The Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) is a local non-profit, non-partisan Lebanese human rights organization in Beirut that was established by the Franco-Lebanese Movement SOLIDA (Support for Lebanese Detained Arbitrarily) in 2006. SOLIDA has been active since 1996 in the struggle against arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and the impunity of those perpetrating gross human violations.

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May 21, 2009

May 19, 2009 - Now Lebanon - They killed Audette Salem twice

Op-ed originally published in Now Lebanon
by Nadim Houry
May 19, 2009

Audette Salem was killed twice. The first time was when "they" kidnapped her children, Richard and Marie Christine, on September 17, 1985. The kidnappers were never identified, and the fate of her children never elucidated. Audette's life was put on hold that day.

The second time was on Saturday, May 16, when a speeding car accidentally hit her while she crossed the road to get to the tent that she and other families of the disappeared had erected in 2005 to remind Lebanon's government and society that they were still waiting for answers regarding the fate of their loved ones. Audette, 77, was the main resident of the tent; the "rock"-- a term her friends liked to use -- who sustained the sit-in for the last four years amid wars, rain storms and heat waves.

I met Audette many times over the last few years. Like many other human rights activists and journalists, I would go to the tent to interview the families of the disappeared, and would invariably see her there. She always answered my questions patiently, even though she had answered such questions many times before. "I get tired of telling the story again and again," she said. But she would oblige. I would listen.

The story of the disappearance of her children was simple; a testament to the folly and random violence of the civil war. Richard, 22, and Marie-Christine, 19, were going from the offices of their family enterprise in Hamra to their home in Sayyet al-Janzir for lunch. They were with their uncle Georges, 75, in an orange Volkswagen Golf. They left around 2:00 p.m. and were kidnapped along the way. No one ever saw them or Georges again. It was the perfect crime, like so many other crimes during those days. No witnesses, no evidence.
Audette did what most families of the disappeared used to do at the time. She went to see the local commanders of the various militias in West Beirut. One of Walid Jumblatt's people told her, "They are not with us." Amal had a similar answer and laid the blame on Hezbollah - this was before the two parties became inseparable allies. Hezbollah also denied any knowledge.

The truth is we don't know who kidnapped Audette's children. There was no clear motive for the kidnapping. Audette's family was not involved in politics and no ransom was ever demanded. Audette had obtained some leads from militia members, but most of this information was unreliable and contradictory. Audette had her own theory. She thought that the kidnapping was to get her family to abandon their apartment which a militiaman had wanted for himself. If so, the kidnappers failed.

Audette never left her house. She kept the room of her children exactly as it was on the day of their kidnapping, re-arranging Richard's razor and Christine's make-up for when they would come back. Audette still had hope.

Her hope increased in 2005. A few months after she and others set up the tent outside the offices of the United Nations in downtown Beirut, a former Iraqi intelligence officer released from a Syrian prison visited them, gazed at the yellowing pictures of the disappeared on the wall and stopped at a photo of Richard. He said that had seen him in 1992 in Tadmur, one of Syria's most notorious and secretive jails.

The Iraqi's testimony raised more questions than answers. How reliable was his testimony? Would Richard have looked the same as on the photo after seven years of detention? Why would Syria hold on to Richard? And, most importantly, what could be done with the information?

Audette presented whatever information she had to the three official commissions formed by the government to shed light on the fate of the estimated 17,000 that were said to have disappeared. "The files remained in the drawer," she told me.

"They never gave me one bit of information." She had gotten used to the lies of the Lebanese authorities who frequently promised to investigate cases of disappearances but never did. Her presence at the tent was a constant reminder of their failure. What did she hope would happen, I asked her during our last lengthy interview. Her answer was simple: "I want to know what happened to my children."

Audette died before finding out. However, her efforts contributed to pushing Lebanese decision-makers closer toward accepting the need to unearth the civil war's mass graves by making it clear that this issue will not go away. She also succeeded in emphasizing the need to reveal the fate of the disappeared in Syria before Lebanese-Syrian relations can truly improve.

The road ahead remains arduous, and Audette's quest continues. Following her death, her friends at the tent took a sample of her DNA so that it could be used to identify any future remains - when (not if) such remains are unearthed.

Nadim Houry is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch

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