Robert Fisk: Some buried bones are best left undug

There are 17,000 Lebanese missing from the civil war. Are we to dig them all up?
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My late friend Juan Carlos Gumucio used to claim that we were "mass graves correspondents". So often were we driving to southern Lebanon to witness the exhumation of yet more murdered Lebanese that it seemed quite an accurate description of our lives. Druze tipped down wells, Maronites with their throats slit in the Chouf and - once- an entire charnel house of skeletons which turned out, after the usual claims of Israeli atrocities, to be the last resting place not of Palestinians but of Philistines; it was Juan Carlos who spotted that the dead wore no wrist watches.

And now - many months since he killed himself in far-away Bolivia - I am reminded of my old mate once more. For we have more mass graves in Lebanon. Or, to be specific, at a small town called Aanjar. And therein lies the problem. For Aanjar is Armenian, and while it proudly hosts the last earthly remains of the heroes of Musa Dagh (hands up all readers who know what happened at Musa Dagh), it was one of the few places in Lebanon to be spared the carnage of the country's 1975-90 civil war.

"Let's wait and see," were the comforting words from Nabih Berri, the Shia speaker of the Lebanese parliament, and a friend of Syria. Nor were they unexpected.

Because the 29 corpses that were dug up at Aanjar were discovered close to the former headquarters of the Syrian military security agency. They include four children and a foetus. And Lebanon's Christian Maronites are now claiming that the dead were murdered by the Syrians. Indeed, up at the Maronite cardinal's palace at Bkirke, bishops have been demanding an international tribunal to inquire into this "crime against humanity".

All well and good. For who was the official to hold the longest sway in the Aanjar security complex? Why, Brigadier General Ghazi Kenaan, the slim, pugnacious and ruthless secret policeman who killed himself - or was "suicided" - in his Damascus office earlier this year while currently holding the post of minister of interior.

Thus already the dead are dividing the Lebanese along the usual sectarian lines. Since the Christians suspect they are former Lebanese soldiers who fought the Syrian army in 1990 - or that the dead were Christians tortured to death by General Kenaan's lads - the Maronite community is outraged, while the Muslims of Lebanon are somewhat less upset by the discovery of the mass grave. And as each day brings forth yet more bones from the soft red earth of the Bekaa Valley, I recall an old Serbian friend of mine, a distinguished lady married to a colonel in the Yugoslav army, who remembered how the Croatians dug up their Second World War dead to prove the wickedness of Tito's Serb partisans.

"They opened the mass graves so they could pour more blood into them," my friend announced. And she was right; within months, the wars of the Yugoslav succession burst across the land, fuelled by all those skeletons pulled from the ravines of Croatia and Bosnia. Was it really such a good idea to dig them up? Can't there, maybe, be a statute of limitations on these things? Yet even this would not solve the problem in Lebanon - where some of the dead still lie only 15 years in their graves. And where some graves are probably best left undug. For by a grim irony, one of them lies next to a church only a few hundred metres from the palace where those bishops were this week demanding their international tribunal.

Its location is known to the killers and it contains up to 300 Palestinians who were originally spared the massacre of the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut in mid-September 1982. Israel's Phalangist militia allies had been sent into the camps by Israel to fight "terrorists" - Ariel Sharon was held personally responsible for this in the official Israeli court of enquiry in 1983 - but what is less well known is that many of the Palestinians murdered that month escaped the original massacre. They were interrogated by Israeli officers on 18 September 1982 - and then handed back to the militia murderers.

After fruitless days trying to swap these prisoners for Christians kidnapped by Lebanese Muslims and Palestinians, a decision was taken to kill them all. Those held close to Bkirke were machine-gunned into their graves after being held in stifling containers. One of their killers identified the location - it now stands inside a Lebanese army barracks - in 2001. But who would want to dig up these corpses? To what purpose? To give their remains (always assuming they could be identified) back to their loved ones, always supposing the latter survived the original massacre? Or to pour more blood into the graves?

After all, there are 17,000 Lebanese missing from the civil war. Are we to dig them all up? Or just those whose enemies or murderers happen to be on our current list of pet hates - Syria being pretty much at the top of America's list at the moment - when a demonstration of Syrian bestiality would go down well with the State Department? And who can forget that on 15 December, the UN's top prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, is to present his final report on those responsible for murdering ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 21 others on 14 February this year? For that document - with its far-reaching implications for the Syrian regime - is likely to exceed in importance even the Iraqi elections planned for the same day.

So while we await Mr Mehlis' findings on the death of a man whose mortal remains lie beside those of his bodyguards only a few hundred metres from the place of his assassination, we are all, in Lebanon, sniffing the putrid odours of a larger cemetery. Maybe Juan Carlos was right. Maybe we, all of us, are mass graves correspondents, fearful of forgetting the dead, even more frightened of digging them up.