BEIRUT: “Tell me where you are, visit me even once in the dream.” So begins Laila al-Shabab’s ode to her brother Antoine, or Tony, who went missing in Zahle during the Lebanese Civil War in 1986, and has never been found.
“I’ve written a lot for him, and a lot of things haven’t been written,” she said. “The most beautiful things are those that have not been written because they can’t be described.”
Laila was only 17 when Tony was kidnapped. She was outside the country, and would remain away for three more years, the fact of his absence hidden from her by her family.
“I always said I wanted to speak to Tony, and they came up with a hundred excuses,” she said.
The last time she saw Tony, he had dropped her off near the airport just before her flight.
“The last goodbye was a promise of meeting again,” she said.
It has been 28 years since Tony went missing, one of roughly 17,000 Lebanese individuals who disappeared during the Civil War and have never been heard from since. His story, like theirs, is one of abject sadness for families who find themselves in a painful purgatory – unable to lose hope, and unable to hope for the best.
Theirs is also a story about a Lebanon unable to grapple with its Civil War history – a legacy some think is perhaps left buried, the mists of time and the fading of memory obscuring the atrocities of a dark era.
But a new database that has been launched to document the details of all those who went missing during the 15-year conflict could shed new light on the lost and systematically document them, allowing a future Lebanese government initiative to uncover their fate.
“The main thing they want is to know the truth, this is their essential demand, it is the main thing you hear from the moment you enter the house,” said Soha Succari, who is the programs manager at the missing persons department of the International Committee for the Red Cross’ Beirut office. “They are living in ambiguous loss, because they don’t know if their loved ones are dead or alive.”
The wall on Succari’s office bears another painful memory. It is a letter from Naifa Najjar, whose son disappeared on Mother’s Day 1982. Six months later, she committed suicide, leaving him a note.
“Tomorrow my son, if you return, you will find my ship has sailed to the final shore,” the letter begins. “You will question the speed of my departure, but you will forgive me. Tomorrow, my son, if you return, you will find that I have tired of waiting with no news from you.”
“Tomorrow, my son, if you return you will walk the path of your life alone, you will walk just as you did growing up and under your mother’s care,” the letter declared.
The ICRC itself was active during the Lebanese Civil War, helping trace requests from families whose members went missing. Many remained absent after the Taif Accord that ended the Civil War.
Their numbers are uncertain, though the Lebanese government estimates that about 17,000 individuals disappeared in the course of the war, a large number for such a small country.
“We’re not sure yet because there has never been a consolidated list,” Succari said.
In 2011, Succari and her team began a national assessment, where they interviewed a sample of 324 families of the missing to get a better understanding of their needs. Many had administrative and other difficulties due to the legal status of their missing family members, while others needed psychological support or had financial concerns if the disappeared were family breadwinners.
But many had a much more basic demand – the truth.
To help find the truth, the ICRC has taken on the task, on behalf of the Lebanese government, of launching an “ante-disappearance” data collection program.
The organization has interviewed 1,500 families about the physical appearance, medical records and even unique markers that identify the individuals who went missing during the war. They have also photographed artwork made of the missing family members by loving relatives.
“The aim of this project is to collect all this information in order to hand it over one day to a future mechanism that aims to uncover the fate of the missing persons,” Succari said.
Succari described one case where the sister of a missing man drew a portrait of him, and slowly changed the portrait with time, making changes that reflect how she thinks he would have looked as he aged.
The sister said that she wanted to recognize her brother if she saw him, by chance, in the street one day.
“Many people give you the impression that as long as somebody is thinking about the missing, they are not really gone,” she said. “The majority of the families definitely still have hope.”
“You see hope in them and they see hope in you,” she added.
Now the ICRC is using the International Day of the Disappeared, which was Aug. 30, to make a public call for individuals and local authorities who have the names of missing individuals and the contacts of their families to come forth with information to build the database.
The organization launched a hotline for families or individuals to call in, and began an awareness campaign on social media, wall paintings and a TV spot about the Civil War missing.
The idea is that once the database is complete, the ICRC will hand it over to the Lebanese government, which would be expected to create a national commission to uncover the fate of the missing.
Succari said the ICRC is also on the verge of an agreement with the Internal Security Forces on collecting “biological reference samples” or DNA from relatives of the missing that would help in quickly and accurately identifying any missing individuals who are found.
For Laila al-Shabab and her family, keeping the issue alive is the only way their rights will not die. But they have already paid a heavy price.
Laila has sharp words for today’s political elite, who were once commanding men on the battlefronts of the Civil War, and who she said are responsible for burying the issue of the disappeared.
“The zaims who kidnapped and killed, were also the warlords, are now the zaims of Lebanon,” she said, using the Arabic term for chieftains or feudal lords. “They don’t want to reopen the issue because all of their hands are smeared with blood.
“We didn’t endure it,” she said. “We have lived beyond our capacity. This is a burden so heavy that it cannot be carried.
“I had patience because I have hope, because I cannot imagine that I will never again see my brother,” she said.
But they still weep because they do not know if he is alive or dead, well-fed or thirsty, tortured or in good health. And that is why the families must keep fighting.
“It is our right to know, to know everything,” she said.
Hotline to report any information on disappeared individuals: 03-186-386.