Challenging Power Struggles: Giving Hope for Families of the Disappeared

October 19, 2023



For each family, there is a date. A moment when time froze and a loved one disappeared – a son seized from the streets, a husband arrested at home, and a brother taken at a checkpoint. Decades after the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990), as many as 17,000 Lebanese citizens are still missing (Polland, 2015). Families of the forcibly disappeared, whether they are part of the solder or younger generation, as well as the Lebanese community in general, are still dedicated to finding answers from the government. Through a comparative analysis of two articles about families of the forcibly disappeared, this paper will shed light on how these families challenge the existing power relations through adopting various social roles, thus affecting social structure and contributing to social change.

To this day, Lebanon and its citizens are still recovering from a bloody and cruel past. They say time heals; however, this is not the case for the family members (whether they belong to the older or younger generation) of the forcibly disappeared. As the government stalls, the parents of the forcibly disappeared, by now well into their 70s and 80s, have started to die. According to the Lebanese government, resolving the issue of the forcibly disappeared might reignite tensions that were present during the civil war (Pollard, 2015). However, history has proven otherwise. In such countries as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Georgia, resolving such issues has reduced, rather than increased, tensions among these communities (Pollard, 2015). Hence, it appears that the Lebanese government has intentionally silenced this issue. It is evident that there are two contradictory perspectives regarding how to approach the issue of forcibly missing people. On one hand, the Lebanese government has disregarded this issue and prioritized other matters in the country; on the other hand, social activists in the Lebanese community continue to demand answers.

The government’s passiveness can be shown in various contexts. Among them is the story of Imm Ayman, the mother of one of the forcibly disappeared individuals. In an article titled “Lebanon’s Missing: Will There Ever Be Closure?” Anchal Vohra (2018) retells the story of Imm Ayman. Vohra states that “Imm Ayman has found it hard to sleep for 36 years. During the day, chores keep her busy, and she is distracted from thinking about her son’s whereabouts. At night, she stays up for as long as she can, keeping an eye on the door, just in case Ayman returns.” The story of Imm Ayman highlights the government’s bold passiveness, where the author indirectly shows readers that the government has not done anything concerning this issue for 36 years while families of the forcibly disappeared eagerly await answers.

Vohra, A. (2018). [Imm Ayman holds a picture of her son who has been missing since the civil war] [Photograph]. Made for minds.

This process of waiting shows that Imm Ayman wants to remain optimistic and refuses to give up on her son’s case until justice is sought. The colored picture Imm Ayman holds shows the optimism and patience that many individuals who belong to the older generation continue to hold on to. The forcibly disappeared will continue to live within them despite the struggles, challenges, and passage of time.

Moreover, a black-and-white picture of Ayman behind her reveals her refusal to accept that he is dead. The social practice of challenging social norms as a woman and voicing out her concerns publicly was likely unexpected for Imm Ayman to do in such a power-dominant society. As the government refuses to raise a finger to resolve this issue, it was expected of Imm-Ayman to simply ‘let go’ of this case and move on with her life. However, this did not happen. She stood strong despite all the challenges and demanded answers from the people in power. This existing and unequal power struggle between the Lebanese community (Imm Ayman and the countless families who are waiting for answers) and the government will not cease until justice is sought. Since change is only sought through challenge, Imm-Ayman stands strong and aims for change. Indeed, power relations are always relations of struggle.

The Lebanese government is in hold of power and is on the upper end of the hierarchal scale. Hence, until the Lebanese government decides to take action, the families of the forcibly disappeared will be obliged to live in unbearable pain. In a power-based society, people may be a bit hesitant to take a step towards uncovering the fate of the forcibly disappeared without the help of the Lebanese government. However, a question of concern is to be raised here: Will the people make a bid for power and fight for answers? It seems that the new generation, like the old generation, will not accept being silenced and will fight in their own way.

In the article “Lebanon’s Forcibly Disappeared: To Forget, We Must Remember,” published on April 13, 2019, Cheaito (2017) states, “It is a damned country we live in that leaves its people dreaming of gravestones for bodies that are yet to be found.” This statement reflects the anger that citizens carry towards a government that has not taken action to resolve this issue. Since families of the forcibly disappeared and social activists are not willing to give in so easily, they continue to make a bid for power through planning various initiatives to shed light on this unresolved case. According to Fabien Bourdier, the ICRC’s delegate on The Missing Project in Lebanon, “After so many years of nothing, we decided to substitute ourselves for the national authorities” (Pollard, 2015). This is exactly what the new generation is doing: a bid for power. This bid for power has been done in various creative ways, such as through music, for instance. In his article, Cheaito (2017) highlights an egalitarian bid for power presented by the younger generation. The title of his article, Lebanon’s Forcibly Disappeared: To Forget, We Must Remember,” in itself carries much to tackle. For example, the new generation is constructing a new sense of “In order to forget first, one has to remember.” One of the many initiatives the younger generation has taken is voicing out their concerns through creative means such as music. They are making themselves heard as they raise awareness about the issue. In such a power-based society, the younger generation is helping people internalize different, more egalitarian, and peaceful cultural models. As Cheato (2017) illustrates, the “Parental Committee of the Kidnapped, Missing, and Forcibly Disappeared in Lebanon” recently released a song entitled “You did not stay, You did not leave” (“لا ضليت و لا فليت”) written by Sawsan Mortada, composed by Ahmad Kaabour, and sung by Chantal Bitar. The song reflects the main struggle Lebanese people are living with. It carries within it the dominant discourse of confusion and pain they are being forced to endure and carry.

It’s not known whether the forcibly disappeared are dead or alive. This song serves to shed light on the cause through various audiovisual art forms. The song came in to revive discussions over this open wound, as it constantly reminds people of this issue and its validity even after all these years of nothing. The perspective of the Lebanese people regarding this issue is contradictory to the common sense that the government wanted the families of the forcibly disappeared to internalize. The Lebanese government wanted its people to simply forget and move on without any questions. However, contrary to the government’s perception, the new generation is trying to naturalize the idea of remembrance. They see that everybody tries to forget past events, but in order to close the door on that pain, the past has to be remembered.

The new generation seems to handle the issue of the forcibly disappeared differently than the older generation. The Lebanese are not only restricting this case to their context but also using the media, which is a very powerful tool aside from language, as a team to transfer their worries to other contexts. Through challenge comes change. This issue will always remain an issue of concern, not only for the older generation but also for the new generation, since both want closure. The older generation’s persistence in the face of all challenges is evident in the immeasurable contributions that have shaped the lives of their children and grandchildren. For justice to be sought, people need to voice their concerns through the media and other powerful means (i.e., make a bid for power). They need strong persuasive means for some vital steps to be taken by the people in power. This conflicting power struggle shall not be ignored but contested.


  • Cheaito , H. (2019, April 13). Lebanon’s forcibly disappeared: To forget, we must remember. Beirut Today.
  • Pollard, R. (2015, April 24). Families of Lebanon’s missing trapped in a war that never ends. The Sydney Morning Herald.
  • Vohra, A. (2018, September 16). Lebanon’s missing: Will there ever be closure?