Space of Hope for Lebanon’s Missing

Promoting Transitional Justice through a Digital Memorial

in Conflict and Society

ABSTRACT

This article explores how a digital memorial for forcibly disappeared persons contributes to transitional justice in Lebanon. It presents the joint establishment of an interactive digital memorial by a collective of nongovernmental organizations, relatives of missing persons, and youth volunteers. The case study is situated in debates on transitional justice, calls for democratization of collective memories and archives, and discussions on new information and communication technologies. The article demonstrates how the development and launch of Fushat Amal (Space for Hope) is shaped and confined by postwar sociopolitical realities that are all but favorable to memorialization or justice-seeking initiatives. It highlights how digitalized memories can open up spaces that remain closed in the offline world, enabling survivors to share their stories, build collectives, demand recognition, and advocate for justice. At the same time, the authors discuss the limitations of digital memorials in relation to questions of access, ownership, and sustainability.

“My father went missing; and four years later, my brother died when he was only twenty. When my brother died, it was a tragedy at home, but we knew that he died, we knew his fate, we knew he would not come back. But the missing, you go on hoping that they will return one day because you don’t know what his fate is … I was very attached to him When I lost him, it felt like I lost the whole world.”

—Ibtehaj, whose father and two uncles disappeared during Lebanon’s civil wars, on Fushat Amal digital memorial

“Transitional justice” is a term now widely adopted to capture the efforts of societies to come to terms with legacies of war, human rights violations, repression, or terror. The concept has gained prominence in post–Cold War scholarly, political, legal, and activist accounts, for instance, in relation to former authoritarian regimes in Latin America, the former Communist states of the Soviet Union, and the nations of the former Yugoslavia, as well as in contexts of post-apartheid South Africa and post-genocide Rwanda and Cambodia. Transitional justice, in essence, is about finding venues through which society may “heal” itself in the wake of mass atrocities while preventing a relapse into violence along former dividing lines. Ruti Teitel (2002: 3), who coined the notion in 1991, summarizes it in one simple question: “[how] should societies deal with their evil pasts?” Meanwhile, Martha Minow narrows this down to societies’ “struggle over how much to acknowledge, whether to punish, and how to recover” (1998: 2). Over time, the underlying paradigms and foci of transitional justice have evolved (De Waardt 2014: 16–18; Teitel 2003), and so have its outward manifestations and instruments, which nowadays include documentation and recognition of violations, persecution of perpetrators through international or national tribunals, the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions, and reparation programs.

Transitional justice is closely linked to crafting ways of recollecting the past that allow for both a degree of closure and an opening toward coexistence or even reconciliation across former divisions. In countries emerging from internal strife, these are likely to be contradictory projects, the former focusing on expressing individual and communal stories of victimhood and survival, and the latter aimed at defusing differences between partisan perspectives and promoting a sense of shared survival and overcoming. The production of an overarching narrative is inherently selective, political, and marred with contention, and there is often no clarity as to who should lead or facilitate the process, particularly so in contexts where the state has been either implicated in crimes or proves too weak to act as a unifying force. Invoking, classifying, and authorizing certain memories holds the risk of opening old wounds and setting off new strife. How much should be disclosed, acknowledged, and remembered before memory becomes yet another “grounds for exclusion and an instrument of war,” Pierre Nora (2002) wonders (see also Minow 1998). “To claim the right to memory is, at bottom, to call for justice. In the effects it has had, however, it has often become a call to murder” (Nora 2002). Evidently, memory work in post-atrocity contexts is a highly contentious, though ultimately inescapable endeavor.

Traditionally, the state has played a prime role in framing the past as part of its nation-building agenda and its power to endorse and communicate an authorized history, for instance, through national museums (see Anderson 1991) or its system of compulsory mass education (see Podeh 2000; VanSledright 2008). In so doing, states have typically drawn on official archives, which “wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies” (Schwartz and Cook 2002: 5). Increasingly, the focus on state archives as prime sources of collective memory has come under critique. First, such an approach risks explicitly or implicitly marginalizing the memories and experiences of minorities and members of society who may well hold views unaligned with those of ruling elites (Haskins 2007: 402–403; Montgomery 2004). Second, singular views of either collective memory or homogeneous nationhood no longer hold in today’s mobile and dynamic world (Josias 2011: 95). Hence, scholars have argued for a decolonization and democratization of archiving practices, granting nonstate actors a role in cocreating archives so as to create a “joint archival heritage” (Syrri 2008: 232–233), “[deepen] democratic processes and the protection of human rights” (Jones and Oliveira 2016: 6), and heed the “changing and evolving memory landscape” (Josias 2011).

Among the actors likely to contribute to such democratization of memory are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which over the past decades have already played important roles in exposing human rights violations and holding governments to account (see Montgomery 2004). Not least in countries where regimes are involved in repression and abuse, documentation and archives by nonstate actors have the potential to offer a critical “antithetical narrative to the secrecy, half-truths, and lies of government authorities” (2004: 25). “Nongovernmental archives are often more trustworthy stewards of records documenting human rights abuses in societies still undergoing transitional justice” (Caswell 2013: 115). Other potential contributors to collective memory in transitional justice contexts are individual victim-survivors and the collectives they form to pursue their priorities and needs (De Waardt 2014).

The classical archive as anchor point for collective memory is not only subject to postcolonial critiques and antithetical narratives, but equally challenged by technical developments that shape how materials are documented, stored, classified, accessed, circulated, contested, and consumed digitally in the twenty-first century. The digitization of sources in ever larger quantities and increasingly accessible formats may well prove to be among the key drivers of a democratization of collective memory while simultaneously opening up new venues to pursue accountability in post-atrocity societies (see also Syrri 2008: 222). We therefore concur with Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook in observing an urgent need to “look anew at the archive in the light of changes in the production and preservation of documents, in the abundance of documents, in the changing media of record, and in the nature of what is documented or who is doing the documenting” (2002: 5).

