Special report: Beirut families of 'the missing' demand answers

Empty Chair project remembers the thousands who disappeared during Lebanon's 15-year civil war

Waleed El Omari outside the family home in Ghazza Street in Sabra, Beirut. Nick Webster
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Bullet holes and shrapnel scars still pockmark the walls of the dilapidated Saydani apartment block in Ghazza Street, Beirut.

It was here, nearly 40 years ago, that a young Khalid El Omari was abruptly ordered from his home by Israeli soldiers and frogmarched away.

The date was September 19, 1982, and Khalid, then only 21, was a spirited construction worker with plans to marry his childhood sweetheart.

But after armed troops seized him and many others that late morning, his fate appeared sealed. He was never seen again.

Today, so many decades later, the scarred, crumbling streets of large areas of Beirut remain a stark reminder of one of Lebanon’s bloodiest chapters.

Khalid’s tragic disappearance came at the height of the country’s 15-year civil war, beginning in 1975.

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He was snatched just weeks after Israeli forces laid siege to Beirut in 1982 in an effort to root out scores of Palestine Liberation Organisation fighters.

The conflict – which at one point pitted Christian militia groups and their Israeli allies against an amalgamation of sects - eventually claimed the lives of about 120,000 people.

As many as 17,000 are also estimated to have gone missing. Some were kidnapped by fighters, including forces loyal to the Syrian regime, and are thought to be buried in mass graves. Others simply left their homes on daily errands, never to return.

Now, Khalid’s mother, Hasna, still lives in the same apartment from where her son was taken that late summer morning.

His brother Waleed, meanwhile, has still not given up hope of finding out what happened to his younger sibling, one of thousands of Lebanon’s ‘Missing’.

“It happened right after the Friday massacre,” said Mr El Omari, 59, referring to the Sabra and Shatila killings where up to 3,500 Palestinians and Lebanese were murdered by a militia with ties to the Christian Kataeb Party.

“A lot of people were running out of the camp. Their escape passage was past our building on Ghazza Street in Sabra.

“There were horrific scenes nearby [of] people being slaughtered. Some wanted to leave straight away but we decided to stay as we thought the worst had passed.

“It was a Friday afternoon when I was with Khalid chatting at the entrance to our building.

"That night we went to bed and slept in the same house for the last time.”

The Empty Chair project is an initiative run by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The chair in the name of Khalid El Omari is pictured outside his family home in Ghazza Street in Sabra, Beirut. Nick Webster 
The Empty Chair project is an initiative run by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The chair in the name of Khalid El Omari is pictured outside his family home in Ghazza Street in Sabra, Beirut. Nick Webster 

At 7am Mr El Omari, whose weathered, smiling face hides a penetrating sadness, described waking to have his usual morning coffee with his mother.

The streets outside were crawling with heavily armed militia and Israeli troops were checking each apartment block, ordering families onto the street to check their identity papers.

“I went upstairs to wake Khalid,” said Mr El Omari. Once out on the street they were marched towards the Sabra and Shatila camps “so we could see the piles of bodies”.

“Women and children were placed in one line and sent home while the men were put in another,” he continued.

“One by one, we were told to walk in line to the city stadium nearby. [Once there] more than a hundred men were randomly picked.

“Khalid was one of them. He was taken for no reason. The last time I saw my brother was 11am that morning.”

That day triggered 37 years of suffering for the El Omari family.

Lebanon’s bloody civil war may have ended in 1990, but the trauma of hundreds of families like Khalid’s still continues today.

Most have had no response from Lebanese authorities to their pleas for information about what happened to their loved ones. The result: no one really knows if Khalid is dead or alive.

As part of efforts to alleviate the suffering, the International Committee of the Red Cross now works with many families of the missing in an effort to help them come to terms with the uncertainty.

The ICRC is working alongside human rights association Act for the Disappeared to support families in the search to know the fate of their loved ones.

The situation in Lebanon has prompted the accompaniment project led by the ICRC to create a space for families to exchange their experiences and feel less isolated.

The National went to Beirut to cover the initiative in partnership with The Carter Centre, an American NGO that supports reporting of mental health issues in regions where it may be misunderstood, or stigmatised.

Coping with an unexplained disappearance in families is an emerging area of mental healthcare as long-standing regional conflicts continue.

With no funeral, grave or shrine, those who remain behind often have had no opportunity for closure.

Roubina Tahmazian-Arslanian, a psychologist on the ICRC’s Missing Persons Project, has worked on similar programmes in the Balkans, where other atrocities took place.

“When we have a missing person it is not necessarily a mental health issue for the family,” she said.

“There is ambiguity and uncertainty, but this causes its own set of unique issues.

Waleed El Omari, with his mother Hasna and the chair they have designed to remember Khalid El Omari. Nick Webster 
Waleed El Omari, with his mother Hasna and the chair they have designed to remember Khalid El Omari. Nick Webster 

“Grieving is a problem, as the loss is unclear. People have lost that connection.

“This has been continuing for almost 40 years so it has become a generational problem for families.

“It is hard for them to move forward in their lives, that impacts on children and grandchildren.”

The situation in Lebanon has prompted the ICRC’s ‘Empty Chair, waiting families’ project.

Each family with a missing relative has been given a chair to decorate in a manner that best represents their lost loved one. It is a memorialisation component of a wider support programme.

Mr El Omari and his mother have painted theirs - together with stuck on rice they would have thrown at his wedding - a burgundy colour. It is one last thing they wanted to do for Khalid.

They said Khalid had been looking forward to marrying his fiance, also called Hasna, when he was taken. A copy of the couple’s wedding invitation is also fastened to the chair’s back.

Plans are underway to display hundreds of similar chairs, each telling their own story, in Beirut next year, 45 years on from the outbreak of war.

Considered too contentious to be taught in schools, the gruesome details of that tumultuous period have become a dark stain on the nation’s history. Mr El Omari and his family, like others, will never forget.

“For the first two days after losing Khalid the family was in shock,” he said.

“We were paralysed. My mother would go out onto the streets to try to find him, but hope faded each day.

"Our cousins and sisters all tried to find out what happened. We never did.

“People would give us hope [by saying] they may know something, but it always came to nothing.”

The only information the family gleaned was that men suspected of sympathising with the PLO had been rounded up and detained.

Downtown Beirut, where much of the fierce fighting took place, has since been redeveloped and there is little appetite for digging up the past.

Luxury new apartment blocks and hotels have replaced most of the decimated ruins of war.

One lasting reminder, however, is the Holiday Inn, in the central Minet el Hosn neighbourhood.

Once the jewel of the Middle East as a luxurious symbol of Beirut’s opulence and libertarian spirit, it has since become an army base wrapped in razor-wire fencing, with decades-old bullet holes still visible in its walls.

Khalid’s fiance waited four years before the two families agreed she could begin to move on with her life and find another man.

It was an uncomfortable arrangement for Mr El Omari, who still held out hope of his brother’s return.

Last month, another mother whose son also vanished died. She never knew what happened to her eldest boy, Said.

Meanwhile in November last year, a new law was passed to establish an official commission to investigate the thousands of disappeared.

“Every time I watch the news and see these political leaders there is a constant reminder of what happened,” said Mr El Omari.

“Those responsible are still in power.”