BEIRUT: When several armed men stormed the house of Iskandar Zakharia in May 1985, they asked him to join them on a ride to answer some questions.
Instead he was handed to the Syrian army, who in turn transfered him to a prison in the country. Iskandar’s sister, Lina Zakharia says: “27 years is a lot of time for some questions, but I am not giving up, he will return home.”
Since the day he walked out of the house with the men, Lina says neither she nor any of her family saw Iskandar again. “He was 26 then, he is 53 now.”
Lina’s 80-year-old mother, Samira, has joined other mothers of missing Lebanese in demonstrations and campaigns in Beirut, calling for the establishment of an international body to help free their sons from Syrian jails.
“After all these years, she [Samira] still has hope, she has entrusted my brother’s fate to God,” Lina says.
According to Lina, her brother was a Business Marketing graduate of the Lebanese American University in Beirut and was working at HSBC bank in Hamra.
“He was a very smart guy and he had many friends on both sides of the city [East and West Beirut],” she says.
Several former prisoners who managed to leave Syrian jails recognized Iskandar and told Lina that her brother was “alive and in a Syrian jail.”
Twelve other Lebanese working in various banks in Beirut were also kidnapped the same month as Iskandar and forcibly taken to Syria.
“Although we never knew which jail he was in, a Lebanese state security officer visited us back in 2007 and he said he was 90 percent sure that Iskandar was in a prison in Syria,” Lina told The Daily Star.
Hundreds of Lebanese are believed to be serving life sentences in some of Syria’s most notorious prisons including Mazze, Sidnaya and Tadmor.
Former prisoners have recounted horrific descriptions of torture they experienced in those prisons.
The recent popular uprising in Syria has given many families of missing Lebanese hope that their sons could be freed soon.
Ghazi Aad – founder and head of Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile – says that his foundation has the names of 600 Lebanese who are still missing in Syria, but he believes that there could be many more.
Clutching an old photograph of her son at 21, Mary Babikian still hopes Noubar will surprise her by coming home, 26 years after his disappearance.
“I wait every day for him. I wait for him to surprise me although I don’t know if I would believe it if I saw him,” 81-year-old Mary says as she walks around a tent in front of the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia’s building in Downtown Beirut.
Noubar, an electrician, was kidnapped in Dora in broad daylight.
“We didn’t hear anything of him until a Lebanese guy who left the Syrian jail told us that he saw Noubar in a prison in Syria and they spent a lot of time together in the jail until they were put in separate prisons,” Noubar’s sister Zarouhi says.
Having held a permeant sit-in in Downtown Beirut for many years, SOLIDE and the families of the missing say they have all but given up on the prospect of establishing an international body to advocate for the issue.
Now, the families have turned their focus to the government.
But many government officials have downplayed the case of the missing citizensin Syria, fearful that public support for such a cause would stir up difficulties with a key strategic neighbor.
Hneineh Abu Nakad’s brother Joseph is another Lebanese in a Syrian prison. “He had just started a new job as a truck driver and was not involved with any political party,” Nakad says.
Joseph was kidnapped in 1983.
Hneineh is among 30 people holding a sit-in next to the tent in Downtown Beirut, waiting for good news about their relatives and the government’s probe into their abductions.
She says her brother was kidnapped while driving the truck in Metn’s Dhour Choueir.
Hneineh, like many others, tried to hire a Syrian lawyer in attempt to see her brother in Syria, but they were not granted a visit.
“We paid a lot of money to be able to see him ... but we don’t have any more money,” she says. “We were told 12 years ago that Joseph was in Tadmor prison but that was it.”
Another woman is still hopeful to see her son, who was 16 years old when he was kidnapped in Tripoli. She fears she might not recognize him once he comes out, she says.
Moustafa Zakzouk, a student in Tripoli, was kidnapped and taken to Syria in 1988.
“He was just a student and they took him on his way to school ... Everyone who was released from the Syrian prisons gave me a different account of my son ... Some told me he was in Saadnaya, others told me he was in Tadmor,” his mother laments.
She hasn’t give up hope of seeing him again though, and believes that her son as well as the hundreds of othersmissing will return home safely only once the Syrian regime collapses.