Waiting for the Moths

Dalia Khamissy and Jana Nakhal

Imad Kaafarani, I.B.4.B.T.T.E.R.F.L.Y, Digital illustration. 2021

Celebrating the memory of Ghassan Kanafani in 2018, Palestinian novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah addressed the late author and activist in a facebook post:“Do you know what the fate is, of the story that we do not write, of our unwritten story? Allow me Ghassan, to ask you from the heart, because I can scream and turn mad in front of you without feeling embarrassment. Because I am addressing you as one of us: Do you know the fate of the stories we do not write? They become the property of our enemies.”[1]

On stories, hidden and spoken

The story goes that my friend’s grandmother’s fiancé was taken by the Ottomans to “Safar barlik” at the end of the 19th century, he would disappear never to come back again. Her grandmother could not marry immediately after he left, and had to wait 7 years. The waiting ended when a silk shirt she hung after his departure was infested by moths. Hanging silk shirts outside of the homes of the disappeared was tradition then, as so many men disappeared, and women waited.

Such stories are kept hidden from public discourse, remembered and circulated between family members for generations, like the stories of wars. Stories of the civil war emerge in waves. They transpire from places visited, gatherings coinciding with an explosion, disappeared friends… The mainstream discourse supports burying the memories of a war, the narrative of which no two individuals in Lebanon can agree on. But just as rubble never becomes part of the earth it has been buried in, so too do stories of the war resurface every now and then. Whether in family get-togethers; in the news; or while remembering one’s youth, childhood, or parents’ lives, the war oozes out of the cracks of a badly painted wall, behind which lie bodies of the dead and stories of the disappeared. 

The official discourse has worked zealously to conceal those stories and consequently dismiss the existence of their owners, families, and loved ones.

Seeds of forced amnesia sown, the missing become lost in what Michael Gilsenan called “unspoken narratives of injury.”[2] Their bodies and cries become muffled, excluded from communal memory, silenced by society out of shame.

They have names and stories

Rashid Liddawi, Lebanese, was 15 when he went out to buy cigarettes on April 10, 1976, and never came back home. His mother searched for him everywhere but never found him. His fate remains unknown.

Stavro Andreotti, Lebanese, was only 17 when, one evening in July 1978, he went on a ride with his friends. He never returned home. His fate remains unknown.

Qozhayya Shahwan, Lebanese, was 28 in 1980 when members of the Syrian intelligence showed up at the place where he works. They took him away for questioning. Qozhayya never came back home that day or the days that followed. His wife Naheel was 25 back then and they had 4 children together. His fate remains unknown.

Amneh Hassan Banat (Imm Aziz), Palestinian, was having breakfast with her children on September 16, 1982, at an apartment in Beirut, when members of a Lebanese Christian militia knocked on the door and took away her four sons Aziz, 31, Ibrahim, 27, Mansour, 25, and the youngest, Ahmad who was only 13. Few kilometers away, Palestinians were being massacred in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila. The militants put Imm Aziz’s sons on the back of a truck full of men that they had detained along the way and drove away. She never saw them again, and their fate remains unknown.

Kamal Gedeah, Lebanese, and his nephew Semaan were driving back home from work in Beirut on August 19, 1985, when they were stopped at a checkpoint not far from their home. They were taken away by force along with their car and never seen again. Their fate remains unknown.

17,000 people are estimated to be missing from Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. Their fate remains unknown. While Lebanese NGOs have identified hundreds of victims who are detained in prisons in neighboring Syria, the rest are believed to be lying under layers of rubble in mass graves all over the country.

“We might be sitting on a mass grave right now… We have buildings in Beirut built on mass graves, on human bones. Not only in Beirut, but in the Chouf also, in the Bekaa, in Tripoli, in Mount Lebanon… everywhere. If you go to any place in Lebanon, people can give you information about mass graves they saw” said the late Ghazi Aad, founder of Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE), a human rights organization that has been working for almost three decades to reveal the fates and whereabouts of thousands of people who went missing in Lebanon during and after the civil war[3].

Disappearance is a concern for the living: it is the end of someone’s presence but the start of their life as a hidden story. It is a point in history where individuals are not afraid of death but of something that seems more traumatic, more unknown still than death itself: the missing and the oblivion that accompanies a relative’s disappearance.

