Growing up in Ras el Nabeh, a lively neighborhood in the heart of Beirut, was tough and dangerous in the early 1980s, as it was part of the Green Line –a maze of abandoned streets inhabited by weeds turned into a frontline that vertically divided Christian East Beirut from Muslim West Beirut. Yet, brothers Ziad and Ghassan Halwani have good memories of that time. “I used to look at this neighborhood as a small village,” remembers Ziad, the older brother, now 38 years old. “Everybody knew each other there.” Their grandfather and uncles lived across the street, where they ran a grocery store. “So we used to make the short trip from my house to my grandpa’s house every now and then, we would see everyone on the street,” recalls Ghassan, 35.
Tensions in the early 1970s between the right-wing Christian Alliance — organized under the Lebanese Front and the Phalange Party— and the leftist Muslim Alliance — represented by the Lebanese National Movement — led to widespread fighting in 1975, marking the beginning of a 15-year civil war in Lebanon. Regional conflict and struggle for control and dominance spilled into Lebanon and added layers of complexity to an already convoluted internal conflict. Interventions and occupation by Palestinian factions, Israel, and Syria played a key role in the course of the conflict. Over 100,000 civilians were killed during the war.
As violence intensified between the factions in Beirut, especially near the Green Line, Ras el Nabeh became a combat zone and saw some of the heaviest street fighting. “It was difficult to move around, since there were snipers and battles going on around us,” Ziad said. Ghassan will never forget a bomb that exploded near their building on the West side of the line, causing all the windows in their apartment to shatter.
“The general ambiance was familial and normal, despite the abnormal circumstances around us,” Ziad recalls when thinking about his family’s daily life. “I think my parents were making an effort to let us live a normal life.”
Ziad and Ghassan’s father, Adnan Halwani, was a history teacher in a public school, and their mother, Wadad Halwani, was also a teacher. Besides his work at the school, Adnan was an active member of the Lebanese Communist Party, which supported the Palestinian resistance in its fight against Israel.
Confrontation spiked in September 1982. On the 14th, President Bechir Gemayel, the leader of the Lebanese Forces – the Christian militia – was assassinated. In retaliation, two days later the Lebanese Phalangist militia –with Israel’s support – attacked two Patestinian refugee camps in Beirut, Sabra, and Shatila, and massacred an estimated 700 to 3,500 people. The number of those killed is still disputed.
‘The Most Important Day’
On the afternoon of September 24, 1982, the Halwani family was just sitting down for lunch when there was a knock on the door. When Ziad answered, two men who identified themselves as “Taharri” – police detectives – asked to speak with Adnan. They said they needed to take him away for questioning concerning a traffic accident, that it would be only five minutes. They led Adnan to a car at gunpoint and drove off.
Ziad doesn’t remember the day his father was kidnapped. He doesn’t recall opening the door either. He was six years old, and opening the door to visitors was something he often did. He didn’t notice anything strange on that day; only after, when more strangers came and asked his mother questions. “I never felt guilty or regretted anything, even if I was the one who opened the door,” Ziad says. On the other hand Ghassan, who was three at the time, says he does have some memories of that day, but they’re very confusing. It was “the most important day,” he says, but he admits he can’t be sure if the memories are his or based on stories he later heard.
Wadad told her sons that Adnan had to travel abroad, that he was in Paris. She even sent letters and gifts to the kids, signing them from “Daddy.” When the children heard a plane passing by, they would look up and ask if it was daddy coming home. When Ziad and Ghassan began saying they didn’t remember their father’s face, Wadad added photos of Adnan to the letters.
At the time, disappearances were nothing uncommon. During the 15-year conflict, more than 17,000 people were kidnapped and forcibly disappeared in Lebanon. People were abducted from their homes, from the street, or taken from checkpoints by multiple fighting factions. They were often exchanged for other prisoners, killed out of hatred or for revenge, or were disappeared to deepen sectarian divisions. Many disappeared in mass killings and were buried in mass graves, most of which have never been identified nor exhumed. Others were forcibly taken by Syria and Israel’s armies.
