Back to Lebanon programme

“Who Says Women Should Sit and Cry?”

A conversation with the Lebanese activist Wadad Halawani

Wadad Halawani is the President of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon. She founded the organization after her husband, Adnan Musbah Halawani, was abducted from their home in Beirut in September 1982. In the midst of the civil war, Halawani was left to raise alone her two young children while heading an activist movement in which wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of those who disappeared during the war strove for the right to know the fate of their beloved ones.
Wadad Halawani
© Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon

Mrs. Halawani you are the founder of the Committee for the Families of the Kidnapped and Missing Persons in Lebanon. You started your activism with a call on the radio in 1982, can you explain us what drove you to publish that call?

From the day they took my husband, I was on the street, knocking on all the doors and asking questions. I was always getting the same answer: “There are more people like you”. But I didn’t know them. I thought my children and I were an exception. So, I put a call on the radio. All I wanted was some tall adult-looking women to accompany me so that we would be taken seriously, since I was extremely young and petite. I specified the time and meeting place and I called for anyone related to a missing or kidnapped person. I was astonished by how many women and girls showed up. It was a sad surprise. I looked around and could barely believe the unfair situations they were going through. I thought it was absolutely necessary to take action.

Who was Wadad Halawani before 1982?

I was a public school teacher. The Wadad at the time shortly after the kidnapping was madly in love with her husband, and the father of her two children, Adnan. She was not strong. Wadad was a spoiled girl because she was the youngest of her siblings and she barely had tasks at home. Certainly she reminisced about her husband and she did not stop wanting to miss him. She even imagined arguing with him and blaming him for not being present. That Wadad from 1982 is now gone and became a new Wadad.

From that day you decided to strive for justice not only for your husband but for a large number of families whose family members were missing. What gave you the strength to be at the forefront of this struggle?

My great love for Adnan and for my children gave me the strength. Who would look after them if I fainted? They were 3 and 6 years old. And the other women certainly gave me strength. On the day of our first meeting back in 1982, they were crying all the time but they were very strong. I suggested that we go the Government Palace. They were crying and telling their stories to each other while walking. At that time gatherings were forbidden. When the security forces started hitting us and pushing us back, I understood why these women were so strong. They have lost a very valuable person in their lives, so there was nothing left to scare them, no soldiers, no guns, nothing. Then, an officer came and asked who was in charge. He said that four of us would accompany him to meet with the Prime Minister. The women raced for the four spots and squeezed in the Jeep thinking perhaps that after seeing the politician they would come back home with their beloved one. The Prime Minister promised that he would do everything in his hands to help us. We got to know each other's names and agreed that this gathering should be repeated. And that was how the committee was born on November 24th 1982, exactly two months after my husband was kidnapped.

© Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon

This movement is led by women: united wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of those who were kidnapped or disappeared during the war.  Did you ever meet challenges or obstacles due to the fact that you are a woman and an activist?

Who said that women should just sit and cry? I say no! They say: “Poor woman, with children too!” I refuse to be seen this way. Feeling sympathetic or saying she is strong is not the answer. Stand with us! Share our burden! This is a social responsibility. We have 17.000 people missing and kidnapped. They are the responsibility of the Lebanese government and of the Lebanese society. When our voice started becoming loud, those in power asked us to sit at home because we are women. People used to tell us what we were doing was forbidden, that we should be ashamed of raising our voice in the street. However, it was not a shame to kill women or hit them with a rifle. We went through all forms of physical and emotional violence: sexual harassment, emotional blackmail, extortion or life threats.

You succeeded in unifying a large number of families of those disappeared during the war despite their background, religious, and cultural diversity, and also despite the parties responsible for kidnapping their children and family members. How is it to work on conflict across conflict lines?

The kidnappings didn’t distinguish anyone. All groups were affected. I am Muslim on my ID but humanity goes first.  This is why during the firsts protests I did not want to sit under any party’s flag. During the war, we would meet right across the front lines. 

It is a source of pride to say, that in our country, the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared is truly unique. We have people from every area, religion or sect. We fight for the same cause but our political views are forbidden; we stay focused on our cause. That is how this cause remained pure, because we kept our distance from all parties, religions and political movements.