This article presents a case study of digitized memory work by nonstate actors in a transitional justice setting. We will look at the political and historical context, and the development, collection, design, preservation, and consumption of an interactive, digital memorial for the forcibly disappeared of Lebanon’s civil wars. Our aim is to explore the opportunities and limitations of a digital memorial in responding to the needs and priorities of survivors and civil society actors as they seek to come to terms with grave human rights violations in the past, many of which continue into the present. Based on the limited available literature that touches on this interest, we are curious to assess how grief, commemoration, and recognition find a place online in ways that, perhaps more than before, allow for engaging the memory of the missing while finding solace in a sense of community with fellow survivors (see, e.g., Church 2013; Moncur and Kirk 2014; Roberts 2004). The literature identifies the decontextualization of the memorial as a consequence of its lack of anchoring in physical space, as well as temporariness resulting from changes in either hosting and management, or hacking and internet upgrades (Church 2013; Hess 2007) as potential limitations of digital memorials.

With reference to the theoretical considerations outlined in the introduction, we ponder how the establishment and usage of this digital memorial reflects, first, enhanced democratization of collective memory making in today’s world and, second, the Internet’s “promise of representational diversity, collective authorship, and interactivity” (Haskins 2007: 405). Finally, we are interested in reflecting on how the establishment of a digital memorial compares to realizing a physical, national memorial for Lebanon’s missing persons, which has hitherto proved politically unattainable. Overall, the article gives insight into some of the challenges Lebanese society faces today in finding closure to past atrocities and creating a foundation for coexistence and reconciliation among former adversaries.

The remainder of this article looks as follows. First, we discuss our methodology and research background. Second, we take a closer look at Lebanon’s postwar memory landscape, with a special eye on the issue of the disappeared. Third, we outline how relatives of missing persons, family committees, and civil society organizations challenge the prevailing amnesia that surrounds the civil wars in Lebanon by elaborating on Fushat Amal, the interactive, digital memorial that was launched in early 2016. Finally, in the conclusion, we return to the overall question of the potential and limitations of a digital memorial in transitional justice settings.

Methodology

Data collection for this study has been conducted alongside the establishment, launch, and initial implementation of the Fushat Amal interactive digital memorial by the Lebanese nongovernmental organization ACT for the Disappeared (ACT). ACT was founded in 2010 in pursuit of clarifying the fate of the estimated 17,000 persons who went missing or disappeared during the country’s recent conflicts. The organization has four prime aims: first, to advocate for survivors’ right to know the fate of their relatives; second, to restore the dignity of survivors and acknowledge the prolonged suffering that families have faced; third, to situate addressing the issue of the missing as a key requirement for wider reconciliation; and fourth, to inform young generations of past crimes so as to prevent these from repetition.1 ACT is not politically or religiously affiliated and has been a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience since 2014.

It is important to specify the role of each of the authors in the production of this article, especially since the second author was closely engaged in the development and launch of Fushat Amal. In that capacity, and in writing this article, she had to move back and forth between being part of the case study on the one hand and seeking analytical distance on the other. Obviously, this frequent shifting of perspectives had both positive and negative implications. Most of all, it forced the first author into a habit of constantly questioning and probing the observations and experiences put forward by the second author. The critical dialogue that ensued proved productive in deepening a shared and reflexive understanding of the context, production, and consumption of the digital memorial. This understanding includes how the memorial has been contested and confined (as elaborated below), which would not necessarily have received extensive focus in the regular monitoring and evaluation exercises of ACT or similar civil society organizations.

A factor that facilitated the dual role of practitioner-researcher was the second author’s prior experience of documenting the needs of relatives of missing persons. Conducting an extensive assessment of the needs and experiences of family members, across Lebanon and from all political backgrounds, made her aware of the everyday challenges and sorrows, as well as the social and emotional impact, of life with an absent loved one, on top of the widely expressed urge for public recognition and clarity as to the fate of the missing. Hence, as she assumed responsibility for Fushat Amal, she felt enthused by the prospect of expanding the cause beyond relatives to include much wider audiences, including youth and volunteers. At the same time, however, she was cognizant of the limitations of the project, primarily the fact that it would fall short of accomplishing the ultimate need of survivors, namely, the official recognition and clarification by the Lebanese authorities of the fate of both those who went missing, and the challenges faced by those who were left behind.

We presumed that a long-term reflexive dialogue between both authors could bridge concerns of both academic and “applied” character and render outcomes that speak to both audiences. This dialogue was informed by the first author’s scholarly interest in processes of conflict transformation in Lebanon, with a focus on how violent episodes of the past are recollected, reformulated, or negated in the present. To that end, he carried out 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork in school communities in Beirut and southern Lebanon, examining, among other things, how formal education enables and confines how young generations engage with political conflict and legacies of violent strife. In his doctoral study, he problematizes the state-sponsored amnesia when it comes to Lebanon’s civil wars, the leverage that sectarian parties enjoy in advancing partisan narratives of the past, and the limited ways in which young people are enabled to gain critical awareness of their country’s recent past—all of which play into continued sociopolitical divisions and a constant looming of sectarian strife (see Van Ommering 2015).

The second author worked as project manager of Fushat Amal up until two months after the memorial’s launch ceremony in January 2016. The data used for this article were collected up to that time and, as mentioned earlier, in parallel with the rollout of the digital memorial. Data was produced through informal interviews with ACT staff (most notably its founder and director and the project manager [the second author]), participation in technical meetings in preparation of the launch, meetings with relatives of missing persons who shared their testimonies on the website, analysis of Fushat Amal content, participation in the launch of the digital memorial, and participation in other memorialization activities implemented by ACT. ACT’s founder and director provided firsthand insights into the dynamics and challenges surrounding the establishment of the digital memorial, which was a collaborative effort of relatives of missing persons, family committees, partner NGOs, academia, and media. She consented to using Fushat Amal as a case study for presentation at a seminar at Lund University and subsequent publication. We also draw on review and analysis of key documentation related to the issue of the missing in Lebanon, including research, policy, and legal reports by national and international NGOs, media outlets, and policy makers.

