Lebanon recently marked the mournful anniversary of the start of its fifteen year-long civil which began in April 1975. Tragically, the Lebanese commemorate the start of their civil war but never its end in 1990, which in theory constitutes the beginning of peace. The problem, of course, is that insecurity, bombings, murders and disappearances continued after the civil war, and still do today.
The dead, estimated at anywhere from 150,000 to over 200,000 have been buried and resurrected by journalists but not by the Lebanese people.
According to Robert Fisk, a journalist writing in The Independent, “Lebanon’s dark past was concluded with an amnesty that effectively ruled all killers innocent and left the families of the dead with neither justice nor comfort.”
Though never acknowledged by Lebanese authorities, there are believed to be around twenty mass graves still untouched in Lebanon. Some of their locations are widely known, one of which is the mass grave of Palestinians murdered during the Sabra-Shatilla massacre of 1982. As I describe the scene in A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War, Robert Fisk was one of the first journalists to discover the grave when he entered Sabra-Shatilla immediately after the slaughter. To get a better view of the camp, he climbed onto a huge pile of dirt about ten feet tall. On the way up he slipped and lost his balance. Trying to catch himself, he grabbed hold of what he thought was a dark red rock. It was a man’s head.
In my book The Syrian, which takes place in Syria and Lebanon in 2006, Andrew Sullivan has heard about Lebanon’s disappeared and wants to know more. He is dining with Sonia and Ali, both journalists, when he initiates the conversation.
“Tell me about the disappeared,” Andrew said.
Ali put down his fork and knife. “Seventeen thousand men,” he said, frowning. “That’s how many were disappeared more than twenty-five years ago. The issue is huge. Unfortunately, it’s the elephant in the room—isn’t that what you say in America? —that no one wants to talk about.”
“Why hasn’t the Lebanese government investigated?” Andrew asked.
Sonia explained. “In the mid-90s, Lebanon’s parliament passed an Amnesty Law that exempted all political leaders from prosecution. This crafty piece of legislation gave our illustrious leaders license to bury anything that had to do with our civil war, including the disappeared. One would expect this of the Syrian regime and their Intelligence Czar, but for the Lebanese to put sectarian interests over national and humanitarian interests—it’s outrageous.”
“Bowing to pressure,” said Ali, “the government six years ago finally appointed a commission to look into the disappearances.”
“And it went nowhere,” said Sonia. “They claimed that if a mass grave was found to contain, say five hundred Muslims, then they would need to find the same number on the Christian side in order to avoid sectarian violence.”
“There’s something even more troubling. The commission actually knows the location of several mass grave sites, and these aren’t obscure laces. One is a cemetery in Achrafieh. Apparently, mass graves were also discovered at every reconstruction site downtown during the reconstruction but the evidence was buried as quickly as it was discovered.”
“Other countries build monuments to commemorate their dead and disappeared, a place where bereaved families can come to remember and honor their loved ones,” said Sonia. “Tragically, truth is the first casualty of war, at least in Lebanon.
Sami Hermez, in his new book War is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon, argues that the amnesty law encouraged the Lebanese to forget their crimes but since the perpetrators of supposed crimes “did not face trial, were not found guilty, and did not have to admit or confess their crimes what were people being called to forget? Politicians could be persecuted at a later date but a violation against innocent civilians was, through an act of pardon, silenced and its status as crime left ambiguous and open to interpretation.”
Wadih el-Asmar, the president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, has spoken of the need for a real work of memory and reconciliation in which the dead could be lifted from the earth in which they had been flung or bulldozed during the war and carefully identified.
Waddad Halawani, who runs the Committee of Families of the Disappeared and of People Kidnapped in Lebanon, argues that “we want only to know their fate and offer them a proper burial site.”
The debate about the mass graves, however, reveals the demons of the past, because to admit their existence is to accept that the war was not an accident but truly a succession of organized and planned crimes.
The war in Syria was not an accidental event either. It was a carefully planned and orchestrated tragedy carried out by Western powers hell-bent on initiating regime change.
And therein is the rub. If there are crimes, whether in Lebanon or Syria, there must be criminals. In Lebanon a national amnesty saved the criminals from persecution. In Syria, Western historians will simply re-write the history of that tragedy, leaving them unaccountable for their crimes against humanity and free in the future to perpetuate the same crimes elsewhere.
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