When people go missing without a trace during civil wars, life stands still for their families
The mothers of those who disappeared during the Lebanese Civil War, which extended over 15 years from 1975 till 1990, have never stopped searching for their loved ones even after some 41 years have passed since they last saw or heard from them.
They are the mothers who continue to live in a suspended moment, where anticipation rules and dreams of a happy ending prevail with the return of their sons, husbands, daughters, wives, sisters, fathers, brothers and loved ones.
The wounds are quieted briefly with longing for those who disappeared during a vicious civil conflict, which was anything but civil. A war that claimed the lives of 250,000 people, and left the fate of 17,000 others unknown. A war whose wounds run so deep, that it would be uneasy, and near impossible to close the door on it once and for all.
That pain is a common emotion between both the Lebanese and Syrian mothers of those who disappeared during both countries’ civil wars. With the Syrian war still ongoing, more mothers will be added to the long list of those asking: How can we close our ears when we can hear their voices in our hearts?
According to aid workers, rescue missions and non-government organizations, an estimated 100,000 Syrians have been listed as missing since the war broke out five years ago, in addition to the nearly 250,000 Syrians in prisons and detention facilities. Meanwhile, the number of Syrian refugees who have fled the country has reached five million, according to U.N. estimates.
The families of the missing continue to cook their loved ones’ favorite food in the hope that one day they will return to taste it; while the scent of those who have disappeared lingers in their memory. Their photographs have acquired a yellowish tone, their toys have gathered dust and their rooms have been left untouched.
With new missing people registered every day, if not every hour, the Lebanese mothers advise their Syrian counterparts: never give up even when the whole world has given up.
In an exclusive report, Newsweek Middle East takes you on a heartbreaking journey across Lebanon to meet the Lebanese and Syrian families of the missing, who recount their experiences in an attempt to raise awareness on the atrocities of war, and to keep the torch lit in the hopes that someday they will be reunited with the ones they have lost.
Thirty-Four Years of Waiting
In one part of the Lebanese capital Beirut, Maryam Al Saidi, 66, lives in a past that is yet to end. She has stopped counting the days since 34 years ago, when her son, Maher Qassir, then 15, went missing following the infamous battle between members of the Communist Party and the Lebanese Forces (LF) militia at the Lebanese University’s Faculty (LU) of Sciences in Hadath.
According to Saidi, the Communist Party, of which Qassir was a member, had courageously fought off Israeli soldiers for three continuous days, during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in the Khaldeh area, on the southern outskirts of Beirut. The resistance fighters were later forced to retreat to the LU campus in the nearby Hadath area, where they took refuge.
The group consisted of 40 young men of all sects and religions. The Israeli forces had asked their allies at the time, the LF militia, for support to take over the campus.
The LF then resorted to a “dirty trick” by disguising in the Lebanese Army attire to fool the young fighters. Many lives were lost that day, and no one heard from those who were detained by the LF ever again, but years later a mass grave was found in a nearby field.
For Saidi, her son continues to dwell in the abandoned old building where the LF interrogated the young men. She joined the Faculty of Arts, which her son loved, and where she learned how to express her feelings in abstract paintings.
At the faculty, she says, she picked a window overlooking the building where her son was interrogated, next to the Faculty of Sciences. Since then, she has painted her son in more than 200 drawings and created clay artwork of him.
Qassir is one of three children, and she refuses to let go of his case, and continues to support other parents whose sons went missing during the war.
Saidi feels that she is part of the Syrian families who have lost their loved ones in the ongoing barbaric war in Syria.
“The families of the missing Syrians must take a serious stand for their sake and the sake of their missing, or detained loved ones, without making a political commitment to either the Syrian regime or opposition,” she says.
Work on the cases of the missing must not be associated to any of the warring sides, whose leaders are living in fancy hotels at the expense of the vulnerable Syrian population, which has been dispersed across the globe, according to Saidi.
The elderly lady advises her Syrian counterparts to form an “independent civilian committee, which would be tasked with gathering the names of those missing and those detained in Syrian prisons, in order to be able to try and reveal their fate when the war is over.”
Joseph Is Still in the Cab
Rosaline Merhi, 87, never tires of praying for the safe return of her son Joseph Azar, who was 22 when he disappeared on March 11, 1976. He was last seen being pulled out of a taxi at a checkpoint run by the Socialist Party then headed by Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt.
Merhi remembers that checkpoint like no one else. Joseph was forced out of the car after a female passenger sitting in the back with her three children told the militiamen that he had mounted the vehicle at a checkpoint run by the then-rival LF militia.
All it took was one sentence. A sentence that would turn Joseph into a missing young man for the past 40 years. One sentence deprived a mother of her son, and since the uttering of those words she has continued to iron his clothes everyday, place a plateful of his favorite food on the table every night, and wait. But herein lies the tragedy. The clothes remain unworn and the food untouched, while Merhi withers away burdened by her misery.
