The crime of forced disappearance has contributed to the emergence of social movements comprised of the wives and mothers of the disappeared in the Arab region, whether victims of civil war or military rule. These women have become activists in their local communities and influenced decision makers. This article points to cases in Lebanon, Algeria and Egypt where women’s appeals turned into influential movements.
There are stark differences in the political and social circumstances in these countries — from those who went missing in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), to those who went missing during the conflict between the security apparatus and Islamist movements in Algeria in the 1990s, to those forcibly disappeared in the past two years in Egypt as a result of the brutality of the current security apparatus. But what brings the three cases together is the absence of justice and the impunity of the perpetrators, as well as the security forces’ constant denial of committing such crimes. This has made victims’ families, as well as activists in solidarity with them and human rights defenders, lose trust in the state and the rule of law.
The Lebanese Civil War left 150,000 casualities and 17,000 missing people. After the war the state failed to notify families of the fates of their loved ones. These families expected very little from the government, especially after the Lebanese parliament decreed general amnesty for all crimes committed during the war. The absence of justice was one of the factors that led to the creation of a movement made up of the wives and mothers of those who went missing at the height of the violence.
This movement continued to demand that the government reveal the fate of their missing loved ones. It forced civil society organizations in the field of human rights to pay attention to the issue of missing people and insist on the families’ right to know the truth.
In 2010, Wadad Halwani wrote the following words to her husband, who had disappeared 28 years earlier. If he hadn’t disappeared, he would have been 64 years old and retired at the time she wrote the letter.
Adnoni, [the fact you have reached retirementage] will not stop me from looking for you, nor retire from your love. Your resistance, steadfastness and patience will make me double my efforts to reach my right, our right. Trust that I will get there one day, no matter how long it takes. Official ploys to sway me will not work, nor will the silencing or the relentless efforts to declare the death of the missing in efforts to close the case.
Halwani heads the grassroots Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared. Her husband Adnan was kidnapped in 1982 during the civil war by the second division of Lebanon’s military intelligence for his affiliation with the Communist Action Organization. Halwani started looking for her husband days after he was kidnapped. She approached all state officials and she often heard there were others who shared Adnan’s fate without any fair resolution.
Halwani didn’t lose hope. She made a call on the radio for a meeting of the families of the disappeared in front of a Lebanese courthouse. She wanted to keep the issue alive in the local and international media, and to turn the individual suffering experienced by the families of the forcibly disappeared into a public issue that would garner the attention of civil society organizations in Lebanon and abroad. To her surprise, hundreds of mothers whose family members were kidnapped showed up. They then started working together, and the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared was formed.
The committee initiated many actions, including a permanent tent for the families of the disappeared in front of the United Nations headquarters, which they now consider to be their second home.
After the declaration of peace in Lebanon and the conclusion of the 1989 Document of National Accord (also known as the Taif Agreement), the mothers of the disappeared continued to face state cruelty. The families continued to exert pressure on the authorities to reveal the truth of what happened to their loved ones, and launched the We Have the Right to Know campaign to pressure officials, which eventually led to officials forming an official committee to investigate all the cases of forced disappearance.
The committee produced an obituary document in which it confessed to the existence of mass graves. Despite the pain the document triggered, the families then had the opportunity to resort to the courts, which in 2014 obliged the state to hand over a copy of the transcripts of the investigation carried out by the committee. The court’s order was considered a victory for the right to information.
Algeria suffered tremendously between 1992 and 1998 in a period called the “Black Decade.” Bloody armed conflicts between Islamist groups and security forces resulted in thousands of missing people.
These are the words of Nassera Dutour, head of the Collective for the Families of the Disappeared in Algeria:
I spoke with Amnesty International in Paris and London, and I came to know that there are many cases like mine in Algeria. I knew about forced disappearances before, but I did not know of its large scale. I took the addresses of the families of the disappeared who live in Paris and we gathered in November 1997. We were around 10 or 11 people. I told them to fill a form and send it to the United Nations. I sought international law because I was looking for the truth. Now we have 3000 registered cases.
Dutour is fighting to reveal the truth about her son, who disappeared in 1997, and to keep the issue of missing people alive in Algerian society despite the restrictions surrounding it. The Algerian state continues to try to close the case by dispersing organized family gatherings — claiming that such gatherings disrupt the building of the nation — or by granting some families compensation for their missing sons, legally considered dead.
According to Algerian nongovernmental organizations, 25 percent of the families have rejected such compensation — and even those families that have accepted the funds continue to demand their loved ones’ remains in order to begin mourning. Algerian mothers are looking for answers regarding the fate of their sons. They demand to know how they were kidnapped and why. If their sons are indeed among the dead, the mothers have the right to reclaim their remains, hold their funerals and stand before their graves.
Given the political upheaval over the past two and a half years, the situation in Egypt differs from Lebanon and Algeria in terms of both political context and the length of time of the disappearances. But Egypt is treading the same path as Lebanon and Algeria when it comes to spontaneous gatherings of mothers and wives demanding to know the fates of loved ones.
The women work in very small groups for various reasons. Some families avoid talking about disappearances in public due to threats from state security. They may also believe that talking to the media or to human rights organizations could threaten the safety of their loved ones in detention. In comparison to Algeria and Lebanon, weak communication between families of the disappeared in Egypt hinders their ability to get their message across to the public.
The longer the political situation continues to deteriorate — with security forces tightening their grip on public space, the forced disappearance and imprisonment of activists and politicians, and increasing restrictions on the work of civil society — we will witness more protests by the families of the detained and disappeared, such as one staged in front of the Journalists Syndicate in downtown Cairo in March.
The families of the disappeared in Egypt should learn from the experiences in neighboring Arab countries and the world, where women have been able to move and influence the international community to take action. The suffering of women, especially mothers, can create a strong bond enabling a unique form of activism that impacts local and international opinion.
Wadad Halwani’s participation in drafting a law in cooperation with the International Center for Transitional Justice and the unification of women in Algeria under the leadership of Nassera Dutour are sources of inspiration for mothers of the disappeared in Egypt and other countries. Their stories tell us that finding the truth and holding murderers accountable is not impossible.
This article has been translated and edited for clarity. You can read the original Arabic here.