Some of the cases are old but certainly not forgotten. The most recent inquiry that I received about a “disappearance” in Lebanon came in April 1997 from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The caller was a Palestinian whose brother, Rushdi Rashid Hamdan Shihab, “disappeared” in Sidon in October 1987. “At 10 am, he left his car with a mechanic at a gas station, saying that he would return in the evening to pick it up,” his brother said. Shihab, the father of three who was 42 at the time, did not return to the station that evening. And he was never seen again in Lebanon. Family members traveled to Jordan and Syria, seeking information about his whereabouts, but came up with nothing solid. There were rumors that Shihab, a member of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, had been abducted, variously, by rival Palestinian factions led by Abu Nidal and Abu Musa. According to his brother, Shihab left Lebanon in 1982, at the time that PLO fighters were evacuated in the wake of the Israeli invasion, and relocated to Syria. Until his “disappearance,” Shihab had been based in Syria, traveling between there and Lebanon numerous times without any harassment by Syrian authorities.

After being ”disappeared” for almost ten years, the family had given up hope that Shihab was still alive. But in early April 1997, news reached a cousin in Jordan from a released prisoner that Shihab was known to have been held in Syria’s notorious Tadmor prison. The family hopes that he may still be alive.

An unknown number of Lebanese citizens and stateless Palestinians are imprisoned in Syria, some of them “disappeared” [1] in Lebanon as long ago as the 1980s and others abducted there as recently as 1996 and then transferred to Syria. [2] These abductions take place outside the law. The Beirut Bar Association reported to the UN Human Rights Committee in April 1997 that “no existing legislation or bilateral treaty allows such conduct.” For Lebanese Muslims and Christians alike, the “disappearances” clearly illustrate what many of them view as de facto Syrian control of their country. “No one in Lebanon will talk about the reality. Syrian intelligence forces are controlling this country,” remarked a prominent Shi‘i lawyer who requested anonymity. “We are moving toward a police state. Here in Lebanon, there are masters and servants. Lebanese government officials are the servants of Syria.” [3] There is also strong evidence, provided by the “disappeared” themselves, that Syrian security forces have pressured both Lebanese and Palestinians — who have been held incommunicado in Lebanon or in Syria — to collaborate with Syrian intelligence in Lebanon.

Top Lebanese government officials either have publicly professed ignorance of the problem or have privately acknowledged that they are powerless to address it. A relative of a Lebanese who was “disappeared” in September 1992 met with President Elias Hrawi in 1992 to discuss the case and appeal for help. The man said that Hrawi told him that “there is nothing that we can do.” [4] In January 1996, the women in one family were apparently so frustrated by the inability to obtain information about a missing relative that they raised the case at an open house hosted by Prime Minister Hariri at a large hall in Beirut. “They were unruly and said out loud that their son and brother had been taken by the Syrians, that nobody was answering their calls, and that they had nobody left to ask but the prime minister himself,” an eyewitness reported. [5]

Lebanese and Palestinian families are not provided with official notification of the arrests or whereabouts of their loved ones, and the Syrian government continues to maintain a wall of official silence about non-Syrian nationals in their custody. This, coupled with inaction by Lebanese authorities, perpetuates a climate of fear and makes documentation of “disappearances” difficult. Families generally are too afraid to give consent to human rights organizations to publish names and case details, for fear of worsening the situation for their loved ones or exposing themselves to harassment and retaliation by Syrian security forces. In August 1996, a Lebanese lawyer told me that three months earlier one of his clients had “disappeared” from a city north of Beirut. The family, originally from south Lebanon, was terrified, and the lawyer said that he could not provide the name of the victim or other information. The problem is compounded because most Lebanese lawyers and human rights organizations shy away from sustained advocacy efforts that could be perceived as critical of the Syrian role in Lebanon.

The “disappearances” begin with wholly irregular arrests by Syrian agents, who in some cases are accompanied by Lebanese intelligence agents in plain clothes. One middle-aged Lebanese, describing his abduction in 1993, said that two Lebanese and one Syrian, all in civilian clothes, arrived at his Beirut home just after midnight: “One of the Lebanese asked my name, then put a .38 caliber revolver to my head and said that they were security. I asked for written orders, but they showed me nothing.” [6] In a more recent case, Bashir al-Khatib, also Lebanese, was taken into custody in Tripoli by a high-ranking Syrian officer on or about July 8, 1996. According to a reliable source, Khatib had been visited the day before by Syrian security forces, who asked him questions and took notes. “He did not run away because he thought it was nothing,” the source said. [7] Khatib was later transferred to Syria and was seen in the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence, a detention center in Damascus where torture has been used for decades. Khatib was last seen there with signs of torture on his hands, walking with great difficulty, and shaking constantly, his face pale and his skin discolored. Letters sent by Human Rights Watch in March 1997 to Hariri and Syrian President Asad about Khatib, asking for confirmation that he was in Syrian custody, went unanswered.

