Pit of corpses ends hope for Lebanese wife after 24 years

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The Independent Online

Officially, the 16-year Lebanese civil war ended in 1990. For widow Ibtihaj Salameh, it lasted another decade. But Lebanon's red earth eventually gives up its terrible secrets - and now Ibtihaj's last hopes have ended, the story of every widow in every war. When Lebanese soldiers dug the remains of 24 corpses out of a mass grave in Israel's former occupation zone, one of them was the handsome dark-haired man she had married in 1969. Only a few bones and decaying army boots were left.

Officially, the 16-year Lebanese civil war ended in 1990. For widow Ibtihaj Salameh, it lasted another decade. But Lebanon's red earth eventually gives up its terrible secrets - and now Ibtihaj's last hopes have ended, the story of every widow in every war. When Lebanese soldiers dug the remains of 24 corpses out of a mass grave in Israel's former occupation zone, one of them was the handsome dark-haired man she had married in 1969. Only a few bones and decaying army boots were left.

"You can imagine what it was like for me at the time, in 1976, with four young children, to know that my husband had disappeared," said Ibtihaj, now 51. "I had just taken the children to school when the Israelis came in and surrounded our village of Blat. Hassan was in the military headquarters in Marjayoun, just over the hill from us. I heard shooting."

Two of the small children - tall, moustachioed men now - are sitting beside me in the family's apartment in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The firm, strong face of Sergeant Hassan Salameh - clean-shaven, crossed swords insignia on the lapels of his uniform - watches us in monochrome from a silver-framed photograph on the sideboard.

In 1976, Lebanon was a year deep into the horror of civil war and the old Lebanese army was disintegrating. Some Muslim soldiers had joined the so-called Lebanese Arab Army; a number of Christian soldiers decided to collaborate with Israel, whose own forces made periodic attacks into Lebanon as part of their war against Palestinian guerrillas. Others, like 29-year-old Hassan, a Shiite Muslim, soldiered on in their barracks as the world collapsed around them.

"The army had broken apart and in every village in the south there were soldiers protecting their people against the Israelis. But Hassan didn't come home on the night of 16 October. Altogether, nine soldiers from our village disappeared. Next morning, all the wives tried to find out what had happened. I went to the barracks at Marjayoun and to the army camp at Khiam. They all said they knew nothing."

In restrospect, Ibtihaj realises that the officers she spoke to, Adnan al-Homsi, Ghassan al-Homsi, Khaim Naame, Karamala Said and Naif Karam, must have known the truth. All were collaborating with the Israelis. She suspects some of them may have been involved in Hassan's disappearance. She and her family fled north.

"I never gave up hope," she says. "No one ever said Hassan was dead, so I had to believe he was alive, held in some place where I couldn't find him. I couldn't believe he had been killed. How could any of his colleagues have murdered him?"

After Israel's 1982 invasion, Ibtihaj could return to her village - now deep in Israel's occupation zone - but silence was the price of homecoming. "We were frightened of talking about our missing husbands because the men who collaborated with Israel were running everything."

Everything changed after the Israelis retreated from southern Lebanon in May. "Once they had gone, we had the freedom to ask about our husbands. We went to the government, the generals, we could make a fuss, you know?"

The new, reconstituted Lebanese army sent intelligence officers to Marjayoun to interview a man called Varis Karam. He admitted that on the night of 16 October 1976, he had driven a truck laden with 24 bodies to a newly-dug pit below the village of Qleia.

"He said he ... dropped the bodies in and then filled it with sand," Ibtihaj says. "Later it was used as a rubbish dump." Pathologists found several of the bodies' bones had been broken and that limbs may have been amputated under torture.

A few days later, the Lebanese army re-buried the 18 soldiers among the 24 dead, Hassan among them, with full military honours. "I'm glad Hassan had a proper burial," Ibtihaj says. "I didn't want him to be under a rubbish dump."

The collaborators have kept their secret. One is probably dead, others have fled to Saudi Arabia, Israel or France. Only they know who killed Hassan but few doubt the reasons. Hassan was a Muslim in a civil war, killed by Christians.

During all her story, Ibtihaj Salameh shows no anger or rage, but I am moved to ask her why, at 20, she fell in love with Hassan. She fingers a small passport photograph. "He was a kind man," she says. "My parents liked him." Then her face lights up for a moment. "He had very good manners," she says.

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