Imm Rashid watches TV at her house in Tripoli, north of Lebanon. Above her, hangs a photo of Rashid who went out on April 10, 1976 to buy cigarettes and never came back home…. Her heart tells her he is still alive.
Maguy Andreotti sits in her living room, above her a portrait of her son Stavro. Maguy, who had 3 boys, lost them all in Lebanon’s civil war. Stavro, 17, was kidnapped and his fate is still unknown. Her middle son was 9 years old when a bomb hit their house in the 70’s and killed him. Her youngest died of suffocation while in hiding from the bombs, when smoke from the heater filled the shelter. Only one year old at the time, he died in his mother’s arms while she thought him to be sleeping.
Maguy only speaks about Stavro. She mourned her two other sons but she still has hope that Stavro will come back home one day.
A photo of Qozhayya Shahwan and his wife Naheel on their wedding day sits on a chair inside the house where Qozhayya was born and raised. Naheel never got married again. She never declared her husband dead.
Imm Aziz sits in her house under the photos of her four sons who were kidnapped in 1982. Imm Aziz keeps the window above her bed open in case they come back one day and walk down the alley behind the window in the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj el Barajneh, in Beirut’s suburbs. She wants to make sure she sees them when they finally come back home.
A photo of Imm Aziz’s four children, Aziz, Ibrahim, Mansour and Ahmad, sits on a table inside her room in the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj el Barajneh, in Beirut’s suburbs.
Aida sits in her living room next to a photo of her husband Kamal Geadah. Kamal was kidnapped on his way back home with his nephew Semaan, a volunteer with the Red Cross who had just finished helping carry victims of an explosion in Beirut.

The state shows up

It wasn’t until 2020, thirty years after the end of the civil war, that the government set up a national commission of inquiry to investigate the fate of the disappeared during the war[4]. In a milestone for the relatives of the missing, the commission named three locations as definite sites of mass graves but stated that they were unable to ascertain the identities of those buried. The report[5] further stated that none of the disappeared were alive in Lebanon and recommended that those missing for at least four years should be considered dead.

Unlike what used to happen under Safar Barlik, our state doesn’t even want the relatives to wait for the moths to infest the silk shirts of the disappeared.

But why is the state afraid of the dead?

In a documentary by Al –Jazeera English about Lebanon’s disappeared, the head of the commission Salim Abou Ismail says that “the inquiry he led lacked the will to provide any outcome and that he believes that this issue should not be tackled… What is the use of digging for thousands of bodies in these places and irritating people’s feelings again?”[6]. After 15 years of civil war and in an effort to maintain one overarching narrative, the Lebanese government issued an amnesty law in 1991 that not only pardoned those who took part in the war but also relieved them of any obligation to testify or share details on the fate of the missing.What remained was a narrative riddled with holes.

Stories of the disappeared, when told and reclaimed, have the ability to fill those holes, backfill them with a presence once lost. In a context where hegemony works hard to hinder any search for the physical remnants of the missing, this narrative excavation forms a counter-hegemonic material culture, reinjecting memories of the war with mnemonics of the missing: the mass graves, the clandestine detention centers, the places where people disappeared often…

The dead who want to be found

The late activist, writer and publisher Lokman Slim, who founded and headed UMAM Documentation and Research, and was assassinated in the south of Lebanon on February 4, 2021⎼ said in the Rageh Omaar Report documentary, “ I think that unwillingly the dead are knocking at our doors. A lot of times, while digging to build up a building, there are mass graves which are found.” While the government has been ignoring the plight of the families, NGOs have been collecting information of potential mass graves on Lebanese soil. “Using historical accounts of the conflict,”continued Slim in the interview, “UMAM is in the process of mapping potential sites to exhume across the country”. He went on to add that he “can confidently say that all cemeteries in Lebanon, specifically in Beirut, are likely to house small or large mass graves… dumps where militias from both sides used to throw away bodies.”[7] In an article for the UNDP’s The Peace Building supplement, Wadih Asmar, President of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, writes about an estimated number of 400 mass graves spread around the country. Up until 2017, UMAM had documented around 20 locations of mass graves in Lebanon[8]. But in Lebanon the government has yet to give permission for the mass graves to be unearthed. 

More of their stories

Few months after the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005, and for the first time since the war, two mass graves were unearthed. The first in Anjar, some 58 km east of Lebanon and the second in Yarze, about 10 km east of Beirut. In Anjar, 25 mostly civilian bodies were exhumed, while in Yarze, the 12 bodies found at the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense belonged to soldiers who went missing on October 13, 1990.[9]

In October of 2005 during excavation works on the airport road in Beirut’s southern suburbs, the remains of French writer and researcher Michel Seurat, were identified and his remains were found and subsequently repatriated to France in March 2006.

Seurat, was 38 when he was kidnapped along with his colleague Jean-Paul Kauffmann upon their arrival to Lebanon’s capital in 1985. Kauffmann, who was released with other hostages in 1988, confirmed that Seurat had died from illness in captivity the year following their abduction[10].

In the same year Seurat was abducted, in March 1985, British journalist Alec Collett was also taken by armed men near Beirut’s airport as he was on assignment for the UNRWA, highlighting the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s camps. His driver who was kidnapped along with him was released shortly after, but Collett remained missing. The following year, a militant Palestinian group ⎼ the Abu Nidal organization ⎼ claimed to have killed him. A video of a hooded man hanging from the ceiling, said to be Collett, was released but never verified. In the years that followed, several searches were conducted in order to find the remains of Collett, all in vain[11]. In November 2009, a team led by British experts found the body of Collett after 3 days of digging in Aita al Foukhar in the Bekaa valley, along with another body of an unidentified man in military fatigues 20 meters away.

