x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

New hope for families of Assad regime's Lebanese prisoners

News of the release of Yacoub Shamoun, one of the 17,000 Lebanese who disappeared since the start of the country's civil war in 1975, has given Lebanese families renewed hope that they may one day be reunited with lost relatives.

A woman takes part in a sit-in to demand information about Lebanese prisoners in Syria outside the UN offices in Beirut.
A woman takes part in a sit-in to demand information about Lebanese prisoners in Syria outside the UN offices in Beirut.

BEIRUT // Adele Ghowsh's son has been missing for more than two decades, but she still believes he is alive in Syria.

He was taken from his home in coastal Lebanon's Chouf district by members of the Lebanese intelligence, Mrs Ghowsh said, before being handed to Syrian security forces and transferred to a Damascus prison.

That was in 1989 when Ali Al Haj was 22 years old. His mother, now 75, has not seen him since.

Last week it emerged that Yacoub Shamoun, one of the 17,000 Lebanese who disappeared since the start of the country's civil war in 1975, had been freed after spending 27 years in the Assad regime's prisons.

His release has given Mrs Ghowsh and other Lebanese families renewed hope that they may one day be reunited with lost relatives.

It also reignited calls to uncover the fate of hundreds of Lebanese believed to have been sent to Syrian prisons.

With Syria now in the grips of its own civil war, some of the families say they are now even more worried about relatives held in jails there.

Mrs Ghowsh has no concrete information about what happened to Ali. Her only leads have been from Lebanese prisoners released from Syrian jails in the past decade who said they saw or heard about her son while in prison.

"After Shamoun, hopefully Ali will be released too - alive," Mrs Ghowsh said. "It has given me more hope. I believe I will see my son again."

Mr Shamoun, 49, was released three months ago, but only recently decided to go public with the story of his arrest in 1985.

For 21 of the 27 years he was held, Mr Shamoun's family had no idea what had happened to him. When they finally made contact, they managed to hire a lawyer, according to Ghazi Aad, director of the Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (Solide) group, and his case was eventually transferred to a civil court, which acquitted him.

There have been previous cases of Lebanese citizens released by Syria, but few have spoken publicly about their experiences.

Mr Shamoun's release "has given hope to the families of those still missing of finding someone alive after 27 years", said Mr Aad.

Some of the missing are believed to have been arrested or captured by security forces and militias involved in Lebanon's civil war, including those from Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestinian groups. Some may have been killed in the violence, or simply disappeared.

After the war ended in 1990, arrests and disappearances continued, according to activists, who blame, among others, Syria, which maintained a 29-year military presence in Lebanon until 2005.

Based on information provided by families of the missing, Solide believes there are at least 600 Lebanese citizens who were captured and held in Syrian jails.

Mr Aad said that while Syrian authorities have long denied they are holding Lebanese detainees, there have been several instances where groups of people have been released and returned to Lebanon.

"The families just want to know from people released: 'Did you see my son, father, brother?'" Mr Aad said. "They live in agony and emotional torture all the time."

Mr Shamoun, who has said he was taken because of his membership of Lebanon's Christian Kataeb political faction, was moved from prison to prison during his incarceration, according to Mr Aad. He was freed from Hasaka jail in eastern Syria. Before he was moved to Hasaka, he was held in Saidnaya prison, just north of Damascus, where he came into contact with five other Lebanese inmates - three of whom were not on Solide's list of those believed to be held in Syria.

Lebanon's minister of justice, Shakib Qortbawi, said this week that he would be pushing for the establishment of a national commission for victims of enforced disappearance - something activists and families have wanted for several years.

"This will be a serious official mechanism to resolve the cases," said Mr Aad. "I hope the government will take it into consideration."

But, Mr Aad said, he hopes the situation will not be exploited for political purposes in a country whose deep divisions have only been exacerbated by the conflict in Syria.

Majida Bashasha sat among the family members of missing people at the purple tent in a park outside the United Nations offices in Beirut. Her brother Ahmed was 18 when he was taken by Syrian forces at a military checkpoint south of Beirut in 1976.

Like other relatives of the missing, Ms Bashasha said her family has heard of sightings of Ahmed in Syria giving her hope they will be reunited.

"I'm convinced he's still alive," she said. "I really wish to see him again. Inshallah I will."

zconstantine@thenational.ae