A Lebanese woman holds a picture of her missing son
A Lebanese woman holds a picture of her missing son as she sits near a tent erected at the entrance of the United Nations headquarters in downtown Beirut. The seven-month-old revolt in neighbouring Syria has given hope to Lebanese families trying to find what happened to thousands of loved ones who disappeared during their country's civil war and are believed dead or held in Syrian jails. © Joseph Eid - AFP
A Lebanese woman holds a picture of her missing son
Natacha Yazbeck, AFP
Last updated: October 14, 2011

Syria revolt brings hope for families of missing Lebanese

The seven-month-old revolt in neighbouring Syria has given hope to Lebanese families trying to find what happened to thousands of loved ones who disappeared during their country's civil war and are believed dead or held in Syrian jails.

"For the first time in many, many years, it's a win-win situation for us -- for all the families of the victims," said Ghazi Aad, head of SOLIDE, a group that for years has been lobbying for Lebanese political prisoners in Syrian jails.

"If the regime falls, detainees will be released and archives and records will no longer be under that regime's control," Aad told AFP.

"And even if President Bashar al-Assad stays, he will be under massive pressure to clean up his human rights record."

For over 20 years, more than 600 families -- Lebanese and Palestinian, Muslim and Christian -- have demanded authorities reveal the fate of thousands of political prisoners believed to have disappeared at the hands of Syrian troops who entered Lebanon shortly after the outbreak of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Successive Lebanese governments have made apparent attempts to address the issue, even including it in cabinet programmes. But families of the victims say their appeals have been met with apathy from authorities.

In a bid to draw attention to their plight, the mothers, wives and daughters of those missing for six years have held a sit-in in downtown Beirut, where a tent is permanently set up outside UN headquarters.

"I have no hope that Ahmad will turn up alive, and I know in my heart that he is dead," said Amneh Sharkawi, 78, whose son went missing in 1976 aged 19.

"But I want closure," she added, sitting on a makeshift bed in the tent.

"I want my son back, even if they give me his bones in a plastic bag. I want to bury my son near his father."

Rights groups say thousands of men, women and children disappeared at the hands of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's predecessor and late father, during the civil war, a spiralling bloodbath which tore Lebanon apart on confessional lines.

Syria withdrew from its smaller neighbour in 2005 under massive international pressure over the assassination of billionaire former premier Rafiq Hariri.

The Assad dynasty has long denied holding any prisoners of conscience, but on four different occasions between 1976 and 2000 has released Lebanese who had been held in Syrian prisons.

While Syria declared it no longer had any Lebanese detainees after the prisoner release in 2000, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem made a statement to the contrary during a fence-mending trip to Lebanon in 2008.

"Those who have waited more than 30 years since the start of the (Lebanese) civil war can wait another few weeks," Muallem said at the time.

Today, for Amneh and hundreds of others in her situation, the revolt may prove the key to uncovering the fate of their missing loved ones at long last.

"If the regime falls, many secrets held tightly by security services also become uncovered, either by defectors or because the archives are opened and so forth," said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"There is no doubt that the odds of getting answers would be much higher in a post-Assad Syria, if what we've seen in Libya or Egypt is any indication."

Jihad Georges Eid was a 20-year-old soldier in the Lebanese army when Syrian troops took him away on October 13, 1990 -- the day of the last battle in the civil war.

His mother Sonia said she subsequently received conflicting reports on his whereabouts.

"The state ignored all my appeals and it turned its back on a member of its own army," she said. "All these years, I never gave up hope and now, more than ever, I know he's coming back."

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