'War still on' for families of Lebanon's missing

While the war may have ended more than two decades ago, relatives of the thousands of men and women who remain unaccounted for have been left with lingering loss and uncertainty.

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BEIRUT // Halima Jemal can still remember the exact moment she last set eyes on her eldest son, 35 years after he disappeared.

She was at home in the city of Tripoli when Rashid, then 15, walked out the door, telling her he was going to buy cigarettes.

"It was 10am, on the 10th of April 1976. He said he would be back by 12," she said.

To this day, Mrs Jemal has no idea what happened to him. She has spent more than three decades searching for him, at first looking in hospitals in Lebanon and Syria, then appealing to the different factions active in Lebanon for information.

"I still don't know if he is dead or alive," she said, holding a laminated picture of him, alongside the words "until when?" in Arabic.

This week Lebanon marked 36 years since the start of the country's civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and claimed an estimated 130,000 to 250,000 lives.

While the war may have ended more than two decades ago, Mrs Jemal and the relatives of the thousands of men and women who remain unaccounted for have been left with lingering loss and uncertainty. Estimates for the number of missing range from a few thousand to as high as 18,000.

"My feeling is that Rashid is still alive. I still believe he could come back," said the 68-year-old widow. "For me the war hasn't ended. I'm going to keep going until I find my son, until I die I won't stop."

Mrs Jemal and a group of other family members of people who went missing during and in the aftermath of Lebanon's civil war, have maintained a constant vigil at a campaign camp outside UN House in downtown Beirut for the last six years.

The camp - a fully-equipped tent with beds, a television, fan and fridge - is manned all day, every day by members of a core group of families. Pictures of their missing relatives cover the outside of the tent, close to where Mrs Jemal and Marie Mansourati were seated yesterday.

Mrs Mansourati's son Dani was 29 when he was abducted during a trip to Syria in 1992. To this day she has no concrete information about why he was taken or what happened to him. "I just want to see him again before I die," she said.

In a report released in Beirut yesterday, Amnesty International highlighted the issue of missing people and urged Lebanese authorities to launch an independent commission of inquiry.

According to the report, some of the missing are believed to have been arrested or captured by the various forces and militias involved in the civil war - Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Israeli. Others may have been killed in the violence, or simply disappeared. The international rights group also called on authorities to set up a DNA database to identify remains that might be uncovered from mass graves in Lebanon.

"It is really high time that the Lebanese authorities took steps towards bringing this very painful episode to a close," Malcolm Smart, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement.

"Both the president and the council of ministers pledged action but as yet no concrete steps have been taken to address the continued suffering of the families who have been waiting for so long to find out what happened to their loved ones."

Ghazi Aad, the founder of Solide, an NGO that has been working on the issue since 1990, said there have been many calls for and some attempts to investigate what happened, but nothing serious has been done.

"If someone was active in the war and is still running the place, it's not in their interest to investigate this issue," Mr Aad said. "But, we are still pressing the government for a national commission."

Khalil Zaarour documented the search for the truth of the families at the campaign camp in his film Malaki: Scent of an Angel.

"I felt as a Lebanese film director that it was my duty to shed light on these forgotten Lebanese citizens," he said.

"Some people want to forget about [the war], khalas, it's over and we don't want to see movies about it or talk about it - like it never happened. But I think this is wrong. It's our memory. And, for the families of the thousands missing, the war is still going on."