Even though the establishment of Fushat Amal was funded through a grant of the European Union delegation in Lebanon, no financial support was received for writing this article, which was initiated and carried out by the authors themselves and has no formal relation to the project.

Collective Memory of Lebanon’s Civil Wars

An estimated 17,000 people2 went missing during Lebanon’s civil wars, which started in 1975 and officially ended with the signing and ratification of the Ta’if peace accord in 1989. The wars had a devastating impact on the small Mediterranean country of four million. Between 120,000 and 200,0003 people were killed, multitudes were injured, and roughly a quarter of the population was displaced. Tens of thousands of citizens have never been able to return to prewar homes (Commission of Inquiry on Lebanon 2006). The civil wars saw Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, divided into a predominantly Muslim west and Christian east, while the remainder of the country disintegrated into regions controlled by foreign armies or local militias, many of the latter backed and armed by regional or global powerhouses. The causes of the wars have been described as located both inside the country and in developments elsewhere in the region (Krayem 1997), and include the destabilizing factors inherent to Lebanon’s confessional system of governance, as well as the impact of conflict in and occupation of Palestine. In turn, these developments were set against the backdrop of Cold War geopolitical dynamics (Battel 2011; see also Ghosn and Khoury 2011: 383). The conflicts came to be known for their successive episodes of heightened violence, constantly changing military and political alliances, and the pervasive indifference with regard to humanitarian conventions (see also Battel 2011).

The 1989 Ta’if peace accord was more an agreement to cease hostilities than a resolution of their underlying causes. It promoted a more balanced political representation of confessional groups, a sense of national unity, and the demobilization of militias (Ghosn and Khoury 2011: 383–384). At the same time, however, it neither ended the sect-based allocation of government jobs nor offered any solace to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees residing in the country. Instead, it ensured tenure for warlords and militia fighters in political, civil service, and state security positions. Accordingly, the main focus of the accord was on protecting militias and their leaders rather than on fulfilling the rights and needs of victims and survivors (ICTJ 2014; Saghieh 2012). This paradigm was further reinforced as the Lebanese parliament adopted the General Amnesty Law in 1991, granting amnesty for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed throughout the civil wars, only excepting crimes against political leaders and dignitaries. Just like Ta’if, the amnesty prioritized protection of perpetrators over justice and accountability (Ghosn and Khoury 2011: 390–391).

With “no victor, no vanquished” emerging as the guiding principle, and former combatants integrated into positions of power, there has been neither momentum nor appetite from the side of the state to come to terms with the atrocities committed (Haugbolle 2010: 69). Consequently, as we near the thirtieth commemoration of the signing of the 1989 Ta’if accord, Lebanon does not have a national day of commemoration or mourning, a museum or monument dedicated to the wars, or an official investigation that has captured the impact of the wars on Lebanon’s collective population. It was as if the war never happened, one of Sune Haugbolle’s (2010: 1) interlocutors noted. In line with this, there is no state-sponsored discourse on the civil wars other than an unspoken covenant across the political spectrum that a collective amnesia is the best way forward (Barak 2007: 50; Haugbolle 2010: 4), often citing fears that addressing past conflicts would inevitably open old wounds and lead to renewed fighting (see also Saghieh 2012; Van Ommering 2015).

As such, a contrast emerges with other post-atrocity societies and the alternative ways they found to deal with a troubled past. While in Lebanon protecting perpetrators in the name of securing a degree of peaceful coexistence has prevailed over responding to the needs of survivors or calls for justice, countries like Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and South Africa witnessed the establishment of tribunals, truth commissions, and other structured transitional justice instruments that sought to overcome past horrors exactly by eliciting, rather than concealing, their scale and impact (Caswell 2013; Chayes and Minow 2003). Though these efforts are certainly not univocally considered successful (cf. Chayes and Minow 2003), they have at least opened up spaces for a pursuit of justice and accountability, recognition of victims’ and survivors’ predicaments, and, as Despina Syrri observed in the former Yugoslavia, “the will to overcome the accumulated grievances, bitterness and guilt” (2008: 321).

In contrast, in the case of Lebanon it is hard to think of the civil wars as a period overcome, not least in a collective manner. A Lebanese sociology professor notes how the “problem with the civil war was that nobody won, and you still can’t write its history because we are still not at peace” (Fattah 2007). In the absence of state-led attempts at coming to terms with past atrocities, former warring parties instead promote their own partisan accounts of the past in which leaders, martyrs, and militancy are celebrated (Albrecht and Akar 2016) and that go unchecked by counternarratives or historical research. Accordingly, past divisions are likely to be reinforced rather than overcome, with young generations finding little to no venues through which to acquaint themselves with their country’s past (Albrecht and Akar 2016; Silva et al. 2014; Van Ommering 2015).

Disappearances in Lebanon’s Civil Wars

Kidnapping and forced disappearances were among the most infamous characteristics of Lebanon’s civil wars. Most victims of hostage taking and abduction were Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, yet the practice gained international notoriety through high-profile kidnappings of the likes of the US ambassador to Lebanon. Among the targets were political, public, academic, and religious dignitaries (ICTJ 2013: 57–62), but the vast majority consisted of regular citizens from all walks of life (Battel 2011: 133–134), though frequently between 15 and 25 years old (ICRC 2013). Typically, they were abducted at checkpoints, oftentimes subjected to torture and mutilation, and subsequently released, imprisoned, or killed. Some abductees were found on roadsides, in ruins, or in cars. Some 17,000 others have never been heard of again. They are thought to have vanished in mass graves across Lebanon, in the waves of the Mediterranean Sea, or in prisons in Syria and Israel (ICTJ 2014; Jaquemet 2009; LIC 2003).

