her family. “We don’t understand how she got involved in the resistance, which is mainly a male domain,” said Ahmad. “We live in a building among Lebanese people, not in the [Palestinian refugee] camps. We just don’t understand how she, who was a smart, thoughtful and helpful girl, got involved. She taught many girls that they can fight for their countries,” said Ahmad.

“Every time people come asking about Dalal, I remember something new from the past,” said Ismail.

“Right now, I can remember Dalal sitting in the garden, smoking behind her father’s back. She looked lost in thought. When I asked her what she was thinking about, she said ‘nothing.’ But I sensed she was thinking about something important,” she said.

“I know now that she was thinking about Palestine.”

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 (www.kataeb.org), 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.