Wives of Lebanon’s Disappeared Left to Cope Alone

April 13 is a significant day for many Lebanese. Some remember the brutality of Lebanon’s civil war and others would rather just forget that it ever took place. Decades...

April 13 is a significant day for many Lebanese. Some remember the brutality of Lebanon’s civil war and others would rather just forget that it ever took place. Decades later and many questions remain unanswered for thousands of families whose loved ones were forcibly disappeared. Many families, especially women, still feel the repercussions from the day their sons and husbands went missing and never returned home.

According to the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a non-governmental organization that assists societies to promote accountability for human rights abuses, Lebanon’s civil war killed over 140,000 persons, injured almost 200,000 and left more than 130,000 physically disabled. Moreover, 17,415 persons-mostly men-went missing or were forcibly disappeared. Their fates remain unknown today as there is no genuine political effort to seek the truth in order to give closure to the families who still await the return of their sons, husbands, and fathers.

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In 1991, the Lebanese government signed the Ta’if Accords, which officially marked the end of the war. Instead of undertaking efforts to heal the profound wounds of millions of people, the government, which itself was made up of militia leaders and warlords passed an amnesty law. This forgave them from any responsibility for war crimes they had committed. In fact, many of those militia leaders and their family members still make up a large part of Lebanon’s political landscape.

The general amnesty law subsequently gave rise to a collective social and political amnesia in which the majority of people have followed their government’s call to never seek the truth. Indeed the only sentence associated with the memory of the war and recounted by many Lebanese is “to be remembered and not repeated.” The memories that a war ever took place are still visible in the bullet riddled buildings with barely hanging rooftops. Some of these buildings are never to be rehabilitated to remind people of this travesty in the same sense that memories of the war should remain in our conscience to never be remedied collectively.

Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and wives tell harrowing tales of how their loved ones were kidnapped or forcibly disappeared and never returned. Stories are recounted across the country of unknown men summarily executed and buried in mass graves. Others tell stories of men who were killed and chained to cement blocks and thrown in the ocean to never be found again. Some families know the militias responsible for their relative’s kidnapping. Other families believe that their sons were kidnapped by Lebanese factions loyal to Syrian or Israeli authorities that occupied parts of Lebanon until recently.

The fate of those disappeared is a major impediment for many families across Lebanon seeking the right to truth and most initiatives have mainly focused on this particular aspect. Little is known about the experiences of families and specifically women who financially support their families and try to mentally and emotionally cope with the unknown.

A recent ICTJ research report details the social and psychological effects on the wives of those missing. The report, based on 23 interviews with wives of the disappeared, found that many of these women still live in limbo not knowing if their husbands are indeed dead or will one day come back. Those interviewed noted that they had to abruptly play the role of the mother and father by shouldering responsibilities such as financially supporting their families which they were not ready for. Some children acknowledged that their mothers also played protective roles that are normally delegated to men in Lebanon’s traditional society.

Many women in the report also mentioned their experiences with physical and psychological symptoms associated with trauma. Rightfully, many women remain stuck in the very moment when their husbands were kidnapped or received news that they had been disappeared. Many of them were prescribed antidepressants and some still depend on medication to go about their day. The report also noted that some women suffered from anxiety and depression not only due to the unknown fate of their husbands but also due to the lack of support from families and friends. Some even spoke of tense relationships with their in-laws who blamed them their son’s disappearance while others expressed fear that their in-laws would take their children away.

A Lebanese woman, left, holds a picture of her disappeared relative during a sit-in marking the 35th anniversary of the Lebanese 1975-1990 civil war, in front of the United Nations House in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, April 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Grace Kassab)

A Lebanese woman, left, holds a picture of her disappeared relative during a sit-in marking the 35th anniversary of the Lebanese 1975-1990 civil war, in front of the United Nations House in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, April 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Grace Kassab)

According to the report some women live in silos and rarely socialize with family or friends. Some of the women feel that their families are unable to understand their grief and some are indifferent to their suffering telling them to simply move on. Other women feel ostracized by their communities who simply left them to shoulder a heavy burden and not assist them in searching for their husbands.

Without a doubt, Lebanon’s civil war has left many scars in the minds of thousands of people who lost their relatives, neighbours, and friends. Those who do not know the fate of their loved ones refuse to acknowledge that their sons and husbands may have died because they have no tangible proof. It is commonly known that women bear the brunt of conflicts and must cope with the harsh realities in the aftermath of war. Women whose husbands were disappeared are especially vulnerable. They must shoulder responsibilities as supporters and caretakers in a society that fails to acknowledge their presence and torment. Without a genuine and meaningful social and political process to seek the truth in Lebanon, many women will spend the rest of their lives stuck in the very moment they last said goodbye.

Categories
Human Rights
Nadya Khalife

Nadya Khalife is a researcher, writer, and advocate for women’s rights with extensive expertise in the Middle East and North Africa region. She has undertaken field research in numerous countries on violence against women and harmful traditional practices. She holds a Masters of Arts degree in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts.

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