The International Center for Transitional Justice report (ICTJ 2013) on gross human rights violations committed during Lebanon’s civil wars details a large number of known abductions and disappearances:

  • May 30, 1975: Also known as Black Thursday, this marked the beginning of widespread sectarian-based abductions, mutilation, and executions … It is reported that many of those who were abducted—Muslims and Christians—were executed, and those who were released were in many cases mutilated
  • December 6, 1975: [Christian militias] … proceeded to kill and abduct unarmed Lebanese Muslims and Palestinians … and threw the bodies in a garbage dump. Other Palestinians were detained and tortured through such means as extracting their teeth. It is reported that between 56 and 70 civilians in East Beirut were summarily executed; the fate of 300 others who were kidnapped remains unknown
  • August-December, 1983: the War of the Mountain resulted in the killing of 1,155 Christian and 207 Druze civilians; moreover, the fate of 2,700 civilians remains unknown
  • April 26-May 4, 1985: … The total number of [Christian] civilians killed was around 217. Children, the elderly, and women were killed with axes and knives, bodies were mutilated, and more than 100 people were wounded, in addition to an undetermined number of people disappeared
The three main reasons for kidnapping were to exchange hostages captured by enemy militias, financial gain, and revenge (Jaquemet 2009). The total number of missing persons remains unclear. The number of 17,000 is widely used by survivors and civil society, but it is commonly understood that this is a high estimate. Some put the number between 2,312 and 6,000 (Jaquemet 2009) or 10,000, arguing that databases contain duplications and do not account for the people who returned or whose fate was uncovered (Battel 2011: 134). The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation to Lebanon has to date conducted interviews with relatives of more than 2,000 missing (see ICRC 2015).

However high the exact number, this article focuses on the consequences of forced disappearance—a crime against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute—and how it continues to shape the lives of relatives of missing persons even decades after the disappearance occurred. To understand survivors’ urge to pursue clarification of the fate of missing relatives, we will first explore the condition of “ambiguous loss,” the inability to complete a full cycle of mourning when faced with the uncertainty that clouds the fate of a loved one. The paradox of simultaneous presence and absence is described as “the most distressful of all losses” (Boss 1999: 6), as it freezes the grief process and captures a mourning person in a permanent state of searching and a paralyzing uncertainty.

Ambiguous Loss and the Pressing Need for Recognition

Ambiguous loss, as defined by Pauline Boss (2007, 2010), is an incomprehensible type of loss that results from the lack of information on the fate of a beloved one. It freezes the grief process, leaving families or family members in a vicious cycle of hopelessness and immobilization that can lead to depression and anxiety (Boss 1999). Ambiguous loss is a relational disorder, unrelated to the individual psyche of family members (Boss 2002a, 2007). It occurs when people are confronted with someone who is psychologically absent but physically present, for instance, in cases of dementia, or when people are physically absent but psychologically present, which applies to forced disappearances (Boss 2002a, 2010). This article focuses on the second condition, which relates to the relatives of the thousands of missing people in Lebanon who continue to wait for an answer to the question of what happened to their beloved one(s). If they are dead, the relatives seek to retrieve their body or any remains to be buried decently, as per each family’s ritual and custom.

Families dealing with ambiguous loss find themselves in a situation in which the structure of life that they worked to establish becomes tangled, which leads to impeded individual and family functions (Boss 2002a). While hoping for the missing person to come back, most family members fail to reconstruct their roles and functions, leaving them in confusion and isolated from other community members who do not understand what they are going through (Boss 2002b). The level of dysfunction created by ambiguous loss differs between families and family members (see also Robins 2010). Those who are capable of attributing meaning to their lives without the missing person will be able to break loose from the grief process, for instance, by taking part in family or communal ceremonies and rituals, or by understanding their uncertainty (Boss 2002b). Resilience has been proven high among family members who have spiritual beliefs, trust that destiny or God will guide them through their tragedy, experienced previous ambiguous loss, or those who were not socialized in a culture oriented toward mastery and control, according to Boss. Furthermore, those who resist contradictory ideas at the same time, that is, physical absence and psychological presence, tend to be able to move forward with their lives while remembering the missing person and continuing to hope to find them (Boss 2002a, 2002b, 2004). Therefore, the degree to which a way is found through ambiguous loss, if at all, differs within and between families.

A key factor that helps families process their grief is to retrieve the body of their missing or be able to bury any remains (see also Pollack 2003; Robins 2010). Seeing the body or remains confirms that the person is dead and will not return alive, which ignites a process of emotional separation from the missing person. When retrieving human remains is not possible, for some family members rituals and ceremonies, offered by trusted family members, clerics, or officials, can help them start their grief process (see also Eppel 2002). For instance, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the New York mayor allowed families to request a presumed death certificate, while religious leaders allowed families to have funerals in the absence of the remains of their loved ones (Boss 2002a, 2004, 2007).

Similar solutions, however, proved complicated or unfeasible in Lebanon. The missing of the civil wars and the grief of surviving relatives have been numbed not only by a General Amnesty Law but also by a general political, legal, and popular refusal to investigate, recognize, and console the war’s legacies, as discussed in the following.

Legal Context to Addressing Forced Disappearances in Lebanon

The 1991 General Amnesty Law excluded ongoing and repeated crimes from amnesty, and gave citizens the right to claim reparations in civil courts. Since forced disappearance is considered an ongoing crime until the victim or their remains are discovered, it should not be legally part of the amnesty and, as such, remain eligible for prosecution. In addition, in 2007 Lebanon acceded to (but did not yet ratify) the UN Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICCPED), “the only treaty that explicitly recognizes a right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of enforced disappearances, the progress and results of investigations, and the fate of disappeared persons” (ICTJ 2014: 7). Considering this domestic and international legal context, relatives of missing persons in Lebanon should stand a fair chance bringing their case to court to pursue recognition, clarification, and reparation for the disappearance of their loved ones (see also Battel 2011).

