The mystery of Lebanon's missing thousands

Relatives of those who disappeared during the civil war want answers and hope that a new commission will help

Wadad Halwani's husband was taken just as the family was about to eat lunch in September 1982. Secret police came to their house in Beirut and said they needed to question her husband, Adnan, about a traffic accident. She had no idea it would be the last time she saw him.

Nearly 32 years later, she is still fighting to know what happened. "It's not just about the disappearance of my husband. It's an issue that touches about 17,000 people and their relatives," she said, citing the estimated number of people who went missing during Lebanon's civil war. "It's a national cause."

Later that year, Mrs Halwani co-founded the Committee of the Families of the Missing and Disappeared in Lebanon and has constantly lobbyied the government for answers. Since 2005, a group of women have camped out in a park below Lebanon's parliament. The women carry pictures of their loved ones; their protest tent is a sea of missing faces.

Almost three decades after the start of the Lebanese civil war, some information finally appears to be forthcoming. Last month, the Shura Council, Lebanon's upper house of parliament, ruled that families should be able to obtain copies of all documents from a 2000 commission of inquiry. But more importantly, the ruling finally acknowledged that families have the right to know what happened to their loved ones. Mrs Halwani called it a "large victory" for the relatives of the missing.

There has been resistance from the government, which said that addressing the issue of the disappeared will only reopen old wounds and cause civil strife. The International Center for Transitional Justice, an NGO which seeks accountability for war crimes and human rights abuses, called the country's refusal to face its past "state-sponsored amnesia".

The reason for such a policy is that the perpetrators of such crimes are still in power, argued the MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who tomorrow will submit a bill to set up a national commission for the disappeared. "Many political parties had their own militias, and have been responsible for killing. Many of these people now running Lebanon have their own skeletons in the closet," he said.

Mr Moukheiber hopes the commission will also be able to create a mechanism to deal with the issue of opening up mass graves. Realising the political sensitivity of the subject, NGOs are currently lobbying for protection of the sites. It is estimated that some 17,000 people disappeared during the 1975-90 civil war in which the country was overrun by militias vying for power and more than 150,000 died.

"Maybe it's too early for Lebanon. Maybe we need to wait more," said Justine de Mayo, founder of Act for the Disappeared, an NGO trying to raise awareness of the issue. "But as a society, if we don't address this issue, we can't look towards the future."

The government never conducted an official investigation into the civil war. The 2000 commission, composed solely of security personnel, issued only a two-page report. It said there were only 2,046 missing – all presumed dead – and advised families to declare that their relatives had died. The government has been encouraging relatives to move on since 1995, when it created the possibility to declare those missing for more than four years as legally deceased. But many feel that registering their loved ones as dead means they will never find out what happened.

Those most optimistic about a possible return of their loved ones are the relatives of between 300 and 600 Lebanese who disappeared after being detained in Syria. Relatives are convinced they are languishing in prison in Syria, now caught up in the new wave of disappeared being created by the Syrian crisis.

Some have resorted to paying for tip-offs. Marie Mansourati said she had spent $200,000 (£120,000) on finding her son Daniel. He was abducted when the family was visiting Damascus in 1992, two years after the civil war ended. The 30-year-old had been a member of a Christian militia, whose leader confirmed to Mrs Mansourati that he was in custody in Syria. She pays up to $500 a time for information, but is always disappointed: "When the thieves go, the liars arrive. When the liars go, the thieves arrive."

However, she refuses to give up hope, despite several reports that her son died in the 1990s. "He is alive and in prison in Syria," she insisted. "I am sure he is alive."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable