Decades on, families of Lebanon’s war missing see hope

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Mothers and relatives of Lebanese citizens who disappeared since the Lebanese civil war in 1975, carry their pictures during a press conference at the entrance of the UN headquarters in downtown Beirut. (AFP)
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Mothers and relatives of Lebanese citizens who disappeared or went missing since the Lebanese civil war in 1975, carry their pictures during a press conference that revolves around the newly voted law regarding the missing during the civil war, held next to the tent of the families of the missing at the entrance of the United Nations headquarters in downtown Beirut on November 28, 2018. (AFP)
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Mothers and relatives of Lebanese citizens who disappeared since the Lebanese civil war in 1975, carry their pictures during a press conference at the entrance of the UN headquarters in downtown Beirut. (AFP)
Updated 14 April 2019

Decades on, families of Lebanon’s war missing see hope

  • For more than a decade, she and a dozen other women have regularly protested in the garden outside the UN headquarters in Beirut, clutching faded photographs of their long-gone loved ones

BEIRUT: As Lebanon marks 44 years since the start of its civil war on Saturday, families whose loved ones disappeared during the conflict hope they might finally get some answers.
The small multi-confessional country passed a landmark law in November to determine the fate of thousands of Lebanese who went missing in the 1975-1990 war.
But political parties once involved in the fighting must now encourage followers with key data such as the location of mass graves to come forward to help.
Wadad Halwani, who heads the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Missing, says the new legislation has given grieving relatives a glimmer of hope.
“It’s the first time we commemorate the war with a law to enshrine the right to know... the fate of all the missing, dead or alive,” she said.
More than 150,000 people were killed during Lebanon’s civil war and some 17,000 people went missing, according to official figures.
Halwani’s husband was among them, abducted, never to return.
For more than a decade, she and a dozen other women have regularly protested in the garden outside the UN headquarters in Beirut, clutching faded photographs of their long-gone loved ones.
The new law is “crucial to allow relatives of the missing to move on with their lives like everyone else, instead of wasting them waiting,” she said.
Law 105 gives families the right to know the place of abduction or detention of their loved one, as well as the whereabouts of their remains and the right to retrieve them.
To do this, the Cabinet must set up an official commission of inquiry to gather testimonies and investigate mass graves. But five months on, nothing has been done.
Former lawmaker Ghassan Moukheiber, who co-drafted the law, said political will was key to moving forward.
The “decision to pass this law now needs to be translated into appointing a commission and facilitating its work,” he said.
The probing body is to include, among others, family representatives, lawyers, an academic and a forensic doctor.
Once formed, its first task should be to draw up a unified list of all those missing, Moukheiber said.
They will have to “track down... those still alive and work toward their return, as well as retrieving the remains of those killed or dead,” he said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has said it is willing to hand over all information and DNA samples it has collected into a database on the missing since 2012.
But what Moukheiber describes as the commission’s “purely humanitarian” mission is also a highly sensitive one.
After Lebanon’s war ended, Parliament in 1991 passed a general amnesty law that saw former warlords breathe a sigh of relief and move on to politics.
Almost three decades later, their parties are still going strong, and persisting differences have repeatedly sparked government deadlocks.
“A number of parties that were once militias and have... a past of war crimes have started to at least tentatively fear this commission’s future work,” Moukheiber said.
With numerous groups implicated, choosing where to start will also be delicate.
“In what mass grave should the inquiry begin?” asked the former lawmaker.
“There are burial grounds all over Lebanon, in every area once under control of” an armed group, he said.
“Choosing where and how to exhume these graves will require wisdom and courage.”
All previous calls to investigate the fate of Lebanon’s missing have come up against uncooperative political parties and inactive governments.
Researcher Lokman Slim, who has spent years gathering data on the missing, says there was little chance the commission would produce tangible results.
“That a political authority with blood-drenched hands actually voted on this law just means that it doesn’t fear its consequences,” said the head of the Umam Documentation and Research center.
“It knows very well that, as with so many issues in Lebanon, the law will simply remain ink on paper.”
“In Parliament, in government, in the circles of Lebanese leaders, there are dozens... who have the detailed information we need about the fate of the missing or locations of mass graves,” Slim said.
But he says he doubts the law’s ability to spark collective introspection into “what led them into a bloody war” in the first place.
Relatives of the missing, however, are determined.
“Successive governments have accused us of pouring salt into old wounds,” said Halwani. But “the whole of society needs to know the truth because it’s the only way forward toward real reconciliation,” she added.


The Gulf’s war on smugglers

Updated 22 August 2019

The Gulf’s war on smugglers

  • Recent busts have included cash, cannabis and Captagon
  • Tech-savvy criminals play cat-and mouse with tech-savvy criminals

DUBAI: Bulk cash couriers, narcotics mules, counterfeit goods, wildlife trafficking —  spotting smugglers is all part of a day’s work for customs officials and law enforcement professionals in the Gulf.

Experts say that illegal trafficking in all its guises is bringing in billions each year for criminals worldwide, and the problem is increasing across the globe and the region.

In Saudi Arabia this week alone, officials arrested four passengers attempting to smuggle SR3.1 million ($830,000) in cash out of Madinah’s airport, while Saudi Arabian Border Guards intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis into the Kingdom. In a third bust, Saudi customs thwarted two attempts to bring more than 2.5 million Captagon (amphetamine) pills hidden in two vehicles into the Kingdom via a port.

Adel Hamaizia, a research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at the think tank Chatham House, told Arab News that money laundering,  or cash smuggling, is a major trafficking problem for the Kingdom and wider GCC.

Smuggling of cash is a major trafficking issue for the Kingdom and region, adding to the problem of capital flight.  

“One of the methods aiding capital flight in the GCC is old-school smuggling of cash as well as precious metals,” he said. 

But trafficking of drugs, fuel and even wildlife are also adding to pressures facing customs officials.

“Cross-border fuel smuggling from Saudi Arabia into its neighbors has remained an enduring feature. However, energy pricing reforms in the Kingdom in recent years have stifled smugglers’ margins if not canceled them out altogether,” said Hamaizia. “When it comes to drugs, countries of the GCC serve as consumption destinations and transit hubs, but not production spaces.”

Many countries in the region serve as transit hubs for drug smuggling as a result of geography, infrastructure, porous borders and lengthy coastlines, he said.

“Drugs smuggled into GCC states include qat, opium, cannabis, and Captagon (the family of drugs known as amphetamines). Captagon is one of the major drugs smuggled from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. 

“Wildlife smuggling such as houbara birds, pangolins, ivory, rhinoceros horns and others are also common across Gulf states. Doha serves as transit hubs for birds, mammals, ivory, and reptiles being transported between Africa and Asia.”

The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled.

Channing Mavrellis, of the think tank Global Financial Integrity, which works to curtail trade-related illicit financial flows, also highlighted the growing threat smugglers pose in the GCC. “The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled,” he said.

Experts say smuggling tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated. “The methods used depend largely on the type of good being smuggled, its quantity and the level of risk/enforcement,” said Mavrellis. “For bulk cash smuggling or drug trafficking in smaller quantities, someone may simply conceal the illicit goods on their body or in their luggage. For larger quantities, smugglers may conceal the goods in a shipment of legitimate goods.”

However, Hamaizia warned that criminals are adopting new high-tech tactics. “The smuggling of lightweight drugs is now often supported by drones,” he said.

Smugglers are also turning to social media. In a report — Social Media and Drug Smuggling — published in journals earlier this year, authors noted the trend, saying: “Social media can be used for legal or illegal purposes by many individuals. Some may use these applications for drug smuggling. For example, Saudi Arabia Directorate General of Narcotics Control has arrested eight individuals for drug smuggling through social media.”

Saudi Arabia’s Border Guards this week intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis.  (Social media photo)

According to customs law jointly adopted by GCC countries, illegal transportation of goods can carry a jail term of up to 15 years. 

Meanwhile, many criminals are attempting to take advantage of the busy transit routes in the region.

Hamaizia said: “Traffickers and smugglers often opt for busier international airports where they may benefit from sloppier screening. Smugglers also focus on connecting flights, where screening is rushed and even non-existent in some cases.”

At Dubai International Airport, one of the region’s busiest hubs, authorities caught more than 1,000 people attempting to smuggle illegal goods into the UAE last year, with officials employing a wealth of new technologies. 

These include the Ionscan 500 DT, which can detect a wide range of military, commercial and homemade explosives as well as common illegal drugs, and the Thermo FirstDefender, a handheld device used to identify unknown solids or liquid chemicals.

Mavrellis said the challenge at busy transit routes was to search and question travelers while keeping operations running smoothly. 

“High volumes of international trade can make detecting smuggling difficult as customs agencies must strike a balance between trade facilitation and enforcement. Basically, it is the problem of finding a needle in a haystack — but without taking too much time,” he said.