Yet, over the past 26 years, families of missing persons and civil society groups have rarely gone to court to demand the authorities clarify the fate of the missing. Only 10 lawsuits have been filed to date, out of which two resulted in actual sentences: one reduced prison sentence of three years, and one acquittal of suspects 22 years after the case was filed (Centre Libanais des Droits Humains [CLDH], quoted in ICTJ 2014). ICTJ and CLDH relate the low number of lawsuits to the reluctance of judges to include exceptions to the General Amnesty Law, to interference of politicians in court cases and judges who are part of sectarian movements, and to the general prosecutor favoring “civil peace” over accountability for past crimes against humanity (ICTJ 2014). Furthermore, the government has actively tried to close the file of the missing by announcing in 1991 that there were no more people held by former militias, by adopting the 1995 Law 434 that declares the legal death of any person after a limited number of years of disappearance, by publicly announcing that investigations into Lebanon’s civil wars are utopian and illusionary (ICTJ 2014), and by successive contradictory statements regarding the fate of the missing (LIC 2003).

Despite such challenging legal and political circumstances, families of missing persons and civil society organizations have never ceased to draw attention to the fate of the missing and the plight of surviving relatives. They have not accepted the government insisting that, after four years of disappearance, their beloved ones should be declared dead, mainly since this would imply an irreversible move. In contrast, the presumed death certificates issued in New York allow survivors to annul that declaration in case a missing person returns, while being granted the legal power of a death certificate in the meantime.

In 2000, the government was coerced into establishing a first commission on the missing and forcibly disappeared, followed by a second commission in 2001 that looked into the missing who may still be alive, and a third joint Syrian-Lebanese commission in 2005. Only the first commission produced a summary report: two pages that, for the first time, admitted the existence of mass graves,4 adding that identification of bodies therein would be impossible after such a long time span. The report also acknowledged that taking and killing hostages was a crime committed by all parties, and that disposing of dead bodies in the sea was a common practice (Jaquemet 2009; Saghieh 2012). Furthermore, it confirmed the 1995 law that persons shall be declared dead after four years. ICTJ notes that the second and third commission mainly served as an excuse for the government to prevent any further investigations (ICTJ 2014). Committees of families of the missing, supported by ICTJ, presented a draft law in 2012 calling for the establishment of a bureau to investigate the fate of the disappeared, a commission to oversee exhumations, and sanctions for anyone who obstructs truth finding or exhumations (as opposed to anyone who actually committed the crimes). Subsequent political crises and bickering prevented a draft law from being adopted (ICTJ 2014), but it was eventually submitted to parliament in 2015 (ICTJ 2016).

Challenging Postwar Amnesia

As follows from the above, the social and political conditions that have prevailed since the end of the civil wars have not been conducive for attempts to clarify the fate of the missing. A political establishment dominated by former warlords with little interest in exposing or accounting for wartime crimes, combined with a judicial system that is unwilling or unable to overcome political meddling, and a pervasive fear that scrutinizing the past will spark new conflicts, have all curtailed the possibilities for family members of the missing to find recognition for their plight or clarification of the fate of the disappeared. Successive governments have promoted amnesia over memorializing and historicizing, while political parties (i.e., former militias) continue to promote their own, exclusive, narratives of authority and truth.

It is in this challenging context of silence, denial, and contempt that families of the missing continue to search for opportunities to pursue their cause, driven by the urge to find closure to their mourning, recognition for their plight, and justice for the missing. In the face of a lack of responsiveness from the side of the state, they have organized themselves in two family committees.5 Families also work directly with civil society organizations such as ACT for the Disappeared,6 UMAM Documentation and Research (UMAM D&R; see Figure 1),7 and the

Figure 1
Figure 1

Flyers for UMAM D&R’s “Missing” project. Source: www.umam-dr.org.

Citation: Conflict and Society 3, 1; 10.3167/arcs.2017.030113

Lebanese Center for Human Rights.8 Meanwhile, ICRC has been collecting pre-disappearance data since 2012 and is presently requesting authorization from the government to collect and store DNA from families of missing persons. Accordingly, these initiatives have ensured that the plight of the missing never ceases to be present in the public sphere, through awareness raising, lobbying, needs assessments, research, psychosocial support groups, a tent for families of the missing facing parliament, and memorialization activities. Among the latest initiatives has been the establishment of a digital memorial for the missing, which was initiated by the NGO ACT for the Disappeared in 2015, developed in coordination with a coalition of NGOs and family committees, and launched in January 2016.

Lebanon’s Missing in Cyberspace

Among the many other topics related to our civil war, the missing persons issue remains the most difficult to deal with. It can be likened to a bell that tolls endlessly to produce the obstreperous sounds of guilt and responsibility intended to invade Lebanese ears, particularly those of the former war lords—today’s politicians—whose records were magically expunged by the general amnesty law.

(UMAM D&R, “Memory at Work” project)9

In 2008, UMAM D&R was the first NGO in Lebanon to establish “Missing,” a virtual memory for the disappeared (Figure 2), as part of its mission to collect and preserve evidence of accounts of civil violence and distress. By collecting and displaying pictures of missing persons, including their names and dates of birth and disappearance, UMAM D&R (2016) seeks to “foster public awareness about the magnitude and impact of enforced disappearance on Lebanese society.” Accordingly, the NGO seeks to challenge the prevailing notion that “if it cannot be seen, then it cannot be real.” The collection of pictures, which is both published online and traveled the country as an exhibition, includes pictures of hundreds of women and men from diverse confessional, geographical, and political backgrounds, all of whom disappeared during the civil wars.

UMAM D&R’s website on the missing can be understood as an important archive, more than a digital memorial. Its focus is on raising public awareness and protecting past events from oblivion, more than offering the families of the disappeared a venue to commemorate their

Figure 2
Figure 2

Screenshot of UMAM D&R’s digital archive of missing persons at http://www.memoryatwork.Org/index.php/subtopic/2/2004/10057.