At her gloomy house in Hazmieh, north of the capital Beirut, Merhi welcomes visitors with a warm smile. The lady, who hails from the southern town of Jezzine, lives alone surrounded by photos of her son, who was a well-known hairdresser then, and owned a shop in Sabra, in West Beirut. Back then, the warring militias had divided the city into two parts: West Beirut was controlled by Muslim militias, while East Beirut was controlled by Christian militias.
The quiet house in Mar (Saint) Elias Street is often empty, with few visitors, mainly neighbors, popping in every now and then. Both Merhi’s husband and son George died of grief, leaving her with her daughter.
“I am still angry at Aziz, the MP (member of parliament) in my hometown of Jizzine. He could have easily gotten Joseph out with one phone call. Aziz asked my brother Semaan if I had any children other than Joseph, and when he learned that I had two others, he told my brother that may the lord be with me,” Merhi tells Newsweek Middle East.
Aziz, according to Merhi, was a powerful man as a direct relative of the 74th Maronite Patriarch, (Christian Catholic), Cardinal Boutros Boulos Al Maoushi.
Ever since that day, Merhi never skips a prayer and still lives in the hope that her son will return to the safety of her arms.
“Prior to his arrest by the militiamen at the checkpoint, Joseph was getting ready to go to Jezzine to check on his new shop there. He had passed by the house to pick up a few items after closing his shop in West Beirut,” she says with tears glistening in her eyes.
“The lady in that taxi was the main reason my son was arrested at the checkpoint. The taxi driver tried to calm down the militiamen to release my Joseph, but they told off the taxi driver threatening to arrest him as well,” she adds.
A few days later, Rosaline held a picture of her son and headed to the Choueifat area, a Druze stronghold at the time, to look for him. She asked every man and woman on the street: “Have you seen Joseph? Tall with a short beard dressed in a white shirt and black pants?”
Soon after, she toured Lebanon, even neighboring Syria and Iraq, seeking any news related to her son’s fate. She paid an arm and a leg to people who were fraudulent and had told her they saw him or have information about him, but Joseph remains missing.
Today, Merhi is unable to take part in sit-ins held by the families of the missing. It is not because she has lost hope, but because she has grown old and her knees can no longer support her.
“I hate it when someone tries to convince me that Joseph will not come back. You might say I am crazy and irrational. Despite all the possibilities running in my head that he might have been liquidated at the time of his arrest, or that he is buried in one of the mass graves, or that he may have escaped and lives abroad, all I know is that he will come back home one day and I will get to hug him,” she adds.
Six Months of Torture in Syrian Jails
During our trip to Tripoli, in the north, one couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of the Lebanese who were kidnapped by the Syrian occupation forces which controlled Lebanon with an iron fist for three decades after the end of the civil war. There Newsweek Middle East met with Leila Merashli, 50, at one of the local cafes, 26 years after she was released by the Syrian forces. She was one of the lucky few, who made it out alive after being kidnapped by the Syrian occupation in Lebanon and was tortured for six months, without trial or even a charge.
She greets us with a wide smile and a friendliness reflected in one of her eyes. Her other eye is made of glass, a constant reminder of the cruelty and torture inflicted on her by the Syrians. That was the first time that Merashli told her story. She took us back in time to the morning of March 8, 1989, when she was detained.
Syrian Colonel Mohammed Khallouf, who later became general and headed the Palestine Branch in the Syrian Army—a name that the Lebanese associate with bloodshed— arrived at the Islamic garments shop, which she owned in the town of Al Mina, in Tripoli. She also taught religious studies at Al Risala Al Islamiya (The Islamic Message) school in Abu Samra area.
“Come with us for a quick cup of coffee, it won’t take more than five minutes, he told me,” she says.
Those five minutes turned into six months of continuous torture, during which she was dragged from one Syrian occupation military post to another.
She was taken to the Mar Maroun barracks in Tripoli, where she claims she was slapped around by a Syrian officer named Mohammed Al Shaar. Soldiers later placed a black bag over her head and moved her to another location, known as Al Amerkan (The American) in Al Qobba area, in the same city.
The Syrians used all forms of torture against Merashli, who still flinches as she recalls how they tied her to a wheel and flogged her back until her dress was drenched in her blood. The Syrians were celebrating 26 years of their March 8 Revolution, when the Arab Socialist Baath Party took over the reins of power in Syria.
“I stayed there for a month and eight days, while my relatives had no clue where I was. The Syrians had ordered me to write every single detail of my life before moving me again, with my head covered in a black bag, to Anjar area in eastern Lebanon.”