When strangers came to Ziad and Ghassan’s home asking about his father, Ziad would hide behind the sofa and listen to the conversations. A few months later, Ziad confessed to his mother that he knew the truth. “Since then, I became an accomplice in hiding the truth from my brother,” he recalls.
Wadad and Ziad decided that hiding the truth from Ghassan was the best way to protect him. “As a kid, sometimes I used to believe my mother’s ‘story,’ but at other times I was more rational and started having doubts and asking myself questions that were more difficult to answer,” Ghassan says. Some parts of the story his mother told him didn’t make sense. He would anxiously ask himself: “Why did he travel without telling me about it? If he’s abroad, why isn’t he calling?” It was hard for Wadad to keep up the same story for long, and Ghassan’s growing suspicions deeply affected their relationship.
The fact that Ziad was told the truth and Ghassan hadn’t resulted in completely different relationships forming between Wadad and her sons. “Ziad was the one who knew, the one who was asked about the enforced disappearance – although he was only six back then – and the one who was consulted before making decisions, especially when it came to hiding the truth from me,” Ghassan recalls. “This situation affected our relationship and still has an impact now.”
Ghassan’s strongest memories of his father’s kidnapping are connected to gossip, which increased Ghassan’s doubts about his father’s absence, but also led him “closer to the truth,” he says. When they visited acquaintances or accompanied their mother to meetings, other boys would ask them who their father was. “Ah, so you’re the son of the guy who was kidnapped,” Ghassan recalls they’d say. “This triggered negative reactions, but also allowed me to know the truth.”
Ziad as well felt very uncomfortable when other children asked about his father. When he was 7 or 8, he refused to go to school. “There was a kid in my class who knew about my story and started talking about it publically,” he explains. “I didn’t want my story to be shared because it looked ‘exotic’ for kids back then.” Ziad ended up moving to another school.
Ghassan doesn’t remember the exact moment when he told his mother he knew the truth about Adnan, but her confirmation didn’t provide any relief either –it actually made things less clear: “When she used to tell me he was in France, it was easy to imagine it. But now she was saying ‘he’s kidnapped and we don’t know anything about him.’ The image in my mind became blurred, I couldn’t relate it to something concrete or tangible.”
Besides the direct effects Adnan’s enforced disappearance had on Ziad and Ghassan’s life, their childhood was also deeply shaped by their mother’s response to the traumatic event. Wadad quickly became one of the first public voices in Lebanon calling for truth and accountability for the kidnapped and disappeared.
Right after Adnan went missing, Wadad went from one police department and military station to another, trying to gather any information she could about his whereabouts. As the months passed, the search turned into public calls for families of the disappeared to gather for demonstrations, and meetings with politicians and other influential figures. Because Ziad and Ghassan were so young, Wadad would take them to the events.
“The transition from a familial, stable environment to ‘the street’ was difficult,” Ghassan recalls. “I was surrounded by a lot of people I didn’t know, women and kids my age, who were totally in despair… I didn’t understand why I was in this place.”
As Wadad’s activism grew stronger, and her work would sometimes keep her away from her children for days. Due to the war, the family constantly moved from house to house inside Beirut, avoiding shellings. Later they moved to Aicha Bakar in West Beirut, away from the Green Line. The brothers don’t criticize or fault their mother’s commitment to the cause of the disappeared. “Wadad was radical about it. We didn’t even think of questioning her absence,” Ghassan says. “We missed her, of course, but we couldn’t think of delegitimizing or questioning her struggle. I don’t think she gave us any other choice.”
Adnan’s kidnapping would consume all conversations and actions of the Halwani family over the years. At times, Ziad felt overwhelmed by it. “They would only present my father as a great person, as a hero. As a kid, I needed this ‘hero’ narrative, but I also needed to hear something normal that would be closer to reality. With time, I was bored of listening to the same stories being repeated over and over.”
