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Talking To: SOLIDE founder Ghazi Aad

The issue of the Lebanese missing and detained in Syrian prisons has been on the table in Lebanon in the four years since Damascus withdrew its military presence from the country, and families of those suspected to be held in Syria have gathered weekly outside the ESCWA building in downtown Beirut to bring attention to their plight.

Although their campaign has worked to bring awareness to the issue, not everyone agrees it’s a problem. In an interview in Wednesday’s edition of pro-opposition Lebanese daily As-Safir, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said there were no Lebanese detainees in his country’s prisons, responding to the reporter’s question, “You say you have no detainees?” by saying, “Exactly.”

“This is a case of the Lebanese, and if some use it for incitement, this is another issue,” he continued. “But as for us in Syria, we are dealing with the facts.”

Assad’s words contradict the plight of the hundreds of families in Lebanon who have sons, brothers, fathers they believe – they know, they say – are in detention in Syria. Many say they know their relatives have been killed.

“Died or killed where?” Assad said in the report. “There was a civil war … how was the problem with Syria, when there was a civil war in Lebanon?”

“In times of war, a lot of things happen… Chaos, killing, kidnapping… No one knows. There are no records.”

As the families across Lebanon continue to try to uncover the fate of their relatives, Ghazi Aad, who founded the organization Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE) in 1990, sat down with NOW Lebanon’s Christine El Cheikh to talk about how the surviving victims of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention since 1975 can be released, especially in light of the decision to establish diplomatic ties between Lebanon and Syria.

 Last August, presidents Michel Sleiman and Bashar al-Assad made an unprecedented step in deciding to establish diplomatic relations. What was your initial reaction when you heard about the decision?

Aad: First of all, the establishment of diplomatic ties between Lebanon and Syria has been a long-overdue issue; I mean we have always struggled to have diplomatic relations between the two countries. This means that Syria after all decided to recognize Lebanon as a sovereign and independent country, so I was happy to hear the news.

 How do you think the opening of the embassies in Beirut and Damascus will affect the case of those Lebanese missing or detained in Syrian prisons?
 
Aad:
I consider exchanging embassies between Beirut and Damascus a major step to recognize the sovereignty of Lebanon, but as for the Lebanese detainees and missing in Syrian prisons, I believe that the diplomatic ties would never change anything because we know that in order to resolve the problem, we need a political decision on the highest Syrian official level. Syrian officials had not acknowledged that their troops who were present in Lebanon arrested Lebanese citizens and transferred them to Syria. They are still denying these facts.

 Do you think that only Syrian authorities should shoulder the responsibility for the detention and enforced disappearance of Lebanese in Syria?

Aad: Of course Lebanese authorities should also carry the responsibility of detention and forced disappearances of Lebanese in Syria because Lebanese officials did nothing so far to establish a legal and an official mechanism to discuss this issue with Syrians, and they did not take minimal requirements of a serious job.

 What do you think is the best mechanism to reach a solution?

Aad: In order to resolve the issue, we call for the establishment of a national commission of inquiry and mapping the Lebanese territories to define how many people disappeared during the war, from 1975 until 2005. We also need to classify the missing persons into two: those who were kidnapped by local militias, and those who were abducted by regional powers such as Syria, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel. After that, we request the establishment of a DNA database that will help us identify the bones and remains of the bodies. And finally, we have to work on the right of the families to reveal the fate of their loved ones.

 Syrian officials also accused Lebanese political party leaders of kidnapping Lebanese citizens and attempting to make them shoulder this responsibility.

Aad: Actually, this is a fact of the war; local militias did really commit enforced disappearance of Lebanese citizens. We know that, and we never claimed that all the missing people went missing at the hands of Syrian Intelligence. But still, we cannot deny the fact that Syrians were also responsible for this issue. For that reason, the official count of missing Lebanese is 17,000, but we are talking about 600 who are missing in Syria.

 When Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem visited President Michel Sleiman last July, SOLIDE organized a demonstration on the highway to the Presidential Palace in Baabda and clashed with the LAF. What happened that day?

Aad: Before that day, we submitted a memorandum to President Sleiman calling for the establishment of a national commission of inquiry to work on the issue of the Lebanese detained and missing in Syria, and then we heard the news that the Syrian FM would visit Lebanon, so we decided that it was the right time “to act on the ground” just to raise the issue and prove our point. For that reason, we went to Baabda, and we decided to cut the road at the moment when Mouallem’s convoy was passing. What happened is that we clashed with the Lebanese army. They thought that we aimed to prevent the Syrian FM from reaching the presidential palace, but that was not our intention because our goal was to submit a message: There is a very important issue between Lebanon and Syria that must be tackled, and also to request the president to approve giving SOLIDE an appointment in order to submit the memorandum and discuss with him. That day our message was heard loud and clear, and we remember that day that Mouallem raised this issue with the reporters at the Baabda Palace and said that the families: Whoever waited for so long could wait for few more weeks to resolve the detainee file. President Sleiman also gave us an appointment.