“The Lebanese political leaders erased everything after the Civil War, as if nothing had happened. The political leaders came from the Peace Agreement with scissors and a large eraser.

Why is the right to know important?

We want to go back to life. Peace arrived but, for us, the relatives of the disappeared, the war froze. A bomb hit the center of our homes. For us, the war didn’t finish. The war was halted by an international and regional decision. For us, there was no choice. I did not have the freedom of choice. We are just asking for the truth. We want to know if our beloved ones are dead or alive, so that we know if we must mourn or we can be happy, because we are waiting. I am waiting from 1982 but there are people waiting since 1975. Many relatives of the disappeared have died on the way.

How is reconciliation or even forgiveness possible in face of the crimes that have been committed during the civil war?

Some say they want to prosecute the responsible because they know what they have done. As relatives of missing people, we are not asking to hold anyone accountable for the past but only to know.  I would prosecute them for what they are doing in the present. When they give false data or withhold information, or wreak corruption in the findings of mass graves. Then, they should be held accountable. I’m not interested in their past deeds. If they want to ruin the investigations, then they don’t acknowledge the injustice that happened to us. We are still addressing them respectfully. There are no gallows set up for anybody. In 2018, the committee achieved the creation of a law (Law 105 on the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared Persons). They’re allowed to investigate and discover what happened but not to prosecute.

© Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon

The Committee was able to make the individual cases into a national cause that is still active today. How did the authorities react to your requests?

They tried to cover themselves by twisting the narrative. They would say our demands to know will ignite a new war. We defended the contrary. Not solving this issue will bring on a new war. During these 40 years there have been several presidents, several governments, several parliaments. The families of the disappeared are still waiting and I don’t know if I will reach an answer. Should we keep going in the same direction? Should we stop hoping? There are a hundred of questions and the only thing I know clearly is that we need to keep fighting for this cause. I wish we had a real state that respects its people. Then, this case will come to a conclusion, but we do not live in a real state.

"We don’t want to prosecute anyone over the past. We only want to know."

In 2014, the Shura Council, Lebanon’s highest juridical authority, ruled that the families of missing and disappeared have a right to be informed about the investigation files of the official Commissions of Inquiry. Has this decision been executed?

The report was finally submitted to the families but it was nothing new for us, they were only including the official testimonials in which the families explained how their relatives disappeared. The Government  claimed that according to their own investigation all the missing were dead. But as prove they only gave these families’ testimonials In 2018, the Lebanese Parliament passed the law 105 - after 36 years of hard work from our side - which finally established an independent national commission to reveal the fate of the disappeared. It secured a minimum level of justice, but no budget for the commission has been set. The commission is now working without money and short on human resources because four members resigned. We need funds, a safe office to hear witnesses and replacements for the resigned ones.

In 1989 Taif Agreement put an end to the civil war in Lebanon, but the political paralysis displays the political division in Lebanon still persists 33 years later. What is it that can be done to understand each other?

The war ended and Lebanon started reconstruction. I always say bulldozers came and crushed the bones of our people. The political leaders came from the Ta’if peace agreement with scissors and a large eraser. Back then the political leaders divided the country according to sects and religions and they erased the past, as if nothing had happened. Proof of this is the sectarian power-sharing system in which Lebanon is based. Our youth have now the responsibility as citizens of not repeating this and getting dragged into another war. As the families of the missing we started with a demanding issue. To know about our missing beloved ones then became a national case to help in the construction of a real homeland that embraces all its people. So when the government is looking for the missing it can’t discriminate anymore, it should be only looking for human beings. Equality is the foundation of a real democratic state.

ForumZFD has been supporting the Committee for the Families of the Kidnapped and Missing Persons in Lebanon since 2015 by increasing their visibility and encouraging their efforts to become an actor in the structural change and to call for accountability in the country. As a member of the Forum for Memory and Future and through its Dealing with the Past program, ForumZFD works with local partners to engage actively with multiple narratives of contested historical events and increase mutual acceptance within communities in Lebanon.


Back to Lebanon programme