The Desperate Search for Lebanon’s Mass Graves

Kaveh Waddell, The Atlantic, Apr 22, 2018

knows someone who went missing. But they don’t speak about these things.”

A boy
stands on the staircase of a riddled building in Beirut, Lebanon April 13,
2016, the 41st anniversary of Lebanon’s civil war. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

a neighborhood in east Beirut, you’ll come across a nondescript parking lot,
backed up on one side by an Ottoman-era house and on another by a sleek
high-rise, casting its shadow across a mix of old shops and upscale design
stores below. It was from inside one of these old shops in the late 1970s—a few
years into Lebanon’s long, violent civil war—that Avedis Manoukian, a shop
owner, saw the trucks loaded with dead bodies roll up to what is now the
parking lot;  back then, it was an empty, dirt-covered patch. “He kept
telling us, ‘Today, they came with bulldozers and dumped some more corpses
there, covered them with earth. Then they did it again, then they did it
again,’” Aline Manoukian, Avedis’s daughter, recalled when we spoke. As a young
girl, she would visit her father’s store and look out onto the lot, filled with
an unknown number of unidentified bodies. “The story remained with me,” she
said. “Every time I pass by, I know there are people there.”

This site
is one of well over 100 locations scattered throughout Lebanon believed by
researchers to be mass graves, a grim legacy of a 15-year war that pitted
Lebanese-Muslim, Lebanese-Christian, Palestinian, and other sectarian militias
against one another, leaving between 100,000 and 200,000 people dead and
thousands more missing. Since the war’s end in 1990, activists and NGOs have
pressured the Lebanese government to mount a serious effort to locate people
who went missing, to little avail. The 15-year Syrian occupation that followed
the conflict, a brief war with Israel, an influx of refugees from Syria, and
protracted economic and political turbulence have helped push the issue to the
bottom of the government’s agenda. There’s also little political will to
investigate cases of those who went missing during the war: Today’s politicians
were yesterday’s militiamen, and few of them seem interested in digging up the
With each
passing year, preserving evidence that could clear up the fate of the
missing—and bring peace to their long-suffering families—becomes harder.
Witnesses who have information about detention centers and burial sites, and
former fighters, whose memories hold answers the families seek, are growing
old. Meanwhile, the burial sites themselves are steadily being destroyed. In
Beirut’s intermittent spurts of postwar prosperity, it has sprouted countless
towering office buildings and luxury apartments. “Do you know how many mass
graves you’re stepping on when you walk through Beirut?” Malena Eichenberg, a researcher
at the Lebanese NGO Act for the Disappeared, asked. “Parking lots are mass
graves here.”
government has done little to investigate what happened to those who went
missing. In 2000, a government commission released a skimpy three-page report
that acknowledged three well-known mass-grave sites. When Syria’s 15-year
occupation ended in 2005, a Syrian–Lebanese commission was created to
investigate the fate of Lebanese people who disappeared into Syria, but it only
fully investigated two cases.
So several years ago, a handful of NGOs decided to take up the work they
believed the government should be doing: They began documenting every detail
that a future government commission would need to determine the fate of missing
2015, Eichenberg and her team have worked to locate burial sites throughout
Lebanon and plot them on a password-protected digital map. Assembled using
information from open sources and hundreds of interviews with families of the
missing, witnesses, and former civil-war combatants, the map bursts with
colorful pins, each representing a painful memory: a mass grave, a checkpoint,
a detention center, an armed confrontation, the last known location of a
missing person. As Act for the Disappeared locates burial sites, its
researchers rate them on three dimensions: the credibility of the information
that led them to the site, the political sensitivity of the mass grave—if found
to be connected to a group that’s still in power in Lebanon, it receives high
marks for sensitivity—and the risk that the site will be destroyed. Burial
sites deemed at high risk of destruction are often located in areas under
development. Often, when researchers went to a suspected burial site, they
found a luxury condo sitting on top of it, its wealthy inhabitants likely
unaware of what lay beneath.
So far,
Act for the Disappeared’s secret database has information on nearly 2,200
missing people and 112 mass-grave sites. It’s unclear how many people went
missing during the war: The government puts the figure at 17,000, but activists
believe that number double or triple counts many of the missing. Eichenberg
said a more realistic estimate is around 8,000. Of the burial sites logged in
the database, dozens are documented in detail, their locations confirmed by
multiple sources, including witnesses and news stories.
With this
information, Eichenberg and her colleagues are reconstructing the well-worn
paths along which thousands were led from kidnapping to burial. The key nodes
on these routes—checkpoints, detention centers, burial sites—are linked
together in the database. This can help reveal the fate of other missing
people, Eichenberg told me, as she showed me around the complex dataset she and
her colleagues have compiled. “If everybody that we know so far was taken from
this checkpoint to this detention center, we can infer that [others] are
following the same line, and we can expect to find them in the third place,”
she said, referring to a potential burial site.
now, Act for the Disappeared has not publicized the map’s existence. “We fear
that there will be intentional destruction of graves if we release information
without proper protection [for the sites],” Eichenberg said. Justine di Mayo,
the director of Act for the Disappeared, stressed that this research isn’t
ready to be shared with the families of the missing. It’s intended for
protecting burial sites and, eventually, for passing along to authorities, she
concern over the burial sites stems from Lebanon’s remarkably abrupt transition
from civil war to peacetime. A postwar
amnesty law
pardoned crimes that took place during the conflict,
absolving the leaders of violent militias of responsibility for their actions.
But despite being offered legal forgiveness, activists worry that if the map of
mass-grave sites became public, former fighters could try to destroy the very
evidence the map is intended to protect.
today, gathering sensitive information about the civil war is difficult. Many
adults, whether they fought in or lived through the conflict, prefer not to
talk about it. Children rarely learn
about it in school. “Everyone in Lebanon knows someone who went missing. But
they don’t speak about these things,” Manoukian said. Describing the mindset of
those who avoid speaking about the conflict, she added: “Why open these wounds
and say, ‘Look what they did to us, and what we did to them?’ … Everybody has
this feeling of guilt. Because we slaughtered each other.” But Manoukian
herself, like the activists I spoke with, said that staying silent is more
dangerous than dealing with the painful past. “Lebanon will see a new cycle of
violence if we don’t address what happened,” di Mayo said.
data-gathering push has also garnered controversy. Groups like the Committee of
the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, which was founded in
1982, preferred to continue pressuring the government to form an investigatory
commission rather than do the work for the government. On April 13, the 43rd
anniversary of the beginning of the civil war, the Committee launched a new
campaign to lobby candidates in Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections—the
country’s first in nearly a decade—to support creating a commission. (Various
bills that would establish a commission have been stalled in parliament since
In the
meantime, researchers from Act for the Disappeared, the International Committee
of the Red Cross, and other groups continue gathering information. But
documentation won’t prevent the destruction of burial sites. The next step, di
Mayo said, is to open legal cases to prevent construction on the most at-risk
sites. She said there are at least five sites in urgent need of protection, and
that she hopes that information gathered by Act for the Disappeared can help
families of missing persons—or the Committee of the Families—begin legal
proceedings to protect these sites within the next three months. It wouldn’t be
the first time this tactic has been used. Three cases filed by the Committee
have been stalled in court for years, and it’s unclear whether it is still
pursuing them; the Committee declined to comment.
Fueled by
frustration, advocates for the disappeared hope to dial up pressure on the
government by going public with their research. Eventually, after handing over
their meticulously assembled work to the authorities, they hope to become
irrelevant. “Like any government who respects itself, [Lebanon’s] should be
able to give some answers to these people,” Manoukian said. “They owe them
this. They owe their people this.”