 Do you need to organize a protest every time you need an appointment with a senior Lebanese official?
 
Aad:
Not all the time. But it seems that recently many attempted to push this file aside because we received some information that this file should not be raised at the moment. I do not know the reason or the identity of the decision maker. It seems that nobody wants to tackle this case. We have a feeling that they are trying to push us aside, and for that reason we went to the Grand Serail earlier this month asking for an appointment with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. I already said once: Do we really need another demonstration similar to the one on the Baabda highway to receive an approval for an appointment? We will continue our efforts in order to seize attention.

 Did you receive an approval for an appointment from the prime minister’s office?

Aad: Not yet.

 Some media reports said President Sleiman raised this issue with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, during his visit to Paris earlier this month.

Aad: The file of the Lebanese detainees and missing in Syrian prisons should be a national priority, and if these reports were true, I believe that this is a positive step and a good sign. We know for sure, based on connections with French authorities and officials, that they are also interested in raising the issue with Syria.

 Many thought that Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun would discuss this file intensively with Syrian officials. Why didn’t he when he was in Syria in December, to your knowledge?

Aad: To be honest, this was a subject of concern on a personal level at that time because I feared this matter would be exploited politically if the General brought a number of detainees with him from Syria and left others. What we really were looking forward to from Aoun’s visit to Damascus [were]: first, an official recognition from Syria’s side that a certain problem exists, and we have to resolve it; and the second demand is to establish a serious and legal mechanism to tackle this file through official channels and not through political figures such as Michel Aoun or any other political leader, because this is not the way to deal with such a humanitarian issue at this scale, and it touches all the Lebanese with different political and ethnic affiliations. This issue should not be exploited politically. So far, there is a kind of recognition from Syrian officials, but still, the mechanism is not working because we have an old one with no legal mandate.

 Do you plan to go to Syria and meet senior officials?

Aad: I prefer to meet with Syrian authorities on an official level through establishing a national commission of inquiry on the enforced disappearance of Lebanese. Any other unofficial contact will lead nowhere.  

 Can Mouallem’s speech at the Presidential Palace be considered the first official acknowledgment of this file on the level of senior authorities? 

Aad: Of course it is. The negative side of Mouallem’s statement was when he said that mothers could wait for a couple of [more] weeks, but if we look at the positive side of it, we see it as an official recognition at the highest levels that there was a problem, [that] there are people missing in both countries. And now we have to go one step forward toward replacing the joint Lebanese-Syrian committee of inquiry, which has no mandate and has not made any progress, with a serious mechanism in order to solve this difficulty.

 Syria is returning gradually to the fold of the international community. How important is coverage of the detainee file in the media for the international community to pressure Damascus on the issue?

Aad: SOLIDE considers that pressure should be exposed every day on both Lebanese and Syrian authorities in addition to the international community because, after all, people have the right to know the fate of their loved ones. This is an international right. They should know whether they are still alive or dead. They cannot live this way anymore; it is a tragedy, and they need to have straight and clear answers to put an end to their misery.

 How are the mothers of missing persons and detainees feeling after four years of protest in front of the ESCWA building in downtown Beirut, to no avail?

Aad: It is a shame that all political parties in Lebanon claim they are making efforts to resolve this file, and they sympathize with the suffering of the families, while the tent is still present after four years. It is a flagrant and clear indication that the problem has not been resolved yet. For that reason, nobody can claim they worked to reveal the fate of detained and missing Lebanese.

 Why are you so interested in this file when you yourself have no relatives missing or detained in Syria? Why is this issue of such high concern to you on a personal level?

Aad: It is a difficult question. I am interested in finding a solution to this problem after working for so many years; you have to finish what you have started. Actually, I lived all the miseries of the Lebanese [civil] war, especially the pain and agony of the families. Some of my friends were kidnapped by Syrians during the war, some of them are released and some others are still missing.

Maybe it is the fighter in me; I was fighting to end Syrian occupation at that time, and we started this campaign because we thought occupation was using this issue to force the Lebanese into submission. We aimed to put an end to this practice and the agony of the families and retrieve our brothers detained by the Syrian Intelligence in Lebanon. That was our objective then, but later on we were astonished when we discovered the huge number of Lebanese detained and missing in Syria, and that this issue touches all regions and citizens.  

  • nadd

    my name is nada elhage and I would like to speak to Ghazi Aad personnaly. I have an issue to discuss with him regarding kidnapping since 1985. please give him my email address nada.hajj@sympatico.ca or send me his phone if it is possible to talk to him. thank you so much. (from Canada)

    April 3, 2014

  • MICHEL AOUN

    Thank You Christine for your interest about our cause. That was a great job, Keep Going.

    April 22, 2009

  • LINA

    good job christine, keep going..

    March 28, 2009