Beirut – Lebanon’s civil war saw thousands of people, mostly young civilian men from all religious and political backgrounds, go missing without a trace. Some families, with NGOs’ help, were able to reach conclusions to their ordeal. Many others, however, remain stuck in the spiralling descent of ambiguous pain. Here, the Kobtan family recounts their ordeal in coping with the father who went missing during civil war years.
It was Eid al-Adha in 1986. The Kobtan family woke up that morning whole and complete, not knowing that by the end of that day their entire lives would change for ever.
Mohammad and Samira Kobtan’s two sons remember that morning all too well, from the breakfast they had – kaak with cheese – to the new clothes they were given as they huddled in their tiny apartment in Beirut’s Basta neighbourhood, to their father bidding them farewell to go to visit his grandmother, the woman that raised him after he had lost both of his parents at a very young age, for Eid.
That was the last time they saw him. He was 32.
On that day, Kobtan’s younger son, Jalal, who was three at the time, had his whole life for ever changed. It took the family some time before they realised that the father had gone missing.
There were no phones or means of communication back then at their disposal. What they could only do was estimate how long the journey from Basta to Tariq el Jdide, a neighbourhood in Beirut where the grandmother lives, should take and why, after hours had elapsed, there was a sense that something grave had occurred.
Jalal remembers his mother running frantically from their house, along the road she thought his father most probably took, up to their father’s grandmother’s house. His grandmother said Mohammad had never visited that day.
I don't think we've ever been able to move on as a family. I mean, I'm here talking about him almost 30 years later. It will be 30 years this year, won't it?
He recalls her retracing her steps as she walked back, asking friends and acquaintances that she thought Mohammad Kobtan may have encountered on his way.
No one had seen him.
Jalal refuses to say that his dad was kidnapped: “My father vanished. He went missing without a trace, like many others in that God-forsaken war.”
Losing his father when he was only three proved tough for Jalal to cope with, especially when it comes to the small things that many take for granted. He remembers, when he was seven, being asked in school where his father was.
The idea that the man who made him was missing was too difficult for him to grasp. “I avoided the questions and stares by saying that my father was travelling instead,” said Jalal.
His father’s existence remained firmly rooted in the unknown.
The Kobtan family never got any answers on Mohammad’s whereabouts, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. All political entities that were involved in Lebanon’s civil war at the time had proclaimed they knew nothing about the fate of Mohammad Kobtan.
The only way forward was for Samira Kobtan, now a single mother of two, to deal with the ambiguities of her present by becoming both father and mother of the household.
The family’s financial situation was precarious. Samira knew she couldn’t dwell on her husband’s fate and leave her two children dealing with the aftermath. She took as many jobs as she could, did her best to be the emotional support her two boys needed and made sure they needed no one in spite of everything.
Samira Kobtan never remarried. Mohammad was the love of her life.
Jalal remembers his mother clinging to his father’s clothes and belongings. His side of the bed was always made the way it was that morning. His razor and shaving cream were never moved.
Their house was destroyed during the civil war and the Kobtans were forced to move, leaving behind most of what reminded them of their father.
Today, Jalal is 33 – almost the same age as his father was when he went missing. “It was easier for us as a family to convince ourselves that he was gone, than to cling to hope,” he said when asked how he coped growing up. “It took a lot of thought process,” he continued, “to add up all the logical elements together to come to that conclusion.”
“But in spite of everything, I still think that maybe, just maybe, my father could still be alive and that God gave him enough lifetime to survive these 30 years, and maybe I’ll be able to see him one day again.”
Coming to that conclusion was easier for Jalal than to remain transfixed in the pain of ambiguity that haunted his family for years. “There’s nothing harder than not knowing. Whether it’s about my father or any other aspect in life. It’s easier to know.”
“When you can’t know for certain, you convince yourself that what you think you know is what is right. And you try to move on. I don’t think we’ve ever been able to move on as a family. I mean, I’m here talking about him almost 30 years later. It will be 30 years this year, won’t it?”
Life for the Kobtans, as for many families, is nothing more than a constellation of triggers reminding them of what they have lost, and what they are losing every day by not knowing, a wound that keeps bleeding, haemostasis never in sight.
“There’s nothing I want more than to see him again, hug him and tell him I love him and that it’s OK.”