Lebanon's Legacy of Syrian Occupation Searching for the Disappeared

Hundreds of men from across Lebanon are listed as missing. Their families worry they have been taken away by the Syria's occupying forces. For years, they have stayed silent, fearing their oppressors. But now resistance is stirring: for months, the relatives of the missing have been camping outside the UN Building in Beirut.
Von Yassin Musharbash

The men in the photos have thick, heavy moustaches and long hair. Some are wearing smart shirts with oversized collars that were all the rage back then. But that was long ago. The photos -- displayed under protective plastic on a board leaning against a white pillar -- are all from the 1970s and 80s. In many cases, they are the last pictures their families took before their sons, brothers and sisters vanished off the face of the earth.

Daniel Joseph Montesourati for example. "We have no idea why they took him," says his sister. Daniel was 33 when he failed to return home from a trip to Syria. That was back in 1992; if he is still alive, Daniel is now 47 years old. His family has spent a lot of money trying to find out what happened to him. Today all they know is that Daniel was arrested on suspicion of being an Israeli spy. In 2000, the family had their first and last news of his fate: A prisoner who had been released from Syria's Sitnaya Prison confirmed he had seen Daniel there.

There are more than 700 cases like this one, according to support groups for those left behind. The story of the "disappeared" forms one of the darkest chapters in the history of Syrian-Lebanese relations -- a link already poisoned by the quasi-occupation of Lebanon by the Syrian Baathist dictatorship. It wasn't until this year that the Lebanese government even admitted that cases like that of Montesourati even existed. "Before that, it was taboo," says Ghazi Aad, founder of SOLIDE (Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile). "The government was controlled from afar by Damascus. Whether those who disappeared are alive or dead, nobody knows exactly."

Camped out in front of the UN

Aad, a marine biologist who is confined to a wheelchair, is almost constantly talking on his mobile phone -- often to the press. He is trying to raise as much awareness for their cause as they can and his group has learned a lot by watching the Lebanese opposition recently. They are camping out in the middle of the city, turning it into a cross between a campsite and a vigil. The difference between this and the opposition protests is that those gathered here now are some 30 years older than those who shook up the status quo in Lebanon at the beginning of the year and set off the so-called "Cedar Revolution" which led to the Syrians' withdrawal from Lebanon.

A "No Smoking" sign hangs neatly at the entrance of the tent, located directly in front of the United Nations building in Beirut. The choice of location is a strategic one -- the group, says Aad, is demanding an international UN commission to investigate the disappearances. The small camp has been there for seven months, with around 50 relatives gathering each day, and at least two sleeping in the tent at night. The edge of the site is marked by large walls displaying photographs of the disappeared. As sesame biscuits are handed around, relatives exchange the stories of their missing loved ones.

"He wrote the two letters that he smuggled out with the charcoal from the tip of burnt matchsticks" says a woman of her brother Imad Abdallah, who was 20 years old when he disappeared in 1984. Ever since she received his letters in 2002 she has known that he is being held in a Syrian jail in Tarmud. Ten different passers-by, who had also spent time in prison in Syria, recognized her brother's photograph and were able to confirm the story. "I'm a physical and mental wreck," her brother wrote. "Please help me!" Imad was also accused of being an Israeli collaborator. "In truth, the fact that he was a supporter of the Arafat wing of the PLO didn't suit the Syrians," his sister says.

At least 200 cases

"Nothing was easier than accusing someone of being an Israeli spy," confirms Ghazi Aad. This was by far the most frequent excuse given, that is if any excuse were given at all. Aad has been looking into the cases of the disappeared since 1990 -- when it was still a very risky undertaking. He called on the families to document their cases and within two weeks, 200 separate cases had been compiled. "It was only then that we understood the full extent of this," he says. "We saw that those on the left and right, Muslims and Christians, Druze and Palestinians were all equally effected." Aad today believes that the Syrians were really using this as a method to bring the Lebanese under their control. Whoever had a relative disappear would then behave themselves by conforming to the system -- so that they wouldn't jeopardise the chances of seeing their loved ones again. This is why so few cases were made public.

The varied backgrounds of the disappeared is reflected here at the camp. There are elegantly dressed ladies, tastefully made up, wearing expensive, rimless spectacles, sharing tea with ragged looking Palestinian women from the refugee camps. All wear badges bearing the question "How much longer?" next to a photograph of their relative.

"We're waiting"

They are hopeful that -- now that Lebanon is in transition -- information about their relatives might soon be forthcoming. And indeed, there is now a Syrian-Lebanese governmental commission charged with uncovering the fate of the disappeared. But the Syrians -- so say the Lebanese -- are hindering the process. Additionally, says Ghazi Aad, they have come up with the bizarre claim that -- just in the last three and a half years -- some 759 Syrians have disappeared while in Lebanon. The families are fed up with the infighting and have demanded an international, independent investigation.

Hope has also come from the UN investigation into Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri being led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis. Mehlis has added international weight to the accusations the Lebanese opposition has long been making: namely that a conspiracy between Lebanese and Syrian secret services was responsible for the killing of Hariri. Aad and his group would also like to work toward the kind of clarity that has been achieved by Mehlis, but Syria has proven a roadblock. Still, Lebanon -- whose official request is needed to get the UN involved -- has already indicated that the Mehlis report has pried open doors that have long been locked up tight. "We're waiting," says Aad.

For almost three decades, Syria held all the power in Lebanon. The small country on the Mediterranean was packed with Syrian spies and military personnel -- it was little more than a Syrian satellite. And the mini insurgency of the family members of the disappeared shows just how many open wounds are left from this period.

"Nothing has changed yet," complains Imad Abdallah's sister impatiently. But the others comfort her. "Everything will come out," they promise. Meanwhile, Ghazi Aad is once again on the phone with the press. He is also the only one of the group who isn't missing relatives in Syria. "I am doing this," he says, "because I had to watch as friends of mine were taken away."

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