Citation: Conflict and Society 3, 1; 10.3167/arcs.2017.030113

missing or experience a sense of support and solidarity with the many others who share their fate. Also, it is not intended as an interactive space—akin to a physical memorial that is visited, where messages or pictures are left behind, survivors meet, and shared rituals can be performed. However, by publishing the pictures and details on a related Facebook page10 dedicated to the missing, UMAM D&R does open up the potential for interaction and additional layers of meaning. By posting one person every couple of days, potentially reaching the more than 10,000 people who “liked” the page as well as the “friends” of those who “like” individual photos of missing persons, the organization makes sure to constantly remind its constituency of the cause of the missing. Each photo tends to be “liked” a couple of times, yet it is usually not commented on, leaving questions as to the extent to which it fulfills its interactive or memorialization potential.

Fushat Amal, on the other hand, explicitly seeks such interactive memorialization, where relatives and friends of missing persons can attribute a page to their beloved one, leave details on the circumstances of disappearance, and share pictures and testimonies about the daily lives of missing relatives.

Fushat Amal: A Space of Hope for Relatives of Lebanon’s Missing

Fushat Amal, Arabic for Space for Hope, is an interactive digital space11 initiated by ACT for the Disappeared in 2015 (Figure 3). In close collaboration with families of missing persons, it aims to commemorate the thousands who went missing during armed conflicts in Lebanon, prevent their stories from being muted, and accordingly contribute to preventing a relapse into civil strife. By sharing testimonies and pictures in an online, publicly accessible space, Fushat Amal enables relatives and friends of the missing to express their ideas and share memories of their beloved one(s). Accordingly, the memorial seeks to allow for a more immediate, personal connection with missing persons, to give a face and story to those behind the well-known figure of 17,000 and passport pictures, and simultaneously expose the grief and need for recognition of survivors. Fushat Amal also aims to serve as a learning and reflection tool for younger generations who did not experience the war firsthand, and for older generation who did undergo similar tragedies. Finally, the memorial constitutes a public database that could eventually contribute to uncovering what happened to the disappeared.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Posters distributed around the launch of Fushat Amal, carrying the slogan “Don’t let my story end here” across the pictures of missing persons. Source: ACT for the Disappeared (January 2016).

Citation: Conflict and Society 3, 1; 10.3167/arcs.2017.030113

“More than a public virtual repository of information on the missing, Fushat Amal provides the families with a space to share their personal experiences, and this could help alleviate their emotional isolation,” says the founder and director of ACT. The site, therefore, is designed as a memorial more than a digital archive. It departs from the experiences and needs of relatives of the missing as it pledges “to the thousands of missing whose fate remains unknown [that] we will not let your story end here.” Accordingly, Fushat Amal aims to “restore their place in society.”

Curiously, Fushat Amal’s home page (Figure 4) evokes the image of an actual, physical memorial similar to established war memorials, listing the names of the missing on a wall that

Figure 4
Figure 4

Screenshot of the homepage of Fushat Amal (www.fusatamal.org).

Citation: Conflict and Society 3, 1; 10.3167/arcs.2017.030113

exceeds across the screen on both the left and right sides, showing people gathered and looking for names of the ones they know. On the home page, visitors can add a story of a missing person, search for stories of the disappeared, and check for previous and future memorialization activities as well as possibilities for offline action. The website also lists the collective of civil society organizations that support the project alongside the project’s donors.12

Fushat Amal focuses on the “stories” of the missing (Figure 5). Once a page is attributed to a person, it shows a picture with basic information including name, place and date of birth and disappearance, gender, and time and place that the person was last seen, as well as educational and professional background and occupation (Figure 6). There is ample space for testimonies describing the person, the context of disappearance, anecdotes from family members and friends, and photos and video footage of the missing person (Figure 7). All information must be vetted and approved before publication by the project manager, who is in direct contact with the families to determine the accuracy of information provided, obtain their consent, but also—and importantly—to ensure that no sensitive information is published that could potentially harm the family or future legal action, such as the names of potential perpetrators or witnesses, or hate speech.

Figure 5
Figure 5

Screenshot of a page with profiles of missing persons on Fushat Amal at www.fushatamal.org/en/stories.

Citation: Conflict and Society 3, 1; 10.3167/arcs.2017.030113

Figure 6
Figure 6

Screenshot of the profile of a missing person on Fushat Amal.

Citation: Conflict and Society 3, 1; 10.3167/arcs.2017.030113

Figure 7
Figure 7

Screenshot of testimonies of a missing person on Fushat Amal.

Citation: Conflict and Society 3, 1; 10.3167/arcs.2017.030113

Before launching a campaign to encourage families to participate in the memorial, ACT contacted families they had been working with previously to gauge their interest in being part of the project. Interviews were conducted by staff and trained volunteers. Upon the launch of the website in January 2016, the intensity of interviewing decreased in anticipation of the interactivity of the website and extensive media coverage13 attracting new stories (three major Lebanese newspapers published weekly stories of missing persons during the 10 weeks following the launch of Fushat Amal). Indeed, families residing inside Lebanon, but also members of its large diaspora, have contributed to Fushat Amal.

Over the course of collecting information for the digital memorial, a range of additional data is gathered that is not published online but does contribute to the expansion of a database of the missing, which may one day back the establishment of an independent body mandated to investigate and clarify the fate of the missing, as required in the draft law submitted to parliament in 2015.

Potential and Limitations of Fushat Amal

No matter how much you feel happy, you will always feel it’s not complete. It has been thirty- three years and the sorrow is buried deep within me. He is not well, and you do not know anything about him. So everything is incomplete, no matter what you do.

(Sister of a missing person, Beirut, July 2015)
Relatives of missing persons have actively contributed to Fushat Amal. They know that the chance that it brings back their beloved ones is minimal, so that is not the prime motivation for sharing their stories online. Instead, the memorial first and foremost offers a venue for relatives to share their accounts by actively and publicly demonstrating the living memory of those who went missing. Moreover, relatives note that they feel comforted by knowing and seeing that others share their fate.

Those who stand by us, say, they have someone missing too; they have lost their brother in law, my son, my nephew, my cousin. You would be sharing your pain with someone who wants to share theirs too.

