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Lebanese missing, but not forgotten, in Syria Open in fullscreen

Mat Nashed

Lebanese missing, but not forgotten, in Syria

Hundreds of dissidents went missing during Syria's 30-year occupation of Lebanon [AFP]

Date of publication: 2 July, 2015

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Feature: Hundreds of Lebanese citizens forcibly 'disappeared' during the Syrian occupation remain missing, but their loved ones are keeping hope alive.

Waiting in secret to receive a response to an Australian asylum request, Ali Abu Dehn had been seeking refuge from Lebanon's civil war in Damascus.

A vocal critic of Syria's military occupation in Lebanon, officers barged into his relative's house and seized him. He was tortured for 15 days before confessing to being an Israeli spy.

On 5 July 1987, he was sentenced to life in Tadmor prison, a place notorious for carrying out summary executions and inflicting maximum suffering in Syria's north-eastern desert.

Separated from fellow inmates, he listened to the echoes of suffering around him while waiting in horror to endure his own. When they came to torture him, guards suspended his limbs from the ceiling and beat him until his tendons tore.

"It's the worst prison in the world," said Abu Dehn, now an elderly man with grey hair and a thick moustache. "We weren't allowed to know anything."

Abu Dehn was denied access to a radio for five years. When he was transferred to a different prison, he discovered that the Berlin Wall had fallen and that the Soviet Union collapsed.

On 12 December 2000, a guard called him into his office by name - a rarity since most prisoners were addressed by number. He was released with a handful of others and given three minutes to leave the premises.

According to rights groups, 3,000 Lebanese citizens "disappeared" into Syria during their 30 year occupation.

But while most have certainly died, an estimated 628 people remain in Syrian prison as the war spirals deeper into turmoil.

     I know he's in Syria... Nobody knows why they abducted him.
- Salaya Chewan, wife of 'disappeared' Lebanese

Kept in the dark

Salaya Chewan, an elderly women with black hair and dark bags under her eyes, says that her husband was kidnapped 35 years ago in Lebanon's northern coastal city of Batroun.

When Syrian authorities informed her of his whereabouts, they allowed her into Syria to visit his cell every 15 days. After three and a half months, she was stopped from ever seeing him again.

"I know he's in Syria," Chewan told al-Araby al-Jadeed, while wiping her tears. "Nobody knows why they abducted him."

At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, families of the disappeared reached out to the Free Syrian Army to retrieve information about their loved ones. But the FSA could only offer outdated information that activists and families already had.

Ghazi Aad, the founder of SOLDI, an NGO that supports Lebanese citizens in detention and exile, says army commanders who defected to the FSA are reluctant to release new details - since they themselves could be implicated in the detainment of those missing.

And as the distress of families mounts, anonymous phone callers have tried to profit from their misery by asking for bribes in exchange for suspect information.

"We had expectations that we could retrieve new information," Aad told al-Araby, during a commemoration for the missing. "But even if we do receive new content, there is no way to verify it."

Crystal clear

The expansion of the Islamic State group has further muddled the situation.

On May 30, IS destroyed Tadmor prison after lacing it with explosives. While the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the majority of inmates were transferred before the group took over, other sources reported that IS "freed" 27 Lebanese detainees.

Lebanon's Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq denied having any information about such reports.

Justine De Mayo, the founder of Act for the Disappeared, an NGO investigating the fate of those missing since the Lebanese civil war, says that the Syrian conflict hasn't affected their investigation - since little headway was being made beforehand.

In 2005, a handful of families mobilised in downtown Beirut to demand "the right to know" what happen to their loved ones. That year, a Lebanese-Syrian Commission was established to investigate the fate of those detained by Syrian intelligence agencies.

To date, Lebanese authorities have only heard back about two cases. They were told only that they weren't found.

     Families can't grieve properly because they are still asking questions
- Justine De Mayo, Act for the disappeared

Hope lives

Despite the lack of evidence, families insist their relatives are alive in Syria.

"Families can't grieve properly because they are still asking questions," Mayo told al-Araby.

SOLDI's Aad agreed. "We need a national, independent commission. Because out of this parliament, we'll never receive any answers."

For those fortunate enough to be released, the Lebanese government has yet to provide them with any rehabilitative assistance. Instead, many were considered outlaws and detained upon their return.

Abu Dehn was questioned for three days before Lebanese authorities let him return to his family.

On 15 December 2000, he made his way home after 13 years. He had lost the sense of intimacy with his wife and was unable to tell his daughters apart. A stranger when he returned, his family embraced him nonetheless.

As of today, Abu Dehn has got together with former detainees to lobby for the release of those still missing in Syria. And though he suffers from nightmares of torture and endures lasting injuries to his limbs, he survived - unlike so many others.

"I can't forget the misery," said Abu Dehn, as he showed the scars on his wrist. "The guards told me I never will."

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