Beirut – Visitors to the pricey district of central Beirut should be careful where they tread: dead bodies from the Lebanese civil war could be buried at every corner.
Everything from the city’s pedestrian pathways, to its car parks, to its flashy malls and luxurious skyscrapers may stand on the graves of civilians killed during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 war – and more buried remains could lie scattered throughout Lebanon, experts say.
“Everyone knows that in Lebanon, but no one wants to talk about it,” said Assaad Chaftari, who served as a deputy commander of Christian fighters during the war.
Chaftari, who published an apology letter to his nation for his role in the conflict, has worked since 2000 on peace-building projects, with the aim of healing the wounds of war.
“[The graves are] not an easy subject to speak about,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s a shame. It’s trauma. It’s an unhealed injury. It’s many sad things altogether.”
The Taif Agreement was signed in 1989 to end the war, which killed an estimated 250,000 people, displaced more than one million others and left 17,000 missing – but according to Chaftari, the conflict has continued to live on.
“The civil war never ended,” he said. “The violence might have been reduced, but the war didn’t end. Militias from all sides are still present across the country. They are armed.”
Chaftari believes that the current lack of interest in uncovering Lebanon’s mass graves is tied to the endless political infighting that has dominated discourse in the country.
“For now, the country is not ready to discuss this issue,” he said, noting that without measures such as transitional justice to address what happened during the 15-year war, Lebanon will remain haunted by its dark legacy. “Truth tribunals and reconciliation committees were established in other countries to help heal the wounds from their past, but this has not happened here.”
Fabien Bourdier, a former delegate with the International Committee of the Red Cross “Missing Project” in Lebanon – an initiative that aids the families of the missing – said that national commissions have played an important role in helping to resolve the fate of missing persons in other countries.
If an independent national commission was established, it would have the mandate to investigate the cases of the missing, which means to uncover the mass graves and start the identification process.
“If an independent national commission was established, it would have the mandate to investigate the cases of the missing, which means to uncover the mass graves and start the identification process,” said Bourdier, who has also worked on cases of forced disappearances in Iraq and Ukraine.
“Lebanon is a very complicated case due to the absence of a mechanism, or a national entity with a mandate to collect data and uncover the fate of missing people,” he told Al Jazeera.
Over the past two decades, the Lebanese government has avoided discussion of the mass graves and forced disappearances that occurred during the civil war. In 2000, a government committee consisting of five military and intelligence officers recommended considering the missing people dead.
Many Lebanese politicians have said that instead of rehashing the past, Lebanon needs to move forward. “We must leave the past in order to build a future,” former army general Michel Aoun, who has since been appointed president, said in a press conference early this year.
Hassana Jamaleddine, a founding member of the Committee of the Families of Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, says this attitude is unacceptable.
“They started the civil war, all of them – not us,” Jamaleddine told Al Jazeera. “All those who now believe that talking about the past brings back the civil war, are the same ones who started the war and fought it for 15 years.”
In 1991, an Amnesty Law pardoned crimes that took place during the war – a move that civil rights activists say has thwarted the quest for justice, truth and reconciliation in Lebanon.
“They got amnesty for killing and burying people, not for hiding the truth,” said Jamaleddine, sipping a coffee at a pavement cafe in the heart of Beirut. “If you have information about the fate of the people that you killed and you don’t reveal it, if you hide the truth, then this is a continuing crime. There is no amnesty for this crime.”
For the families of the missing, she added, “the tragedy is not just what happened during the civil war. The bigger tragedy is the unending, deep impact of the war on their uncertain lives.”
The quest to discover the whereabouts of those who went missing during the civil war is not an easy one in Lebanon, which has been in a state of political turmoil and only recently appointed a new president after the position stood vacant for two years.
Under international law, enforced or involuntary disappearance is a continuing crime until the fate of the disappeared person has been clarified. According to the United Nations, enforced disappearance is a crime against humanity and the perpetrators are prosecutable in a court of law. But the reality of what happens on the ground often differs from the regulations on paper.
“Mass graves are not our only unsolved case,” said Carmen Abou Jaoude, who heads Lebanon’s International Centre for Transitional Justice. “Look at the car bombings, assassinations and other violations of law and human rights in Lebanon. Which one of those cases has been brought to justice?”
The mass graves are simply the most symbolic issue in the country’s post-civil-war era, she added.
“It is like burying a war, as if nothing had happened on this land,” Abou Jaoude said. “They don’t want to open these graves and face the truth about what happened back then. This is a huge denial of the past, and that’s how the perpetrators enjoy impunity.”