Last February 10, readers of Lebanon’s leading Arabic daily, al-Nahar, awoke to find a strange apparition on an inner page of their morning paper. Slotted in the top lefthand corner of page five was an open letter written by one As‘ad Shaftari, a former attendant to Elie Hobeika, who led the predominantly Christian Lebanese Forces militia in the mid-1980s. Shaftari’s letter was an apology to his wartime victims, dead and alive, and their families. Though many observers debated Shaftari’s sincerity, the letter seemed to have been more than mere political calculation.

Whether Shaftari sought to redeem himself or only to set the record straight, his letter prodded Lebanese to remember the more disturbing aspects of their national past. For ten years since the war’s end, Lebanon has been rebuilt on a foundation of state-sponsored amnesia. Though the serene edifice has cracked only rarely, in a few hundred words a former gunman exposed its essential flimsiness: Shaftari reminded one and all just how foul the war had been and how much it still haunted him, despite the legal ramparts erected by the postwar authorities to protect the war’s more eminent assassins from prosecution.

A Commission of Inquiry

Shaftari’s confession appeared soon after the former government of Salim al-Hoss appointed a commission of inquiry, composed of representatives from the police and security services, to investigate the fate of the 17,000 individuals who are officially said to have disappeared during Lebanon’s cycle of wars between 1975 and 1990. In late July, the commission issued its final report, announcing that those individuals whose files it had investigated were probably all dead.

This declaration of death, while it satisfied the demands of many of the families, posed a problem in terms of numbers. While the families of the disappeared and the commission agreed that far fewer than 17,000 people had disappeared, they disagreed over actual figures. The commission investigated just over 2,000 cases — brought to its attention, it must be said, by families responding to its public requests for information. For many, however, the numbers were too few. An organization known as the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon noted that it had information on some 2,500 people, and argued that there was likely more in police files. A source close to the committee estimates the real number of disappeared at around 5,000-6,000 people.

Whatever the numbers, the commission’s appointment was in itself a remarkable success for the Committee of the Families. After all, in the mid-1990s the committee found itself languishing, its initial demands well beyond what several postwar governments found acceptable. Yet the Hoss government — derided for its ineffectiveness in so many other regards — showed courage in trying to bring the matter to a close. Against all expectations, the commission sought to answer the hardest question of all: are any of the disappeared still alive?

Forgive and Forget?

For even a partial answer, one must go back to the summer of 1982, when the Committee of the Families first organized itself in West Beirut. Israeli forces occupied half of Lebanon up to the capital. Some suggest that as many as 1,000 people were abducted by the Israelis and their allies, whether the Lebanese Forces or units of the Lebanese army, at that time. Most of those who disappeared were Muslims whose abductors believed would oppose the new Israeli-sponsored leadership. By the mid-1980s, Christians in predominantly Muslim areas had also been kidnapped. The Christian families established their own organization, which merged with the mostly Muslim Committee of the Families once the war ended.
Warfare is the most transparent of meritocracies, and the most ruthless of the wartime militiamen assumed power in the postwar period. To absolve these pillars of the postwar order of responsibility for their wartime crimes, the government of Omar Karami issued a general amnesty law in August 1991. The law pardoned, among others, individuals who had fomented civil and confessional conflict and engaged in politically motivated murder — a designation which described most wartime killings. In a grotesque touch, pardons were denied to perpetrators of bank fraud, smugglers of antiquities and sellers of property to foreigners without a license.

From the outset, the state was hesitant to find out what had really happened to the disappeared. Three parliamentary committees were established in the 1980s to investigate their fate. Their efforts came to nothing — predictably so — as Lebanon’s deputies were not about to annoy the powerful militiamen who had presumably ordered the abductions. When ambient chaos returned to Lebanon in 1984, after two years of relative quiet, full investigations were impossible. Once the Lebanese conflict ended in 1990, the families of the disappeared watched as official measures actually promoted forgetfulness regarding the war years.

Postwar Deadlock

Naturally, the relatives of the disappeared were furious with the whitewash. Yet the Committee of the Families changed tactics when the fighting stopped. It had been striving for the release of the abducted; now it concentrated on gathering information about them, recognizing implicitly that the kidnapped were probably dead. The tactical shift revealed a paradox: while many relatives outside the committee had long accepted the possibility of death, to this day, according to Wadad Halwani, one of the two founders of the Committee of the Families, many in the committee believe their relatives are still alive.

This paradox was also reflected in the committee’s postwar demands, at least until late 1999: though most members assumed the disappeared were alive, the committee sought to persuade the state to declare them all dead, if a commission of inquiry so determined. The committee hoped thereby to shift responsibility for pronouncing death on the state, a burden the authorities refused. Relatives, especially the destitute among them, also wanted to bypass the expensive and complex procedures necessary for a legal confirmation of death. The state’s declaration of collective death would have facilitated — as indeed it did recently after the commission’s report — inheritance procedures, property transfers and compensation for families of former government employees.

