Lebanon's own hostage nightmare goes on thousands remain unaccounted for


BEIRUT -- As the hostage drama that held the world's superpowers captive to renegade Lebanese kidnappers fades into this city's troubled memory, Lebanon's own hostage nightmare goes on.

The international crisis that began more than a decade ago, when gunmen held citizens of the United States, Britain, France and Germany as hostages of a bloody civil war, largely ended nearly two years ago, when men such as British church envoy Terry Waite and U.S. journalist Terry Anderson emerged from captivity.

But Lebanon's own hostages remain largely unaccounted for. Up to 17,000 Lebanese disappeared during the nation's 14-year civil war -- snatched from their cars at checkpoints, grabbed off the streets or taken from their homes in the middle of the night. And still, no one can say what happened to most of them.

Some have been missing since the war began in 1975. The most recent, a right-wing Falangist political leader, disappeared in Christian-dominated East Beirut only eight months ago.

For thousands of Lebanese families, the hostage crisis won't be over until the files of those who disappeared are closed.

"I think they cannot possibly be alive. Because we would have known it. We would have heard a rumor or something. Someone would have been able to pay someone and send a letter. But nothing," said Bernard Pfefferle, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Beirut.

Yet dozens of families still cling to hope, saying they have evidence that their loved ones are being held captive by Hezbollah [Party of God] in the remote reaches of the Bekaa Valley outside the control of the Lebanese army. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia and political organization, was thought to control most of the Shiite Muslim clans that held Western hostages in Lebanon.

Red Cross officials say they know Hezbollah continues to hold prisoners, but they have no idea how many because international observers have no access to them. Presumably, most are military prisoners taken from the South Lebanese Army during conflicts around Israel's self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon. (Ten new prisoners were taken captive this month.)

The Red Cross has no access to a group of 10 Lebanese being held in Israeli prisons, including kidnapped Shiite cleric Abdel Karim Obeid, captured by the Israelis in 1989, and more than 200 Lebanese prisoners being held in the Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon.

Sinan Barraj, an attorney representing an organization of thousands of families of Lebanese kidnap victims, holds out only a little hope that any are alive. Most were probably killed and buried in mass graves long ago, he said.

"I don't have any confirmation that anybody is still alive, and I don't have any confirmation that all of them have been killed. And that is our problem," he said.

The committee is working now to promote legislation that would have all victims of kidnapping or "disappearance" declared dead once they have been missing for 10 years. Only then, he said, will families be able to begin to get on with their lives.

For instance, wives and children may not access the kidnap victims' bank accounts without a declaration of death. A wife may not drive or sell her kidnapped husband's car. Under Maronite law, a woman's husband is not considered dead until he has been missing 100 years.

A parliamentary committee this month recommended legislation that would allow families to get court-ordered death declarations for those they could prove to have been missing for a decade or more. But Mr. Barraj said the proposal is inadequate because it is not a blanket declaration that will put the matter to rest and because it contains no provision for investigating what has happened to the missing.

When the Lebanese kidnapping crisis began in the early days of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, as many as 400 people a day were disappearing from the streets, most of them because they were Christians or Muslims caught in what were rapidly emerging as the wrong parts of town.

The process quickly became retaliatory: The Shiite Amal militia would grab 10 Christians at a checkpoint, and their Christian counterparts, the Lebanese Forces, would grab 10 Muslims in return. Up to 90 percent of the kidnap victims were released, but nonetheless up to 30 a day simply disappeared.

The real problem came after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, when the Lebanese army and the Christian Lebanese Forces moved into the streets of Beirut after the assassination of President Bashir Gemayel.

According to Mr. Barraj's Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, the infuriated Lebanese Forces detained 2,111 people who were on the streets during a 24-hour period after the assassination. An additional 1,110 were taken by the Lebanese army. Of those, 540 were later released, but the whereabouts of the other 560 are unknown.

Full-scale kidnapping occurred in 1984 to 1985 with the taking of most of the Western hostages, along with large numbers of Lebanese. The committee estimates that 600 to 800 people disappeared during those two years, mostly at the hands of Hezbollah, though documents collected by the committee indicate that over the years four organizations have been involved: the Lebanese army, the Lebanese Forces, Amal and Hezbollah.

In all, about 17,000 people have disappeared since 1975. Of those about whom documentation exists, 70 percent were Muslims and 30 percent were Christians.

Christian militia leaders have disclaimed individual responsibility but have accused rival leaders of killing most of their detainees in 1982.

Hezbollah has said simply that it is not holding any hostages. Despite reports to the contrary, no detainees were found when the Lebanese army took control of the Sheik Abdullah barracks in Baalbek from Hezbollah in the summer of 1992.

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