Families Yearn for News of Syria's Lebanese Prisoners
By DEXTER FILKINS - New York Times
Published: April 4, 2005

EIRUT, Lebanon, April 3 - In the last glimpse that Violet Nasif had of her son, Johnny, he stood just inside the darkened corridor of a Syrian jail, in the shadows, a guard at each arm, behind a door of metal bars.
Then, after a few seconds, he was gone, pulled back into the darkness. Since that April day in 1994, Johnny Nasif, a 15-year-old Lebanese Army recruit when he was taken prisoner four years earlier, after this country's civil war, has officially ceased to exist.
"They say he's not there anymore," she said.
Ms. Nasif's son is one of hundreds of Lebanese men who, human rights groups say, were spirited across the border by Syrian agents after Syria first sent troops into Lebanon 29 years ago. Most of those taken prisoner were suspected of fighting for the Lebanese Army or one of the many militias that sprang up when the civil war began.
For years, mothers like Violet Nasif have been thwarted not just by the Syrians, who deny the existence of the prisoners, but also by Lebanon's leaders, who have responded with passivity and silence.
The apathy of both the Syrian and Lebanese governments before the families of the disappeared has long stood as a testament to how thoroughly the Syrian government came to dominate this tiny country on the Mediterranean.
But Lebanese leaders here say that may be coming to an end. With the Syrian Army compelled by Lebanese popular opinion and international pressure to end its 29-year military occupation, calls are rising here for Lebanese leaders to demand an accounting of their citizens held in Syrian jails.
The issue is likely to be one of the first tests of the Lebanese opposition, which is expected to win parliamentary elections in May and take over the government. By then, the Syrian troops, who first came to the country in 1976, are supposed to be gone.
"Times are changing," said Fouad Saad, a member of the Lebanese opposition and of Parliament. "It's very possible that a new government will reopen this issue and say to the Syrians, 'Where are these people?' "
Two years ago, Mr. Saad headed a commission that looked into the Lebanese prisoners in Syria and determined that 120 Lebanese were probably either in Syrian jails or had died there.
Yet so intimidating was the Syrian presence, Mr. Saad said, the commission's report was rejected by the Lebanese president, Émile Lahoud, and Rafik Hariri, then the prime minister. It was Mr. Hariri's murder on Feb. 14 that galvanized Lebanese popular opinion against the Syrian occupation. Many Lebanese believe that the Syrian government was behind the killing.
The report was never published.
Syria's leaders say they released the last of their Lebanese prisoners in December 2000. But human rights groups, as well as the American government, do not place much credence in the assertion. A Lebanese group, Families of Lebanese Held in Syria, has compiled a list of 280 Lebanese who they say were taken to Syrian jails and never released.
Nicole Choueiry of Amnesty International said her organization believed that Syria was still holding an undetermined number of Lebanese prisoners. One prisoner, Josef Huways, died under torture in a Syrian jail in June 2003, the organization said, long after the Syrian leaders said all had been released.
"It's impossible to know how many people are there," Ms. Choueiry said.
Through doggedness and bribes, a few mothers like Ms. Nasif have found their sons and purchased a few moments together. The other families have been left to wonder whether their sons and husbands are alive or dead, and, if they are alive, whether they are among the many who, according to human rights groups, are being tortured in Syrian jails.
If her son is alive, Ms. Nasif notes, he will turn 30 in May.
"We are all dying slowly," Ms. Nasif said of her family. "He is not the only one."
The Syrian government has continued to turn over Lebanese prisoners even as it denies that it is holding any, human rights groups say. Since 2000, the Syrian government has quietly released at least a dozen more prisoners, according to Ghazi Aad, the director of Families of Lebanese Held in Syria.
April 4, 2005
Human rights groups have said that hundreds of Lebanese men were spirited across the border by Syrian agents after Syria first sent troops into Lebanon.