Ghassan cannot dissociate his father’s kidnapping from his mother’s activism, and the impact they both had on his life: “Wadad’s struggle never stopped, but it also contributed to perpetuating the other event [Adnan’s disappearance], as if the disappearance was still going on. If Wadad had made other choices, the impact of the disappearance on me would have been different.”
Making the Struggle Their Own
Years have gone by. Although they have never learned the fate of their father, Ziad and Ghassan have found their own ways to contribute to the struggle for truth and accountability about the missing, a movement that both still feel a part of.
Ziad defines himself as a “pragmatic” person: “I couldn’t abandon the struggle because it was imposed on us and on my mother in particular, but also because there were other people who were in need, who relied on us.”
He believes that it was the resilience of the victims and their tireless fight that made a few successes possible so far. In April 2014, the State Shura Council, one of the highest judicial authorities in Lebanon, granted the families of the missing access to an archive of information gathered by the Commission of Inquiry on the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared in Lebanon – conducted in 2000 – which has remained classified for over a decade. Yet any real action is still pending.
“The state should be held responsible, because it has failed to respond until now,” Ziad said. “It should invest in uncovering the truth, despite the amnesty law that was voted in 1991. The [Shura Council] decision is positive. I don’t expect secrets to be revealed in these reports; however, the decision itself is symbolic.”
The fate of the disappeared is a central issue of Ghassan’s artistic work. He is an illustrator who has worked on a broad range of projects, from books to movies to advocacy campaigns. One of his themes is the ephemeral character of memory and the importance of documentation, which was further strengthened by a profound experience he had during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
When the war began, Wadad and Ghassan had to move out of their home because they couldn’t afford the rent – the southern suburb where they lived was becoming too expensive because it wasn’t targeted by Israeli bombings. They couldn’t take all of their belongings with them. Among the things they decided to sacrifice and leave behind were parts of the archives Wadad had been collecting over the years – thousands of pictures, posters, videos, and documents from the families of the disappeared. Ghassan told his mother that he would select samples and then take the remaining copies to the garbage. “I was walking alone on the empty streets of Ain al Ramaneh, carrying my small trolley full of posters and copies of files about the missing, amid the sounds of missiles exploding next to me in the Southern Suburb,” he recalls. He went back and forth three times. The third time, he looked into the content of the boxes. There were photocopies of pictures of the disappeared. “At this point I was totally in despair, and I asked myself: Why am I doing this?” he explains. He wasn’t able to throw all those people’s lives away. He decided to organize all the documents, based on years and topics, and display them next to the garbage. “I couldn’t take them back because I had the originals and these were copies, but I thought that maybe if I arranged them this way, someone passing by could take away a poster or a videotape with him.”
Nowadays, Wadad, Ziad and Ghassan are living their own independent lives in Beirut. They don’t act as a “conventional” family, Ziad explains, although he and Wadad live on the same street in a residential neighborhood in South-East Beirut. “We don’t meet every Sunday for lunch, especially since Wadad is often busy with her projects. But we’re still a family!”
Ghassan continues to move to different places, after spending some time in France. He is currently working with his mother on a campaign they will launch in September to pressure the government to implement the Shura State decision.
Ziad is the manager of a theater in Beirut. He got married and now has two children, six and four years old – the same ages as his brother and he were when their father was kidnapped. He talks to his children about Adnan, their grandfather. “I obviously don’t talk to them in an emotional way, but if they seem to have questions, I definitely answer them,” Ziad says. “I don’t want them to live in denial, because I suffered from this as a kid. They live here in this country, and they already live with the consequences of what happened.”
Interviews with Ziad and Ghassan Halwani were conducted in Arabic.
Read more about the issue of the missing in Lebanon: Draft Law for the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared Persons.
Read more about ICTJ’s work in Lebanon.