We feel better now, knowing that there are people thinking of us, working with us, and standing by our side. Now after 30 years there are people whom we can talk to and express our concerns. They support us, they ask about our children, share our concerns, tell us about what they want to do for them, put up pictures, exhibitions.

(Mother and sister of two missing persons, Beirut, October 2015)
Furthermore, the public launch of the digital memorial, which was accompanied by several national newspapers printing excerpts from testimonies on a weekly basis, again raised the public profile of the cause and the need for its nationwide and official recognition. The involvement of youth, who conducted interviews and supported families in collecting and publishing their testimonies and pictures, was seen as serving a similar aim. Moreover, the digital nature of the memorial allowed people living oversees (including those who fled at the time of the civil wars) to participate in a collective cause that hitherto had been limited by geographical confines. Finally, Fushat Amal may have helped relatives address the ambiguous loss that paralyzes and impedes their daily lives, as sketched in the above testimony,14 although ascertaining this claim would require complementary research.
After all, Fushat Amal may also be a little chain in the process of clarifying the fate of missing persons, as the son of a missing father relates when asked to reflect on the project:

My father was around 40 years when they took him. But what I know is that he had a remarkable character. I came of age with a responsibility; obviously, it is my duty to look for him, for his dignity. The way he was good to us, we too, mustn’t let go of his case.

We need to take it until the end; where we find a path leading to know what happened to our father, we will take it. If he died, may he rest in peace, we want his remains, we want to bury him our own way not just throw him just like that It is his right, his natural, legitimate right that we ask about him, that we continue looking for him until the end. As long as we are still alive, my father’s cause will stay alive. It’s true, we are in a state of confusion; our father is neither dead nor alive! Whether he’s dead or alive, we want to know where he is.

(Son of a missing person, Tripoli, October 2015)
However, not all of the relatives of the missing are willing to participate in the memorial. One did not consent to the account of her son being published, fearing that his identity might be stolen and used to forge documents used in suicide attacks in Lebanon, as part of ongoing conflicts. Others refused because they are tired of repeating their stories time and again, without tangible progress toward resolving the key question in their lives.

This latter concern was also reflected in the comments of the heads of both family committees. While commending the establishment of Fushat Amal, they simultaneously underlined that “we need a space for action, not for hope,” and that the creation of a digital memorial risks undermining the quest for real action and official recognition of the missing and their relatives. The chair of family committee Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE) commented in An Nahar newspaper:

Maybe Sonia Eid does not need the launching of a website to tell everyone that her son Jihad Jihad is still detained in a Syrian prison since the time of the civil war. Of course, Fatima Abdullah does not need an interactive website to mention that her brother Ali is missing since the time of killing and kidnapping. Likewise, Janette Khawand will not be waiting for the launch of an electronic page to say that her husband Botros Khawand is missing or forcibly disappeared…

In this context, ACT for the Disappeared decided to launch an interactive website that aims to highlight the individual stories of thousands who went missing in Lebanon during the past 4 decades and whose relatives still struggle to find out their fate. This project holds the title Fushat Amal; it is a space to keep hope…

The sad thing about this case is that all actions were tried and all protests were done. We even stopped eating and we put up tents, but the politicians did not blink and did not work on a viable solution for the issue of the missing.

Maybe because all of these actions did not work the idea of Fushat Amal came up to give the families the chance to tell their stories. But what the families need is more action, not just words … They want results after all of these efforts, no words or websites or pages. Despite that, we support this action, but we are tired.

(Chaaya 2016a)
As for the younger generations who did not witness the civil wars, their engagement with Fushat Amal has made them more aware of the civil wars and its ongoing legacy for Lebanese society in general, and the families of the missing in particular. Generally, children and youth are barely exposed to nonpartisan accounts of the civil wars, as a consequence of the above described state-led amnesia, which involves the absence of the subject in school curricula (Van Ommering 2015). One of the volunteers who conducted interviews with relatives of missing persons related that her “main feeling is that for many people the war never ended, and that’s not fair. If I manage to help [the families] even a tiny bit, that would be satisfying for me.” For some volunteers, engaging with the issue of the missing and their survivors proved emotionally overburdening; they quit their positions over the course of the project. Another volunteer noted:

This project connects me to a humanitarian cause that is directly linked to my country. It is the minimum that I, or anyone, can do: to ask about these missing. I saw through this project as an opportunity to learn and know more about this cause and serve it. I probably won’t be able to bring back the missing but hopefully through meeting the families and through this digital memorial we will be able to highlight the cause. Meeting with the families teaches me about the indirect risks of war that continue to linger after forty years.… It is very important for every community member, especially those who did not go through this tragedy, to know about it and know the struggle of the families of the missing.

Another volunteer also referred to the oblivion in his surroundings. “[Fushat Amal allows you] to read the stories and understand the implications of the actions that took place 30 years back.”

A final limitation relates to the temporality of digital memorials. Developing and maintaining a digital platform requires constant availability of technical expertise and ongoing discussion on issues of security, purpose, circulation, alignment with software upgrades, hosting, and developments in design and accessibility. Much less so, arguably, than for physical memorials. Most of these factors rely on structural funding that is typically hard to obtain for NGOs, not least in an environment dominated by seemingly more pressing or larger concerns such as the ongoing refugee crisis in Lebanon.

Conclusion: A Digital Memorial as Instrument of Transitional Justice?

In this article we have explored the potential and limitations of a digital space to commemorate persons who forcibly disappeared during Lebanon’s civil wars. We outlined the urge of survivors for recognition of their plight and clarification of the fate of the missing as a precondition to overcome a paralyzing state of ambiguous loss. Their predicament is exacerbated by a political, social, and legal context that is mostly unfavorable, if not outright hostile, to the needs and priorities of these families. Pervasive amnesia, a culture of denial and disregard, promotion of partisan histories, as well as a judicial system that is obstructed by politicians—quite possibly the same former warlords who ought to be held accountable for their crimes—have allowed little advances in the plight of the missing, nearly three decades after the civil wars ended.

