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Peace for those left behind

Legislative action is required to give answers to the families of the missing

by Christophe Martin

“Just a bone,” she said. “All I need is one bone for me to put his memory at peace.” On the International Day of the Disappeared, at an event organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a woman from the crowd took the floor and reminded us again why, year after year, we commemorate those who have gone missing: For each family, the day their loved ones went missing is as fresh as yesterday, and they need answers to find peace.

Despite the tragic circumstances that surround this commemoration every year, the country has never been closer to bringing answers to those who lost a son, a mother, or a loved one. A draft law on the missing has been passed in Parliament’s Human Rights and Justice and Administration committees. If this law is approved by the full legislature, it will set up a legal framework establishing a humanitarian, independent mechanism charged with finding answers about those who went missing during the Lebanese Civil War.

The 15-year civil war has distorted the collective memory of a nation. It bears a heavy toll not only on the relatives of those still missing, but on the country as a whole. The transgenerational burden needs to be lightened for Lebanon to move forward. Since 2012, the ICRC has been working on a number of initiatives with purely humanitarian ends, such as collecting ante-disappearance data and biological reference samples of family members. Experts in forensic science and human identification, anthropologists, and archeologists are being trained in order to form a network of expertise. ICRC has also been supporting the families in their efforts to revive the memories of their missing relatives and to mobilize themselves back into action.

However, the ICRC can only go so far to address the needs of the families of the missing. It is, rather, the government’s responsibility to make sure that the fate and whereabouts of the missing are known, and their families are informed. That said, after years of work, the tools to provide answers to families are in place. With the passage of the Law on the Missing, a legal framework would be established that would allow for the work to reach its completion: The fates of the missing would be uncovered and with it, Lebanon could turn a new page. We are halfway there.

A few years ago, Um George, the mother of a missing person, passed away without any news about her son, who was last seen in 1983. Before she passed away, Um George told her daughters that she’d look for their brother up there, in the skies. But she also tasked her daughters to look for him on Earth, and to knock on her grave once they have found him.

If the Law on the Missing passes in Parliament, thousands of families like that of Um George’s will finally be delivered from decades of living in uninterrupted grief. Some claim, however, that by initiating a process to clarify the fate of the missing, Lebanon would reopen a wound better left closed. But the 3,000 family members that we have visited will tell you that the wound is not closed for them. Rather, legislation such as the Law on the Missing has the power to exhume individual trauma, ascribe it with collective meaning, and ultimately archive the event. And until traumas of the Lebanese Civil War are collectively processed, the present will continue to be shackled to the past.

The International Committee of the Red Cross requests that the Lebanese Parliament passes the Law on the Missing and gives long-awaited answers to families on the fate of their loved ones.

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Christophe Martin

Christophe Martin is the head of delegation at ICRC Lebanon

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