Footage on  local news channel LBC, showed an excavator digging the soil, a dozen men present at the scene, surrounded by piles of rubble. The LBC report mentioned that DNA samples were taken from the 2 bodies in order to identify that one of the bodies belongs to Collett[12].

Most of the reports about the search for Collett’s remains made no mention of the fate of the second man. In his article[13], Lebanese journalist Afif Diab, who was at the scene of the excavation, reports that the second body was returned to soil to be buried again.

In April 2008, an article in Lebanese media claimed the existence of a mass grave in Halat, 32 km north of Beirut. Footage from coverage by local channel OTV showed an excavator digging a 2m deep hole into a narrow strip of asphalt, about 30 meters in length and the journalist[14] described the excavation as being too narrow to account for any margin of error ⎼ the road, according to locals, used to be 4 meters wide during the war. According to SOLIDE’s Ghazi Aad, the excavation was not up to international standards of equipment use, and securing the perimeter of the search. No bodies were found and the hole was covered again.

​​In the same report, the journalist also mentioned unofficial accounts about a contractor who had dug in the same location in 2002, had come across bags that “smelled awful”. The source claims that the bags were returned into the soil and covered with backfill[15].

In search of Blue Butterflies

While the Lebanese officials see no point in investigating the locations of mass graves, or in exhuming the bodies and relieving the families of the burden of waiting for the forcibly disappeared, other alternatives are possible.

The recuperation of the remains, the uncovering of details around the massacres, and the justice and peace which the families of the disappeared are asking for, are a single political decision away.

Forensic anthropologist Margaret Cox works on locating, excavating, and exhuming suspected mass graves for victims of mass killings. She works with the aim of retrieving evidence for courts hearings and international tribunals, allowing them to convict those responsible for the killings and disappearances as well as identifying and returning the exhumed remains to their respective families. She describes her “desired end point” as the return of remains, to be “buried by people to whom they mean something and who can then move on with their lives.”

In her search, Cox looks for blue butterflies that feed only on Artemisia vulgaris, a wild flower that grows on “geophysical anomaly,” more commonly known as “mass graves”. In 1999 “the plants were blossoming in Kosovo after the genocide in which Albanian Kosovars were killed by ethnic Serbs. In the Balkans, clouds of blue butterflies would gather on dense banks of Artemisia that had flourished suddenly. A change in the soil’s nutrient levels and a disturbance of dormant seed banks had led to this dense colonization. In the1990s, mass graves hid the victims of Kosovo’s genocide… But the dead are not that easy to hide. They leach into the soil, …feed the weeds, lure the butterflies.”[16]

In Lebanon, we live awaiting Blue butterflies, searching for clues, and stories.

[1] الخالدي، عاصف. “في ذكرى اغتياله: هكذا أنقذ غسان كنفاني الحكاية عن فلسطين”، حفريات، 2019.

“الحكاية التي لا نكتبها، حكايتنا التي لا نكتبها، أتعرف ماذا يكون مصيرها؟ اسمح لي يا غسان، أن أسألك، أسألك من قلبي، فأمامك يمكن أن أصرخ أو أجنّ وألا أحسّ بإحراج، لأنني أحدِّثك أنتَ، لأنك منا؟ هل تعرف ما مصير الحكايات التي لا نكتبها؟ إنها تصبح ملْكاً لأعدائنا!”.


[2] Gilsenan, Michael. Lords of the Lebanese marches: violence and narrative in an Arab society. Univ of California Press, 1996.

[3] Khamissy, Dalia and Chesteron, Benjamin. BBC World Sevice, The Documentary Open Eye – Episode 1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p00d0vhb

[4] The Legal Agenda. (2014) Lebanon’s Disappeared: Ruling Consecrates Right to the Truth. https://english.legal-agenda.com/lebanons-disappeared-ruling-consecrates-right-to-the-truth/

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Rageh Omaar Report – Lebanon: What lies beneath. (Oct. 21, 2010). Al Jazeera English. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhoyts-eGXk

[7]The Rageh Omaar Report – Lebanon: What lies beneath. (Oct. 21, 2010). Al Jazeera English. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhoyts-eGXk

[8] El Asmar, Wadih. (April 1, 2017). Mass Graves in Lebanon: Remnants of the Past or Challenges for the Future?


[9] Al Jazeera. (Dec. 4, 2005) Mass grave found in Lebanon. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2005/12/4/mass-grave-found-in-lebanon

[10] BBC News. (March 7, 2006) Lebanon returns hostage’s remains.


[11] BBC News. (Nov. 23, 2009). Journalist Alec Collett’s body identified in Lebanon.


[12] Youtube, uploaded by Memoryatwork Channel. (Dec. 20, 2011) Alec Collett.

[13] Diab, Afif. (Nov. 21, 2009).

«الراي» تنشر القصة الكاملة للعثور على رفات الصحافي البريطاني


[14] Youtube, uploaded from the OTV by Jean Assy. (April 16, 2008). Halat Mass graves.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Warner, Harriet. (July 18, 2004) The butterfly hunter.