There, Merashli was welcomed by the infamous Colonel Youssef, better known to the town’s residents as Nabi Youssef, (Prophet Youssef). He devised new sadistic torture methods to inflict as much pain as possible on Merashli. They included, but were not limited to, ironing her body with a hot metal rod and putting out his cigarettes on her body. He tried several times to force her to drink alcohol, but she refused.
At a later stage, her left hand’s nails were pulled out one by one, after which her torturers raised her on a plank after tearing off her hijab.
“I was dirty from the blood and dust and lack of water to clean up. Lice and insects filled my hair. They asked me to stand on a chair with my hands tied behind my back. Some soldiers tied my hand to a rope dangling from the ceiling, then they removed the chair. I was left hanging there, two meters above the ground until the next day,” she recalls.
After three days of torture, she was taken out to the yard and forced to crawl on her stomach over sharp rubble and thorns, which cut through her skin. When she protested, one of the soldiers kicked her face with such force he broke her jaw.
That same day she was transferred to Damascus, to the Mantiqa branch, where Colonel Naasan (first name not available)—known for enjoying beating the joints of his victims—accused her of joining a terrorist group, which she strongly denied. Her denial was met with further torture, she says.
By then, four months had passed since her abduction. She was not once allowed to shower, and her clothes were filthy, torn and covered in bloodstains that had also dried over her skin and wounds. Her stench was overpowering and when she begged to take a shower, Colonel Naasan agreed on the condition that a soldier should be present with her in the bathroom.
She was then forced to shower in freezing water with her clothes on, as the soldier stood by and watched. She was later flogged and beaten for refusing to take off her clothes in front of the man.
The following day she was again moved to the Palestine branch, where Colonel Kamal Yusuf treated her well and provided her with new clean clothes and food.
Three days later, he told her she was accused of transporting an explosive device in her car, and that she was detained while assembling it near the Amerkan branch in Tripoli, in addition to transporting money from the southern Lebanese town of Saida to east Beirut, where the Christian resistance fought against the Syrian presence.
Needless to say that when she denied the allegations, she was moved back to the Damascus branch, where she begged for mercy, only to be told by her torturer: “Let your God save you from me.”
Later that day, she was moved to a room with 18 women, all members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist party which the Syrian regime had targeted for years.
“One woman gave me a small mirror and I did not recognize myself. I wept as I found out that I had no eye. I thought my right eye was damaged, but I did not know that I had lost the cornea altogether,” says Merashli.
After two weeks there and continual pleading, she was released to see her elderly mother, on the condition that she would return in three days.
“I had to crawl up the stairs and barely made it to the door. My sisters and mother were shocked to see me like this. My mother had paid an arm and a leg to the Syrians to know my whereabouts and when she saw me like this she fainted,” she says.
Three decades after her release, Merashli still strongly believes that the Lebanese suffered great injustices at the hands of the Syrian regime, which occupied her country.
She tells the Syrian families and mothers of the missing to “be patient and never stop praying,” for the return of their loved ones.
“I do feel the suffering of the mothers of the Syrians who have gone missing in this war. My mother suffered and waited for a long time before she knew where I was,” she adds.
Merashli’s heart is filled with hatred toward the Syrian regime, which had originally entered Lebanon as part of the Arab Forces missioned to protect the country, but later turned into a force of occupation that tortured and oppressed the Lebanese.
But despite all that, “we have no problem with the Syrian people whom we’ve already welcomed as refugees in our country,” she says.
THE DISPLACED IN SYRIA
Just like their Lebanese neighbors years ago, the Syrians are now witnessing the harshest form of displacement and suffering.
Five years after the breakout of the Syrian war, nearly two million Syrians have taken refuge in Lebanon, divided across 1,300 camps, most of which are sporadic. Half of the refugees are living in the Beqaa district, eastern Lebanon, according to the Lebanese Social Affairs Ministry.
Italian journalist, Dario Mitidieri, 56, once said in an interview with the Guardian that war leaves a deep impact on families, more than anything else. Mitidieri, a father of four, decided to travel to Beqaa on an assignment to take formal photographs of the families there.
Though it was hard to convince them at first, yet some obliged. Most of the photos included a missing person, with their chairs left empty to show the impact of their disappearance.
Newsweek Middle East visited the camps and met with some Syrian refugees and heard some of the most heartbreaking stories.
Five-year-old Razan has never seen her father Nader, 36. The Syrian regime had detained him a month before she was born. The youngest of six siblings, the shy girl has her mother’s green eyes.
The mother decided to leave her children in the care of their paternal grandmother Kamlah, 62, who now raises them in her tiny tent in Saadnayel, in Beqaa. Kamlah now plays the roles of both mother and father to the six children, along with other children of her extended family.
“My daughter-in-law hasn’t asked about her children in two years,” Kamlah tells Newsweek Middle East. “She left the children for me to raise while she went on to marry a Lebanese man and [had a baby with him]. The war orphaned my grandchildren twice.”
