Prisoners to Oblivion I

To talk about them is to keep them alive.

While they live in each of their mothers’ bitter tears and in every beat of their fathers’ weary hearts, we must utter their names to keep them alive.

While they live through their pictures, hugged and kissed by those they left behind, we must tell their stories to keep them alive.

And while they live in freedom and dignity in our memories, those they barely had time to build before they left, we must remember them as our own children, brothers, sisters, husbands and friends, just to keep them alive.

To fail is to let them slip away, again. These prisoners of conscience, political prisoners, arbitrarily detained and unjustly apprehended, abandoned by a world that once called them its own. To fail is to let them fall deeper into yet another darker and bleaker prison, worse than death itself, as prisoners to our forgetfulness, prisoners to oblivion…

In the Middle East, the names are many, the stories abound and the memories are sometimes blurred by the dust of time.

In Lebanon, most of the tragedy revolves around those arbitrarily detained in Syrian prisons. It is a tragedy dating back to the beginning of Lebanon’s war in 1975 until this very day. It is a story of arbitrary arrests for political or confessional affiliation, for being at the wrong place at the wrong time or for no reason whatsoever. Where the start of each person’s journey differed – arrested at a checkpoint, abducted from their own houses, or on their way to work; arrested by local militias or occupying forces; or taken to any of the local detention centers in Tripoli, Beirut, North Beirut or the Bekaa – but always ended across the border, in one of many infamous Syrian prisons without charge or trial sometimes for years on end.

The disappeared suffered from the anxiety and indescribable physical and psychological torture they were subjected to, and many still do until this day. The loved ones suffered from the pain of not knowing where their children were, and many still do until this day. For years, their only hope rested in their own efforts to find a trace or hear a word of the loved one lost. After the end of the war in 1990, the Lebanese government remained in complete and utter denial towards the fate of its citizens, seldom confirming and mainly denying the existence of its own citizens in Syrian jails. Maybe they were right, as many had been stripped of their identity, given new names, taught new dialect, and transformed into unrecognizable beings, sometimes made to believe they were mere creatures, with nothing to live for. To be fair, and by the graces of the regime in command, a very lucky few made it back home alive, while others made it in small wooden boxes.

The race to rescue the disappeared from their second involuntary prison, that of oblivion by their own government and countrymen, recorded a modest victory in 2005, with the withdrawal of Syrian armed forces from Lebanon. The fear of broaching the topic evaporated and a steadfast tent was erected, a sit-in ongoing until the truth behind the fate of those disappeared is uncovered. Not much progress has been witnessed ever since, however. Who knows, maybe some of those disappeared are really here amongst us, resting in peace in one of the mass graves said to exist in the country…

Many disappeared are also detained in Israeli prisons, suffering similar tragedies, albeit through different journeys. The Lebanese government hasn’t taken any better care of them and their plight, but they have found local political parties (namely Hezballah) that has embraced their loss and helped them in the process of getting answers. But then again, in the foolish rules of war, it is understandable for one’s enemy to hold its adversaries hostage, expose them to the most sophisticated torture methods and deny them the rights they deserve simply as human beings. But for neighbors, for ‘brothers’[1] to do that to each other is not understandable.

Bringing up the issue of Lebanese political prisoners, illegally detained in the prisons of others, never has a time and place. There is never a wrong or right time to do so, so long as each and every one of them is accounted for, whether dead or alive.

Thus a war continues to be fought, not with weapons but through the hearts and souls of the disappeared, whose fate remains unknown. Here, the battle on the front lines is fought with tears that continue to be shed, lives poisoned by uncertainty, disillusioned by hope. We can only remain true to our humanity by giving them and their families a voice and telling their stories as their journey for answers continues.

The plight of Arabic political prisoners throughout the region must also be told and will be told. But today, we cannot but salute the courageousness of thousands of Palestinian prisoners whose mass hunger strike resulted in some improvement in their conditions and brought their plight increasingly to the forefront. So long as your names are not forgotten, your stories told and the memory of you shines in the minds of those outside your prison walls, your cause shall stay alive…

[1] In official jargon, Syria is sometimes referred to as Lebanon’s “neighborly brother.”

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