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Mass graves: the unspoken in Syrian-Lebanese relations

Latest update : 2008-08-05

On August 13 the Lebanese and Syrian presidents will discuss the fate of Lebanese citizens who are detained in Syrian prisons. But will the subject of mass graves allegedly dug by the Syrian army also finally be addressed?

Invited by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the new Lebanese head of state, Michel Suleiman, will officially visit Damascus next week.

Sensitive issues topping the agenda will include diplomatic relations, the peace process, Hezbollah weapons, the borders between Syria and Lebanon and the fate of Lebanese detainees in Syria -- a challenging subject given that Syrian authorities have always denied holding Lebanese citizens on their soil. (Despite the fact that in 1998 and in 2000, 169 Lebanese citizens, some of which were considered dead by Lebanese authorities, were freed by the Syrians.)

But even if the issue of detainees is resolved during the Damascus meetings, as Syrian minister of foreign affairs Walid al-Moallem said it would be when he visited Beirut in July, additional questions surrounding the fate of those who disappeared at the hands of the Syrians might remain unanswered.

Thousands of people who went missing during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 could be buried in the many mass graves scattered around Lebanon. Both the Israeli and the Syrian armies, and the Lebanese and Palestinian militias, which fought each other during the civil war, are responsible for the mass graves.

According to Ghazi Aad, president of the NGO Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE): “Mass graves have been found near former buildings belonging to Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon. Many witnesses living near these buildings have reported the existence of mass graves.”

Hundreds of mass graves

Since 2005, families of missing Lebanese citizens have accused the Syrian army, which occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, of digging the three mass graves which have been exhumed so far.

The location of the first grave is very symbolic: the Lebanese defence ministry at Yarze, in east Beirut. The bones of 13 Lebanese soldiers shot on October 13, 1990, during the Syrian invasion of areas controlled by the General Michel Aoun, were exhumed from there in November 2005.

The remains were identified according to international protocols and “all the scientific norms were respected” during the exhumation of the bodies, says Marie Daunay, president of the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights, an organisation which worked alongside committees of families to shed light on the fate of the missing Lebanese people.

But not all the mass graves have been examined with the same degree of care. The political will of the Lebanese government, which wanted to irk Damascus after the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14 2005, faltered when the mass grave of Anjar, in the Bekaa plain, was exhumed.

Bones belonging to about 30 people were exhumed near a former building belong to the Syrian intelligence services. Wadad Halwani, president of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Lebanon, slams the attitude of the authorities in charge of the exhumation.

“A mass grave should be treated much like the site of crime,” says Halwani. “The site in Anjar was trampled by dozens of journalists and people.”

Dated remains

The inquiry released in June 2006 concluded that the remains discovered in Anjar were 350 years old.

Daunay reponds that  “the bones analysed by the coroner do date back to that time, but we are not sure the remains were exhumed on the exact site. These ancient human remains might have been exhumed at a mosque not far from the mass grave. Even the mayor of Anjar states that he covered corpses with earth a couple of years ago to prevent the spread of illnesses.”

For Ghazi Aad of Solide, the Anjar file “was opened for political reasons and closed for political reasons, because the exhumation of one of the graves could lead to the exhumation of many others. And this prospect does not please quite a few Lebanese politicians.”

On July 27, the Lebanese president declared he wanted to open a new “brilliant” page in relations between Syria and Lebanon.

Ghassan Moukhayber, a member of parliament belonging to General Michel Aoun’s parliamentary bloc and a member of the parliamentary human rights commission, says: “There can be peace only if justice is done, and justice is only possible if the truth is revealed.” Reconciliation is only possible if all the mass graves are opened, he says, and if people face their responsibilities. And the Syrians will not be the only ones to take part in this exercise of collective mea culpa.

Date created : 2008-08-04