Mothers remember, Lebanon tries to forget
January 3, 2006 By Anthony Shadid - The Washington Post
BEIRUT -- On this morning, as on every morning since Oct. 17, 1985, Audette Salem cleaned the rooms of her son and daughter. She left his razor, toothbrush and comb as they were on the day her children were abducted from the streets of Beirut during Lebanon's civil war.
She fiddled with her daughter's makeup and straightened her bed. She dusted the three guitars, the papers still on their desks and the pack that holds a 20-year-old cigarette, the artifacts of two lives interrupted.
"Everything is there as they left it," she said. "I haven't changed a thing, nothing at all. It's all still there."
At 70, quiet but determined, Salem clings to memories in a country that prefers to forget.
In the heart of downtown Beirut, ravaged by a brutal 15-year civil war, then rebuilt into a graceful, if somewhat soulless, urban hub, Salem joins other women every day in a protest demanding to know the fate of their children. Many believe they languish in jails in neighboring Syria. Others are not sure. Behind them, their children's faces stare from pictures tacked to billboards, faces with generation-old haircuts, the dates of their disappearances reading like a war memorial yet to be built.
The protest by Salem and dozens of other mothers serves as a stark reminder, organizers say, that Lebanese society has yet to confront, much less resolve, the legacy of the most cataclysmic event in its modern history--the 1975-90 civil war. Fifteen years later, that conflict is still shrouded in silence. Under a 1991 amnesty law, all but a handful of killings were placed beyond prosecution. History textbooks address nothing more recent than 1975. And many factional warlords serve in government, their portraits staring down on streets they once wrecked.
"When you discuss the truth and you know the truth--who was responsible, who prolonged the war--then you can have true reconciliation. The door to bring in a new generation is to find out what happened in Lebanon," said Ghazi Aad, who heads Solide, an acronym for Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile, the group that has led the protest since April 11 in downtown Beirut. "Without that, you're just sweeping the dust under the rug. You cannot reconcile when you don't know what happened."
A sign of new transparency
The protest's longevity reflects the changes unleashed by the departure of Syrian troops last spring after a 29-year presence. It is a sign of new transparency in public discourse as Lebanon--still deeply fractured along the lines of its Christian and Muslim sects--struggles to craft an alternative to the old Syrian order. Under the former system, Syria exercised the last word on virtually everything in the country, and its security services, along with their Lebanese allies, enforced compliance through arrests, intimidation and patronage. But now, long-discouraged subjects--including the perhaps more than 600 Lebanese taken to Syrian jails--are now being aired as calls for accountability have mounted.
At the protest in Gibran Khalil Gibran Park, staffed 24 hours a day, women wear name tags with their relatives' pictures, next to the words "How long?"
"It's in us to hope," Salem said, sitting next to the tent, sipping bitter coffee. "That is what a mother does."
Her children, Richard and Christine, were abducted on a road in west Beirut, probably at a checkpoint, as they drove home for lunch. Their mother had prepared rice and a stew of peas, carrots and potatoes. She waited, then contacted friends, who visited hospitals, restaurants, political parties and others with connections. She kept waiting.
Last spring a former Iraqi intelligence officer released from a Syrian prison visited the Beirut protest. He gazed at the pictures, Salem said, then stopped at a photo of Richard. He said he saw him in 1992 in Tadmur, one of Syria's worst jails.
"Hope is durable," Aad said. "It's so durable because they don't have an answer." `It's a matter of the living'
At the start of the protest, Aad had the names of 280 people who had disappeared and were perhaps in Syrian jails. Since then, more families have come forward, bringing the number to 643. Hundreds of other cases remain unresolved by families who believe their relatives were detained by Israeli or allied forces in southern Lebanon during its occupation, which ended in 2000. Both numbers pale before the 17,000 still unaccounted for from the civil war. But for Aad and others, the detainees in Syria -- mostly unacknowledged by its government--remain the most pressing.
"There are people who are still alive in Syria," he said. "It's a matter of the living."
Some of the answers may rest beneath the deep brown soil of Majdal Anjar, where Syria once maintained a de facto headquarters for its presence in eastern Lebanon. There, last month, a shallow grave was unearthed on a hill overlooking the Bekaa Valley, holding up to 30 corpses.
The town's mayor, Shaaban Ajami, said he had known about the grave since 1999, "but they told me, `Don't say a word.'"
"There are still more bodies," Ajami said.
Fear of a `Pandora's box'
Amnesty International criticized the exhumation as unprofessional. On a visit after the search was finished, a reporter for the Daily Star, an English-language newspaper here, found bones strewn across the hilltop. Some activists suspect the government is wary of making too large an issue of it, willing to unearth the grave to perhaps put more pressure on Syria but not to risk more demands by victims' families to unearth civil war-era mass graves that litter the country.
"You can't just open this mass grave and say that's it," said Habib Nassar, a human-rights lawyer in Beirut. "Are you ready to open all the mass graves? You can't make a distinction between the Syrians and all the other factions involved in the war."
"I think now they'll even forget Anjar," he added. "They're afraid they'll open a Pandora's box."
Legacy remains in flux
Lebanon's civil war exacted a breathtaking toll. Official figures put the dead at more than 144,000 and the wounded at more than 184,000. Nearly 13,000 were abducted, and more than 17,000 remain missing. The task of addressing the war's legacy has fallen to a handful of intellectuals. A conference, "Memory for the Future," was organized in 2001. But its proposals--a war memorial, for instance--are overshadowed by what some activists call official amnesia. One committee formed in 2001 to look into the missing never released a report; its chairman said he was pressured by pro-Syrian officials. A Syrian-Lebanese committee was formed last year, charged with resolving the fate of missing in each country's jails, but has yet to issue any findings.
"The reason why the problem was never solved was precisely because the perpetrators have been in power since the war and Syria was in control of the country," Nassar said. "It was not in their interest to find a solution."