“In a way the civil war of 1975-1990 liberated our memory. …The question is what to forget and what to remember.”

-Elias Khoury

“Only by understanding that special mix of geography generally and landscape in particular with historical memory and, as I said, an arresting form of invention can we begin to grasp the persistence of conflict and the difficulty of resolving it.”

-Edward Said

The families and loved ones of the more than 17,000 forcibly disappeared and/or missing during the Lebanese civil war continue to demand their right to the truth.

From 1975 until 1990, Lebanon’s brutal civil war, fought by a plethora of local actors alongside the backing of a variety of regional and international powers, resulted in 150,000 fatalities, widespread displacement, and wanton war crimes.

As state institutions crumbled and divided, sectarian militia rule and foreign occupation flourished in large swaths of the country and a dark legacy of enforced disappearances terrorized much of the local population. Indeed, today, nearly 25 years after the Taif Agreement stitched together a much needed, but oft-tested peace accord, more than 17,000 individuals remain missing, many as a result of civil war-era forced disappearances.

After the civil war, the “magic formula of la ghalib la maghlub (‘no victor, no vanquished’)” alongside “amnesty and amnesia” became the rationale for the transitional period from war to peace. This benefited the perpetrators of the crimes of the era, but not the victims. 

Indeed, Amnesty Law 84/91 “declared a general amnesty for all political crimes, including abductions, committed by armed groups during the civil war, while remaining silent about the victims and their families.”

The fate of the missing during this period in Lebanon has yet to be holistically and meaningfully addressed and this has had continual repercussions on Lebanon’s national memory, prolonging the reconciliation process.

In this context, and as Lebanon now dangerously hovers on the precipice of a new civil war stemming from sectarian spillover from the Syrian conflict, the application of a meaningful truth and memory instrument is more important than ever.

The country’s political amnesia surrounding the missing and the forced disappearances of the civil war years is hindering its ability to move forward towards a more sustainable era of national reconciliation. The bullet-riddled buildings in West Beirut have largely been replaced by gleaming Gulf-financed high-rises; the wounds inflicted on the families of the disappeared, however, remain.

The unresolved fate of those disappeared or missing is a particularly egregious crime against humanity that is felt by the victims’ families not only at the time it occurred, but years and decades after the fact, as Lebanon’s example clearly shows. These crimes primarily capitalize on fear—the fear that it could happen again to someone else; the fear of the unknown; the fear of never finding resolution. It also is an attack on memory and an assault on nostalgia, in the individual and collective sense, both of which are integral to the formulation and maintenance of identity.

These crimes have also had profound psychological and emotional impacts, beyond the political and social ones. Psychologically, families of the missing are commonly afflicted with anxiety and depression, anger, guilt, helplessness, emotional disengagement, obsessiveness, mental confusion, and lack of motivation.

Furthermore, such crimes have disproportionately affected Lebanese women, coping with the unresolved loss of their loved ones in a state of “frozen grief.” They live like “de facto widows, but not legally recognized as such, and therefore unable to assume any caretaker role for their children, benefit from inheritances, or even remarry.”

It is important to note that “the needs of families of the missing are largely described by the following: truth, human remains, resources, justice, support.” A strong, focused truth commission in Lebanon, in tandem with other transitional justice tools and with these elements in mind, would go a long way towards addressing the aforementioned needs of the over 17,000 long-suffering Lebanese and Palestinian families of those missing or disappeared during the civil war.