BEIRUT—In a neighborhood in east Beirut, you’ll come across a nondescript parking lot, backed up on one side by an Ottoman-era house and on another by a sleek high-rise, casting its shadow across a mix of old shops and upscale design stores below. It was from inside one of these old shops in the late 1970s—a few years into Lebanon’s long, violent civil war—that Avedis Manoukian, a shop owner, saw the trucks loaded with dead bodies roll up to what is now the parking lot; back then, it was an empty, dirt-covered patch. “He kept telling us, ‘Today, they came with bulldozers and dumped some more corpses there, covered them with earth. Then they did it again, then they did it again,’” Aline Manoukian, Avedis’s daughter, recalled when we spoke. As a young girl, she would visit her father’s store and look out onto the lot, filled with an unknown number of unidentified bodies. “The story remained with me,” she said. “Every time I pass by, I know there are people there.”
This site is one of well over 100 locations scattered throughout Lebanon believed by researchers to be mass graves, a grim legacy of a 15-year war that pitted Lebanese-Muslim, Lebanese-Christian, Palestinian, and other sectarian militias against one another, leaving between 100,000 and 200,000 people dead and thousands more missing. Since the war’s end in 1990, activists and NGOs have pressured the Lebanese government to mount a serious effort to locate people who went missing, to little avail. The 15-year Syrian occupation that followed the conflict, a brief war with Israel, an influx of refugees from Syria, and protracted economic and political turbulence have helped push the issue to the bottom of the government’s agenda. There’s also little political will to investigate cases of those who went missing during the war: Today’s politicians were yesterday’s militiamen, and few of them seem interested in digging up the past.