Families of missing persons, in collaboration with civil society organizations, took to cyberspace to establish an interactive, digital memorial: a unique venue where families can honor the missing, advocate for the right to know their fate, and find comfort in knowing that there are families who share their predicament. On Fushat Amal, Space for Hope, each missing person is attributed a digital page where family members can leave basic information in addition to testimonies, pictures, and details on the circumstances of disappearance. Youth volunteers support relatives in gathering testimonies and pictures and adding them to the digital memorial. In so doing, they gain awareness of a part of their country’s past that is rarely if at all encountered in school or elsewhere. Accordingly, the initiators hope, Fushat Amal can contribute to a growing awareness of past and continuing acts of violence that, in turn, can help to prevent an ever looming relapse into sectarian violence. In addition, and more specifically, the memorial can act to unite civil society organizations and families around the common objective of demanding the implementation of a law that clarifies the fate of the disappeared and, ultimately, the establishment of an offline memorial.

Based on analysis of its context, creation, use, and initial appeal in the weeks following its launch, we can distill some valuable lessons about the potential and limitations of digital spaces in contexts of transitional justice. First, Fushat Amal shows that digitization of memories of conflict can open up spaces that remain closed in the offline world, while retaining a degree of real meaning and transformative potential. In a contentious political, legal, and social climate that does not allow for the establishment of a physical memorial or archive, a digital memorial responds—at least provisionally—to the needs of survivors and civil society actors to share their stories, connect, commemorate, and explicitly or implicitly call for accountability for grave human rights violations and ongoing crimes.

Second, Fushat Amal demonstrates the democratizing power of the digital world, in the sense that collective memories can be created, claimed, and communicated without interference or even against the prevailing policies of the state. Especially when reputed international human rights organizations link up with local initiatives by building on the archives and agendas of local counterparts and survivors, legitimacy and power are lent to antithetical narratives that challenge the traditional prevalence of the state in shaping and authorizing collective memories.

Third, this article shows that the democratizing power of online memorials should be not only acclaimed but also critiqued. As is clear from the establishment of Fushat Amal, all stake- holders—survivors, civil society organizations, family committees, donors, and media—have their own interests and are not infrequently in disagreement. Some survivors, for instance, applaud the establishment of the memorial, while others argue that only action in the offline world will advance their cause, and a digital memorial may even put the achievement of a “real” process of recognition, clarification, reparation, and remembering at risk.

This raises the question of ownership: Who owns the information on a digital memorial like Fushat Amal? Who organizes and authorizes the archive? According to which classifying principles? For which purpose? Who can protect and enforce ownership of individual contributions and the collective body of pages? Who has access to which data, editing rights, or even the authority to take down the webpage altogether with a simple click? Power is at the heart of nonstate memory and documentation initiatives just as much as in state-led archiving and memory making. Authority and ownership are, arguably, much more fluid, contested, and vulnerable in digital memorials. They are the outcomes of complex negotiations among a range of stakeholders and remain so throughout their lifetime. Ensuring final authority of survivors over their individual contributions is key but depends on continued availability of active administrators and, hence, funding.

Arguably, a downside of democratization as embodied in digital memorials is considerable vulnerability in terms of continued presence, maintenance, accessibility, security, and responsiveness to survivors’ needs and priorities, as well as to changing sociopolitical contexts—all of which are critical for the impact and sustainability of the endeavor.

Overall, however, in a political climate where establishing a physical memorial remains unattainable, the digitization of memories and testimonies offers an exceptional way to respond to the needs of relatives of missing persons to share their accounts and engage with a community of survivors. The digital memorial also supports the pursuit of a degree of recognition and political action based on powerful personal testimonies, alongside the buildup of a unique and convincing database and growing awareness across generations. The challenges facing processes of transitional justice in Lebanon remain phenomenal, considering the current internal and regional conditions. Current and future digital memorials are advised to capitalize on their potential to overcome social divisions and prevent relapses into strife, while actively engaging with digital space’s inherent vulnerabilities—not least with an eye on protecting victims and survivors from further harm.

NOTES
2

The figure of 17,000 is derived from government estimates directly after the war ended (ICTJ 2014: 15).

3

Estimates of the death toll of Lebanon’s civil wars range between 120,000 (Commission of Inquiry on Lebanon 2006) and 200,000 (Omaar 2010).

4

To date, only one mass grave (outside the Ministry of Defense) was opened in 2005, resulting in the identification and decent reburial of eighteen men. The remains of the British journalist Alec Collet were recovered in early November 2009. Another mass grave, in Aanjar, was claimed to have existed for 350 years and therefore did not warrant opening (Saghieh 2012).

5

The Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, and Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE) (www.solidelb.org).

13

Fushat Amal was covered widely in domestic and international (Arab) media, including Al Arabiya (2016), Al Jazeera (2016), OTV Lebanon (2016), MTV Lebanon (2016), Al Akhbar (Choufi 2016), An Nahar (Chaaya 2016b), The Daily Star (Obeid 2016), L’Orient Le Jour (Merhi 2016), and various radio stations.

14

Several family members were interviewed by the second author primarily for screening these testimonies in public during the launching event of Fushat Amal.

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Contributor Notes

ERIK VAN OMMERING is a PhD student in the department of social and cultural anthropology of Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. His research explores the linkages between formal elementary education and processes of conflict transformation, and is grounded in ethnographic field research in school communities in Lebanon. Aside from his academic interest he works in the humanitarian response to the Syria refugee crisis in the Middle East.

REEM EL SOUSSI is an independent human rights and public health professional based in Lebanon. Until recently, she worked as project manager with ACT for the Disappeared, a Lebanese human rights NGO. In that capacity she was in charge of the participatory development of Fushat Amal, an interactive digital memorial for the persons who went missing during Lebanon’s civil wars. Reem currently works as monitoring and evaluation consultant.

Conflict and Society

Advances in Research

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