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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March 22, 2014

Now Lebanon - Why it’s past time to honor Lebanon’s disappeared, March 22, 2014

The decision of the Shura council to allow families of the disappeared to have access to the Lebanese government’s full investigation files on their relatives is welcome. The government conducted a nine-month investigation in 2001, but since that time the authorities have denied the families the right to look at the information uncovered.

While the decision was hailed as a victory by the families, some caution is in order. By 2001, many of the disappeared had already vanished for more than a decade, sometimes longer. On top of that, the pro-Syrian government at the time very likely investigated the fate of those who had disappeared in Syria in a cursory way, if at all. What is most disconcerting for the families of the disappeared is that the truth of what happened to their loved ones lies behind multiple walls of poor information, misinformation, disinformation, and deceit.

Lebanon is not a country particularly good at remembering, and the families of the disappeared have felt this most harshly. For years they fought to gain some recognition. Yet the state has not often acted in a favorable way toward the families, and in a postwar environment characterized by laughter and forgetting, not a single monument was put up to honor those erased by the war, often without a trace.

My own very limited experiences with the matter of the disappeared allowed me to see what it means to live with an unresolved mystery. The world’s attention has been riveted on an airplane that fell off the radar screens two weeks ago. Imagine, then, what the families of the several thousand disappeared (the 17,000 number is probably exaggerated) have had to endure for decades on end, surrounded by the indifference or helplessness of the society in which they live.

In the summer of 1985 my friend Richard Salem, his sister Christine, and their uncle Georges were kidnapped in western Beirut. Richard’s and Christine’s mother Odette was always persuaded that they were alive, even when most of those around her thought otherwise. Her life subsequently was devoted to finding out what had happened to them.

In a pathetic addendum to the Salem tragedy, Odette was struck by a car and killed in May 2009, after attending a gathering of the families of the disappeared. A ceremony marking her death was held by the families at the small park near the UN ESCWA building. It’s not easy to forget the sense of defiant despair that surrounded that event, the feeling that those present were still fighting windmills.

Odette was better known than her sister-in-law by marriage, Claire, Georges’ wife. Claire was fairly advanced in age when her husband was kidnapped and her last years were the personification of desolation. She never complained, however, and having lost virtually everything she yet never lost her generosity and hospitality.

Doubtless it was a coincidence, but three of the people who disappeared at that time were somehow linked with one another. Richard Salem was a friend of Andre Cheaib of the Central Bank, who was kidnapped in western Beirut. And a cousin of Claire was the mother of Junior Kettaneh of the Lebanese Red Cross, who also was abducted at the same period. But rather than speculate about nonexistent conspiracies, perhaps a more mundane truth explains what happened: all were Christians vulnerable for living or working in a part of the capital ruled by Shiite and Druze gunmen.

It was not enough for the families to see their relatives disappear. In many cases pitiless individuals continued to exploit the families’ desire to uncover the truth, extracting money from them in exchange for bogus information on their fate.

A particularly poignant example of this was Andre Cheaib’s father, Emile, who was interviewed by the filmmaker Bahij Hojeij for a brilliant 1998documentary on the disappeared. In the interview, he recounted how he had sold many personal possessions in order to pay a succession of charlatans for information about his son. Yet, even knowing that he was being taken advantage of, Emile Cheaib kept on selling his belongings, hoping he might learn something, anything.

The decision of the Shura Council will probably not address such issues in any decisive way. Nor will those who abducted and killed admit to their crimes, let alone provide details of what happened. The notion that any of the victims is still alive seems absurd. But this does not release the state of its responsibility toward them.

There are no monuments to the victims of the war in Lebanon. Only the militias, it seems, remembered their own in haphazard memorials one can still see in some quarters of Beirut or in mountain villages. The ideology of postwar reconstruction left no room for memory. The sole reminder of the war was the monument by Arman, titled Hope for Peace, which was supposed to be placed in the downtown area. Instead, it was banished to the Defense Ministry complex in Yarzeh.

A monument won’t answer the myriad questions still posed by the families of the disappeared, but it will show them that their relatives, like all those who were killed during the war, merit a position of privilege in the national memory. That’s not asking for very much.

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