Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Odette Salem Never Gave Up

Odette Salem will finally know the truth.

On 16 May 2009, Salem, who was the main organizer for Friends and Families of the Missing and Kidnapped sit-in opposite the ESCWA headquarters in Beirut, passed away after a traffic accident while crossing the street to the protest tent.

Salem never gave up looking for her children and organized a movement to uncover the fate of the 17,000 people who disappeared during Lebanon's civil war. The movement gained political momentum after Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon.

After an encounter with Salem in January 1993, I had written the following:

Odette Salem will never stop looking for her children, Richard and Christine, who were kidnapped in 1985 on Sadat Street in West Beirut.
"The war has ended," says Salem. "But my nightmare hasn't. How can we talk of peace when I don't know where my children are?"
On Tuesday September 17, 1985, Salem cooked lunch for her children. They usually returned home from work at 2 p.m.. But, Richard, who was 23 years old, and Christine, who was 20 years old, were late.
Salem waited for them on the balcony of her house in the Sakiat al Janzir district in West Beirut. It was 3 p.m. and they still had not come. She phoned the Joseph Salem design company in Hamra Street, West Beirut, where Richard and Christine worked. She was told that they had left an hour ago.
She thought they had had a car accident, so she phoned all the hospitals in the capital. Nothing. She rushed to her neighbor, Colonel Issam Abou Zaki, who today is the national Chief of Police. He phoned the capital's precincts. Nothing. In August and September 1985, fifty Christians were kidnapped in West Beirut. Salem's children were among them. The Hezbollah, she says, kidnapped Richard and Christine to exchange them with Shiites, held by the Christian militia.
"During the war," she says, "I worried about bullets, bombs and mines. But I never thought my children would be kidnapped."
After news spread about the abduction, Salem received a phone call from a person demanding a ransom. "Three days after they were kidnapped," she recalls, " I received a phone call. A man asked me for 100,000 Lebanese Pounds [about $3000 at the time]." But the call was a prank.
Many people asking for money called her; but none knew where her children were.
Salem, whose husband died of a heart attack in 1982, says that she suffered from severe depression for the three years following her children's abduction. She was hospitalized several times. Now she lives on tranquillizer and can hardly fall asleep before 3 a.m.. She has suffered a slipped disk, a severe case of sinusitis; her kidneys need surgery urgently.
"I am a wreck," she says smoking her fourth cigarette in 40 minutes. "But I won't have surgery before I see my children. What if they are released and I am still in the hospital? Who would they go to? I am the only family they have left."
Her children have become her only purpose in living since 1985, when she founded the Parents of the Kidnapped Association. She has organized rallies and lobbied politicians and journalists. "Promises, promises, promises, is all I get from politicians," Salem says. "Last year, this idiot [former Prime Minister Omar] Karami told me, with a smile on his face, that there were no kidnapped left alive. I walked out of his office."
Indeed after the Lebanese Forces and the Hezbollah released 14 hostages in July 1991, the government considered the case closed. Salem, however, is convinced that her children are still alive.
"Last year," she says, "a former kidnapped [ whom she refused to name] told me that he was held with my son at the Sheik Abdallah barracks in Baalbak [once a Hezbollah stronghold]. "Now the [Lebanese] army took over the barracks, and they [Hezbollah] moved him."
She met with Hezbollah leaders, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the Iranians. Nothing. Her crusade will continue until she sees Richard and Christine, dead or alive, she says.
Everynight Salem looks at the photo albums of her children and talks to their pictures. " This is all I have left," she says weeping. "I am living with their pictures."

Goodbye Mrs. Salem, your story should never be forgotten and always be told to safeguard our country from further bloodshed and tears.

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