Photography Project "Missing"

Lebanon's Shadows of the Past

The legacy of the civil war weighs heavily on Lebanon. With a photo exhibition in Beirut various initiatives hope to make people aware of the countless persons who vanished during this period and to encourage Lebanese society to start coming to terms with its past. Arian Fariborz reports

Memory at work exhibition hall in Beirut (photo: &copy Memory at Work 2008)
Against forgetting: The number of persons who never returned after the war are estimated at 16,000 persons

​​An unusual opening of a photo exhibition in the UNESCO Palace in Beirut – this is apparent at first glance. The viewer sees hundreds of rows of what look like wanted posters with faded photos of mostly young men looking down from the walls – the missing persons of Lebanon’s civil war. Below the photos are a few lines: name, date of birth, the period in which they vanished.

The photo exhibition "Missing" is part of a nationwide campaign launched by the non-governmental organization "Umam Documentation & Research". "The whole idea behind our project is to promote awareness of the past in Lebanon, particularly the fate of those who vanished in the civil war," reported Nadeche Frondon, project manager of Umam. "We want to create a forum in the public for them."

A few months ago the initiators began contacting the families of missing persons as well as the "Committees for Missing Persons" to obtain photos from them and design the posters. So far 500 posters have been created, but by no means does this cover all of them, averred Frondon: "Meanwhile we have lists with names of over 1000 missing persons; but unfortunately we do not have a photo for each of them."

Amnesia instead of dealing with the past

Monika Borgmann (photo: &copy Berlinale)
"If Lebanon had come to terms with its violent past, the political situation today would definitely be different than it is," remarked Monika Borgmann, curator of the exhibition

​​The wounds from the civil war that ended in 1990 in the small country on the Levantine coast are far from healed. The number of persons who never returned after the war are estimated at 16,000 persons. Altogether at least 150,000 persons died during the conflict.

The non-governmental organization "Umam" wants to hold the mirror up to Lebanese politicians – for the levity with which the Amnesty Act of 1991 put to all civil war crimes to rest once and for all – amnesia instead of dealing with the past.

"Umam" also wants to arouse Lebanese citizens, to sensitize them to what really happened in their country during the civil war and to the fate of the victims of the more than a decade-long bloody conflict. "If Lebanon had come to terms with its violent past, the fifteen-year civil war, the political situation today would definitely be different than it is," remarked Monika Borgmann, curator of the exhibition and director of "Umam". "But Lebanon has not come to terms with it at all, and today it is practically a taboo to mention it."

The "Mothers of Plaza del Mayo" as role models

​​The photo project was not least of all inspired by the example of the "Mothers of Plaza del Mayo", an Argentinean human rights group that since 1977 has made the public aware of the disappearance of their sons and daughters with photos and banners and demanded an explanation from the military junta.

But also the "Algerian tragedy", the civil war between Islam extremists and the army in another Arab country gave the initiators the idea of launching a similar project in Lebanon.

"We call this exhibition an 'Exhibition in Progress'. Simply because the exhibition rooms now have computers and scanners, and we hope that other families will bring their photos so that this exhibition can continue to expand," explained Monika Borgmann.

World-wide access

The exhibition can also be viewed on a Web site ( that is to serve as a Lebanese platform. But this is not enough. In addition to the photo exhibition, seven workshops are being held in various regions of the country. Participating will be experts and victims of the civil war as well as politicians and members of the military.

The project is being financed, among others, by the German Finance Office, the Institute for Foreign Affairs (ifa) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Arian Fariborz, Beirut

© 2008

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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  • Website Memory at Work
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