The families’ demand posed a major problem for the authorities. No one in previous governments wished to embarrass former warlords who were, and are, powerful politicians. Several of the republic’s grandees — Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and parliamentarians or one-time ministers such as Walid Jumblatt, Elie Hobeika and As‘ad Hardan, to name but a handful — are former militia leaders. A collective declaration of death, it was feared, might have opened up a Pandora’s box of wartime recrimination.

That is why then-Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri sought to solve the problem in April 1995, when Parliament passed a law shortening the period required for families to have their abducted relatives legally declared dead. While Parliament did this to speed up inheritance procedures, the law was rejected by the families because it compelled them, not the government, to initiate judicial proceedings that would legally “kill” their loved ones. To add insult to injury, the government ignored a law proposed by the committee to shape new legislation on the disappeared. Deadlock ensued.

An Eye for An Eye?

To find common ground with the government of Salim al-Hoss, in October 1999 the Committee of the Families reduced its demands to three. First, the committee called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry which would publish its findings within one year. Second, it asked the government to institute a social program to assist the relatives of the disappeared. Third, it requested that April 13 — regarded as the day in 1975 when the Lebanese war started — be set aside as a “day for memory and the disappeared,” and that the state build a monument commemorating the victims of the war.

The government satisfied the first of the families’ demands. Indeed, its willingness to announce the probable death of the disappeared showed how misplaced was the timidity of the Hariri governments. The second demand is more problematic, since any present government is unlikely, in a period of economic crisis, to approve additional expenditures. However, families of former public employees should earn some form of compensation. As to the third demand, the recent change of government in Lebanon placed the building of a memorial and the setting aside of a day of commemoration on the back burner. The next priority of the Committee of the Families may be to bring these about, though the authorities are not particularly keen to introduce permanent reminders of the war.

The Committee of the Families, at least the more active members among them, are generally satisfied with the government’s actions. For someone like Halwani, for example, the commission’s conclusions introduce an element of finality in the death of her abducted husband, which she implicitly accepted long ago. What remains to be resolved, aside from the actual number of disappeared, is the refusal of other families to accept the death of their loved ones. Following the release of the commission’s report, for example, there were those who simply rejected its findings, arguing that their relatives were alive, somewhere. Complicating matters was the fact that some — very few — of the disappeared may be alive in Syria, though even there most of the families involved are aware of their fate.

Generally speaking, those families who accept the commission’s results can be divided into two. There are those who, like Halwani, are satisfied merely with a formal statement that permits them to close the psychological book on the disappearances. There are others, in many cases poorer families, who will use the authorities’ assumption of death to both put an end to their mourning and speed up the preparation of formal death certificates. As noted above, for indigent families this is often essential in order to secure much-needed revenues from inheritance, property transfers or government compensation.

There is also the matter of retribution. The families are of many minds on the subject, yet most realize that it is improbable that anybody will be punished for wartime abductions. Rather, the best that can be expected is a change of atmosphere in Lebanon, one that gradually filters out some of the more notable wartime leaders. In Lebanon’s recent elections, for example, Elie Hobeika lost his parliamentary seat, a sign, perhaps, that his political cover in Syria had been lifted. Retribution, no matter how desirable, will resurrect no one. More useful are those efforts directed at building a memorial. Properly executed, it could embarrass those preferring to evade the sneer of memory. It may also encourage Lebanon to seek catharsis through remembrance rather than through revenge — which might divide Lebanese society further and drag the country down irreparably.

Truth: War’s Last Casualty

Few are really willing to wield the weapon of memory in Lebanon. Can there be a serious call to remember without demands for retribution? In countries such as Guatemala or South Africa, those accused of political crimes were guaranteed that their confessions would not be followed by punishment. Investigators in both countries assumed that without immunity from prosecution, nobody would confess. The main casualty would be truth.

Yet can South Africa’s “truth commissions” be reproduced in Lebanon? Lebanese society does not take kindly to disquieting recitations of past excesses. The delicate balance of the country’s confessional politics makes any critical examination of the past extremely sensitive. In a way, silence and forgetfulness have become part of the national culture. Truth is usually sacrificed at the altar of compromise: since the various versions of Lebanon’s history cannot be reconciled, they are better ignored.

However, one need not demand legal redress of previous wrongs to reclaim the past. The problem with the amnesty law was not so much that it protected the war’s criminals — in the end that is what amnesty laws do — but, more perniciously, that it encouraged the Lebanese to forget their crimes. In Lebanon, unlike in South Africa, the imperatives of stability suffocated a necessary desire to, at least, remember.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war last April 13, only a few dozen people attended a ceremony organized by the Committee of the Families. Remarkably, most of those present were born after 1975. It is always encouraging to see youth conjuring up memory. But the war was not the younger generation’s war, the moral of the story not theirs to understand, the victims not their friends. In the end, one could not escape the feeling that those who should have been concerned, the wartime generations, had preferred surrender.

How to cite this article:

Michael Young "The Sneer of Memory," Middle East Report 217 (Winter 2000).

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