In July 1975, a Lebanese newspaper published an article that was as troublingly disparaging as it was patently naïve. Placed conspicuously on the front page, the lead for the story was framed as a question: “Official silence about the fate of the abducted – number of missing persons more than 30?” That rather ingenuous title conveyed the newspaper’s disapproval of the deafening official silence about the matter and expressed some anxiety about the number of people involved…
Assuming most Lebanese today are familiar with the notion that the number of people who disappeared during the war stretches into the thousands (17,000?), then we must recall that when the article was published, the “war” had yet to reach its “terminal velocity.” After all, in July 1975 the Lebanese were trying desperately to convince themselves that the country was simply experiencing a short-term series of “incidents.”
In that context, the overall situation and the details associated with it were indeed shocking, particularly the increasing number of people going missing through abduction. But aside from the article mentioned above, the pervasive naïveté about the human aspect of the “clashes” was often apparent in advertisements arranged by the parents of the missing:
Saad al-Deen Hussein al-Hajjar works as a chauffeur. He has been married for a year and lives in Tripoli. On the morning of July 8 , he had breakfast with his mother, who lives in Tarik al-Jdideh. Afterward, he left for home but never arrived. If you know anything about him, please call Cafe Abou Hette. Phone No. ….
The tone used for Sarkon Younan, at the time a 22-year-old, was similar: “He left home a few days ago and was on his way to Sabra to repair his broken car. If you know anything about him, please call....”
That same note of desperate humanity is evident in the entreaties made to the apparent kidnappers by the parents of those who had gone missing. Salwa Shamieh wrote:
To those who have my son, Adel Shamieh. Please return him to me. I pray [to] God that your mothers’ hearts will never have to burn as mine is [now]. In the name of the holidays of peace, love and sacrifice, I beg you to bring me back my son, Adel.
Fersan Zeidan Diab, the father of Jaleel Diab, wrote that his son “went missing on June 2 near the Baabda Traffic Unit on Camille Chamoun Boulevard.” Mr. Diab pleaded for the release of his kidnapped son:
[It] has been a long time since [I’ve] seen him, and [I] urge those who know anything about [Jaleel Diab] to [release] him. [Allow him] to call [me] at the Dbayyeh camp where he [has lived] since he migrated from Palestine.
That same emotion is evident in the open thank-you notes addressed to kidnappers or others who interceded to secure the release of some who were abducted. For instance:
I could read the deep and silent torment on the faces of the armed men who kidnapped me. I saw honesty and grief in the twinkle of their eyes. By kidnapping me, they hoped to save their abducted brothers. They treated me as a brother and honored me as a friend. I would like to thank them and the leadership of the [Palestinian] Revolution Security [Office], and I wish sincerely that all factions would understand the truth behind this conflict. [When that happens,] love will triumph over hatred and peace will reign again in our country.
Who among us today could possibly be convinced that back then, kidnapping was such a “civil” and “emotional” affair? After all, the words used to describe that appalling situation could almost make one long for the experience. While gallows humor to be sure—kidnapping should never be considered either gentle or compassionate—this exaggeration is intended to motivate us to regard the “issue” with all due severity and reality rather than with abstract moral condemnation.
It is not by chance that this section of Memory at Work is highlighted, even in terms of its placement on the site’s home page. Among the many other topics related to our civil war, the missing persons issue remains the most difficult to deal with. It can be likened to a bell that tolls endlessly to produce the obstreperous sounds of guilt and responsibility intended to invade Lebanese ears, particularly those of the former war lords—today’s politicians—whose records were magically expunged by the general amnesty law.
Since engaging in the task of collecting and reviewing the materials to be included in this section, the more apparent it has become to UMAM D&R’s researchers that among the different entities involved, wartime kidnapping devolved into something of a pro forma “institutional action.” But the casual attitude given at the time to personal freedom—to life itself—cannot be ignored. There must be consequences attached to such acts of inhumanity. Those who were responsible directly or indirectly for acts of kidnapping should be investigated post haste. Indeed, if this and similar investigations could be bolstered with additional hard evidence, it could provide information of critical importance to those still seeking the truth about the fate of their missing friends and loved ones.
Of course, the practice of kidnapping was not restricted to Lebanese perpetrators. Rather, that responsibility is shared by the many people, organizations and governments involved in Lebanon’s war. With that proviso in place, our efforts to document this grim topic do not pretend to include or address all of its myriad ambiguities and complexities. Nevertheless, as incomplete as it is, this initiative is focused on helping those who are involved most directly. We remain convinced that the issue of kidnapping concerns all Lebanese, and that every Lebanese should carefully consider how he or she approaches it. Only when such an “attitudinal adjustment” occurs can the issue of missing persons finally receive the attention it deserves.