Kamlah hasn’t heard from her son or received any news about him in five years. Her other son Ahmed, has eight children who are also living with her in a five square meter tent, for which she pays $70 in monthly rent to the landowner.
Though the U.N. provides them with food aid worth $13, in addition to diesel coupons for heating, it is barely enough.
According to Kamlah, Nader was abducted from a taxi, which he had hired, and was transported to an unknown location. The family had sought the mediation of powerful tribes to secure his release, but to no avail.
Five years later, the only information Kamlah has received about her son’s whereabouts was from a man who is connected to the regime and who told her that Nader was being held in Sidnaya prison in Damascus. He told her Nader would be released once the regime decides to pardon prisoners.
However, there were others who told her that her son was drafted as a soldier in the Syrian Army; but what’s certain is that Kamlah is yet to hear the voice of her son.
Alone in Lebanon
In the Faour Refugee Camp, most families have survived without any inspections from the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
In a tiny tent lives Nadia, 35, all alone after the war in Syria. The regime’s air raids killed all her family members in Homs.
Nadia lost her brother Khaled, 29, in the battle to liberate Qseir. He was a newlywed. Her mother died shortly afterwards, heartbroken. Nadia has a surviving special-needs sister, who is being looked after by her husband in Kefraya, in Syria.
We Don’t Feel Welcome
The forced displacement of the Syrians has left them “looking for a sense of security,” Mohammed Hassan, a 24-year-old Syrian journalist tells Newsweek Middle East.
“Food, and shelter are needed; but the sense of security is a priority as the situation in the camps goes from bad to worse, especially that many Lebanese do not respect the feelings of the refugees who miss their country and feel estranged in Lebanon,” he says.
A study conducted by Saint Joseph University (USJ), and sponsored by the UNHCR, which Mohammed was part of, and which targeted 600 Lebanese families and 1,200 Syrian families, found that almost 75 percent of Syrians in Beirut don’t feel welcome. The percentage drops to 62 percent in the Beqaa region. The study also showed that 46 percent of Syrian refugees say they face troubles, not to forget that 70 percent of refugees in Lebanon do not have official identification papers, which may subject them to detention at army checkpoints.
The gravest situation, however, remains with the issue of newly born children of refugees. Most of them have grown up without any IDs because the Lebanese authorities lack a proper and unified mechanism to register them, and even when they are registered, mistakes are often recurrent.
Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nohad Al Mashnouq said in a Syrian refugees’ donors conference in London last February that about “80,000 refugee children were born over the past three years in Lebanon, half of them were born to new families,” meaning the refugees were getting married and starting families in the camps.
Estimates can be even higher, especially since not all the refugees register their children. According to Statistics Lebanon, in 2015, about 50,000 new refugee babies were born, almost equal to the Lebanese birth rates.
What Is Needed to Help?
The Lebanese government had closed the file of those who went missing during the gruesome 15-year war, without any consideration to their families’ feelings. In fact, consecutive Lebanese governments, since 1990 to date, are yet to officially adopt a step towards solving the case of its missing citizens.
If anything, most Lebanese politicians, who were part of the civil war as heads of militias or members of warring sides, consider that reopening of such a file would drag the country into another conflict, a claim that the families refute, saying they simply need closure.
In Lebanon, the war came to an end without a reconciliation process to help the Lebanese come to terms with the atrocities that had taken place and move on, something the families of the disappeared say shouldn’t have happened.
Those same families are now lending their advice to Syrian families urging them to form a body to follow up on the fate of their loved ones and to force their government and the international community to look into the matter as well, much like they had done in 2012, with the help of the International Commission for the Red Cross, (ICRC).
The ICRC had launched an Ante Disappearance Data Collection Programe (ADDCP) that gathered information on those missing by contacting their parents.
ICRC Media Spokesperson in Lebanon, Tarek Wheibi tells Newsweek Middle East that “after finding out that the government tried forming commissions in the past but those were not capable of delivering results. The ADDCP met with and interviewed about 2,500 Lebanese families ever since the file was reopened in 2012.”
Wheibi explains that in times of war such committees usually gather photographs, information, biological samples for DNA testing, numbers of those dead, missing, detained, injured and so on so that their families would know where to look for them, or even identify them in the case of uncovered mass graves.
However, he stresses out that while the ICRC cannot unravel the fate of the missing, it can still help ensure the right of every family to find them.
“For us, there are political parties and even the society in Lebanon who fear that that tackling this file might cause tension. But from our experience in conflict zones such as Iraq and Bosnia, among others, we have found out that tackling and solving such files help heal the wounds of the society and relief tensions,” says Wheibi.
Editor’s note: This article has been amended to reflect ICRC’s experience and comments regarding the issue of missing people in Lebanon and other conflict areas where the international organization operates. Newsweek Middle East regrets any error that was carried earlier.