Another “disappeared” Lebanese is Boutros Khawand, a prominent member of the political bureau of the Phalange party. He was abducted on September 15, 1992, about a half-mile from his home in Sin al-Fil in East Beirut, an area under the control of the Syrian army. According to an eyewitness, he was taken by a force of 25 men in civilian clothes, driving two BMWs and a red van. The abduction received international press attention at the time, but it has now been all but forgotten. [8] Khawand is believed to be in custody in Syria, first held in Mezze military prison in Damascus. Based on information provided by released Lebanese prisoners, it is feared that Khawand, who is in his late fifties and a diabetic, may be currently in Tadmor military prison, the most infamous facility in Syria. [9] By several accounts, Khawand was extremely influential in the Phalange, particularly at the grassroots level. While one faction of the party reportedly was cooperating with the Syrians, Khawand “was pushing for independence,” according to one source. By taking Khawand, he speculated, the Syrians hoped to “paralyze the party”s cadres” that opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon. [10]

Palestinians too have been, and continue to be, “disappeared” by the Syrians. A Palestinian who had a high-ranking security role in Arafat’s Fatah party was taken into Syrian custody in January 1976 and held incommunicado until his release in August 1995. “For 20 years, my family thought I was dead,” he told me. He said that he was tortured for the first two weeks at the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in Damascus and began to sob uncontrollably as he was stirred by the memories of what had happened to him there. After the torture, he was interrogated for seven and a half months. “The Syrians wanted me to break with Arafat and join them,” he said. [11] His refusal cost him his freedom for two decades.

As news spreads about the reemergence of the “disappeared,” other Palestinian families have reason to hope that their loved ones may still be alive. In 1996, one woman in Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip learned that her husband, who had gone missing at the Lebanese-Syrian border in 1984, had been seen alive in Mezze military prison in Damascus until 1992. The information was brought to the family by a recently released prisoner. He confirmed that ‘Abdallah Diab Husayn al-Razayna, who has six children and is now 47 years old, was held in Mezze from 1984 until 1992, first in Section 248 and then in Section 235. The released prisoner said that he lost track of Razayna in October 1992, when it was believed that he was transferred to Sidnaya prison, north of Damascus. [12]

Cases such as these underscore the need for the Syrian government to come clean and end the agony of the families, producing the names of those still being held and a full accounting of those who have died in custody. But rather than disclose information, Syrian authorities continue to target and abduct Palestinians in Lebanon. At a meeting with Palestinian residents at a refugee camp in Tripoli in August 1996, one of them told me this: “Two months ago, Syrian mukhabarat (secret police) took a man from his uncle’s house in the camp. They have also picked up people near the corniche — this started about one month ago. No one knows why. No one dares to say anything. The Syrians feel free to do what they want here and no one can interfere." Another said: "Last week, not far from here, Syrian mukhabarat stopped a car on the corniche and took a man in his fifties. He was a member of the pro-Iraqi Baath party but had not been active for a long time. He was in bad health, with kidney problems.” In October 1995, another resident of the camp, a man in his forties known as Abu Mahir, was taken by Syrian security forces in plain clothes who came to his house. “They said that they wanted to talk to him outside for five minutes. They took him, and no one knows where he is,” a resident said.

There are few options available for Palestinians in Lebanon when “disappearances” occur. Neither the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has an office in Beirut, nor the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees take on such cases or provide legal or other forms of assistance to families. This, coupled with the indifference of Lebanese authorities, leaves Palestinians completely on their own. “The families will start looking, asking questions. They will have to pay a lot of money. Sometimes they will give money to Syrian officers, but they will get no information,” a teacher in the camp said. One resident noted that the problems for the families were complicated immeasurably when the Syrians spread rumors that “disappeared” persons had collaborated with Israel: “This is the kind of offense that makes people especially afraid to get involved.” The general sense of helplessness was perhaps best expressed by an old Palestinian woman who lives in a refugee camp in Beirut. After her 21-year-old son was taken from his apartment early one morning in 1995, she searched for him at prisons and detention centers throughout Lebanon, only to be informed that he was not in Lebanese custody and “probably” was in Syria. “No one can help,” she told me. “I’ve put things in the hands of God.” [13]


[1] The author follows the style of Amnesty International by putting the term “disappearances” in quotation marks. Amnesty does so “to emphasize that the victim has in reality not simply vanished. The victim’s whereabouts and fate, concealed from the outside world, are known by someone. Someone decided what would happen to the victim; someone decided to conceal it.” Amnesty International, “Disappearances” and Political Killings (Amsterdam: Amnesty International, 1994), p. 84.
[2] “Disappearances” are not the only human rights problem in Lebanon. Other abuses include arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, torture, restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and the use of military courts to prosecute civilians. For additional information, see Beirut Bar Association, Human Rights and Freedoms Committee, “Comments on the Lebanese Report Submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee in Compliance with Article 40 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” April 3, 1997. Also see Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights (Lebanon) and Nouveaux Droits de l’Homme (Mission to Lebanon), “Comments on the Lebanese Report Submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee in Compliance with Article 40 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” April 7, 1997.
[3] Author’s interview, Beirut, August 1995.
[4] Author’s telephone interview, February 1997.
[5] Author’s interview, Beirut, November 1996.
[6] Author’s interview, Beirut, August 1996.
[7] Author’s interview, Beirut, August 1996.
[8] See, for example, New York Times, September 16, 1992.
[9] For information about Tadmor prison and the abuses that have taken place there, see Human Rights Watch, Syria’s Tadmor Prison: Dissent Still Hostage to a Legacy of Horror (April 1996) and Human Rights Watch, Syria: The Price of Dissent (July 1995).
[10] Human Right Watch interview, Beirut, August 1995.
[11] Author’s interview, Mar Elias, Lebanon, August 1995. Name withheld by request.
[12] Author’s telephone interviews, Gaza Strip, October 1996.
[13] Author’s interview, Beirut, August 1995.

How to cite this article:

Virginia N. Sherry "Disappearances," Middle East Report 203 (Summer 1997).

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