Thursday marks the International Day of the Disappeared, here's one woman's heartbreaking story that says so much about a whole nation's struggle...
On May 25, 1985, Gladys Saab was waiting for her husband to collect her and their five-day-old daughter Nathalie from hospital in the Lebanese coastal city of Saida. Elias left their home in Jinjlaya, a small village in the mountains nearby, but he never arrived at the hospital. Gladys never saw him again. More than 33 years after her husband’s disappearance, she is still waiting, hoping for a clue that will put an end to decades of uncertainty.
Elias Saab was one of an estimated 17,000 people who were kidnapped or went missing between 1975 and 1990, during the Lebanese Civil War. An employee of the Lebanese Electricity Company in Saida, he was a devoted family man, recalls Gladys, who was 22 when he disappeared, leaving her to raise Nathalie and her 18-month-old sister Nancy alone. “He is kind. He’s a handsome guy,” she says. She speaks as though Elias is still the man of 35, however, if he came home today, would be 68 years old. “He loves people, he loves life. He loves the girls. He was very generous, he gave a lot of himself.”
Sitting in the garden of the house in Jinjlaya where she and Elias laid the foundation stone six months before his disappearance, flanked by her adult daughters, Gladys recalls how she worked as a teacher to support her family, spending a dangerous year travelling around the south of Lebanon in her spare moments searching for news of her husband.
Eventually, the family moved, first to Jezzine and then to Beirut. It wasn’t until the conflict ended that Gladys returned to Jinjlaya to complete the home she had begun building with her husband. Finished according to Elias’ vision, the two-storey building is set amid farmland where Gladys and her daughters grow olives, fruit, herbs and vegetables.
For Gladys, the house, which is filled with lamps, rugs and even curtains that Elias chose before his disappearance, is a kind of memorial. Two years ago, she decided to refurbish the ground floor and open a bed and breakfast. After years spent avoiding the subject of Elias’ disappearance, the family decided it was time to start sharing his story with others.
Nancy says that speaking about her father is painful but therapeutic. “It’s like you have a wound that reopens every time you tell the story, even though you spend all your time thinking about it. In the end, we felt that it’s a story that needed to be shared,” she says.
Like thousands of other families whose loved ones disappeared during the Civil War, the Saabs feel that their plight has been overlooked by the Lebanese government. “For them, the families of the disappeared don’t exist,” says Nancy. “They disappeared, and their families disappeared with them.”
Justine di Mayo, the director of Act for the Disappeared, an NGO campaigning for the rights of the families of Lebanon’s missing, says that many of them are losing hope that they will ever have closure.
“After so many years they are so disappointed and so frustrated because the authorities never did anything,” she says. “A lot of them don’t believe any more that there’s a solution. They don’t trust the authorities because they consider that those who are leading the country today don’t have any interest in pushing forward this issue.”
Act for the Disappeared is one of several NGOs, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared, lobbying the government to investigate the fates of the missing. Three state-led commissions in 2000, 2001 and 2005 failed to uncover any useful information, and the government has resisted demands to exhume the mass graves where many of the missing are thought to be buried.
“We want the state to create an independent mechanism that would be responsible for gathering information, locating the sites of graves, exhuming the grave sites and identifying the missing,” di Mayo says.
A draft law calling for the creation of this mechanism was submitted to parliament in 2012, but has yet to be put to a vote. In the meantime, Act for the Disappeared is working to identify and protect mass graves across the country, many of which are at risk of being destroyed by construction work. At the same time, the ICRC is collecting testimonies and DNA samples from the families of the missing that could one day be used to identify recovered remains. “It’s an urgent step because the parents of the missing are getting old. A lot of them have already died and with them we are losing a lot of information that will be necessarily to find out their fates,” says di Mayo.
In the absence of government support, artists and designers have found innovative ways to work on the cause. Last year, artist Zena El Khalil worked with relatives of the disappeared to create an installation in Beit Beirut, a new museum exploring projects connected to memory. They created a miniature forest from 17,000 painted sticks, one for each person estimated to have gone missing.
A design for a large-scale public monument to honour the disappeared, drawn up in 2015 by Domaine Public Architects, proposes digging a tunnel underneath the Corniche, filled with photographs of the missing. An 85-metre curving bench would run along the pedestrian walk about it, creating a space for interaction and reflection in a setting where people from a wide range of backgrounds gather. “We tried to pick a site that’s completely neutral, a project that’s as simple as possible … so that despite all our differences of opinion, ideas, backgrounds and religion, we can all come and sit together and attempt a dialogue,” says Karim Fakhry, the principal architect working on the project.
The proposal met with mixed reactions from the civil society organisations working with the families, many of whom fear that a national monument for the disappeared would convey a false sense of closure.
Sensitive to these concerns, Act for the Disappeared runs various smaller memorial projects that help to empower families while also raising awareness of their plight among the Lebanese public, particularly the generations born after the end of the war.
One ongoing project, “Empty Chairs, Missing People” run by Act for the Disappeared and the ICRC in collaboration with art therapy centre Artichoke Studio, invites families to meet in small groups and share their stories, before painting an empty chair in memory of their missing loved ones.
“Fushat Amal” (Space for Hope), is an online platform where members of the public can upload photographs and stories about the disappeared. Sensitive information is recorded in private files for future investigation and the rest is shared with the public, creating a digital memorial.
“Every commemorative event in Lebanon is a way to remember that there is no closure and that the state still has a responsibility to investigate. It’s a way of lobbying, in addition to the psychological aspect of commemorative events, which I think is very important for the families,” explains di Mayo.
On April 13 this year, marking the anniversary of the start of the war, Act for the Disappeared placed cut-out figures in 35 different locations around Beirut where people are known to have been kidnapped. Each bore a message about the importance of investigating their fates and a link to an online collection of audio and video clips featuring people’s memories of the war.
After more than three decades of waiting, the Saab family say they just want the government to make a final decision. “We can’t keep living with this uncertainty... I think that it’s a delicate subject but it’s a necessity. It must become a priority for the government,” says Nancy, who believes that the families of the disappeared are united by their shared suffering, regardless of sectarian differences.
“We need to stop saying that the Muslims kidnapped the Christians or that the Christians kidnapped the Muslims. It’s an affair that is simply human and when we speak of human affairs we don’t speak of Christians or Muslims. We speak of souls that have the right to rest in peace.”