15 JUNE 2009


Odette Salem was a mother whose two children disappeared during the Lebanese civil war. For twenty-four years, night and day, she looked for them everywhere. Like 17,000 others, no one would account for them. Politicians from varied factions initially paid lip service, then they stopped bothering. Only Odette kept waiting for her son and daughter to come home. She kept their rooms untouched to remind her of their scent. She never changed the linen to preserve their touch. She even cooked their favourite meals just in case they suddenly showed up -- hungry and nostalgic for Mamma's food.

She joined other helpless, desperate mothers. They stood vigil outside U.N. Headquarters in Beirut asking anyone who would listen for help. Gracious, polite, even shy, they held photographs of loved ones -- sometimes waving them, often hugging them close to their hearts. It was not their tears that broke one's heart; it was their inquisitive longing expectant stare. Any U.N. visitor was considered a potential source of help, those important people -- the destitute mothers thought -- will have a clue. On one occasion, they managed to meet an amenable U.N. Secretary General (Kofi Annan). It was the Under-Secretaries General who were more difficult.

A mother's heart is an infinite treasure. Odette hugged me just because I mentioned her children's names. "Don't forget them," she pleaded.

Odette was still waiting at that same street corner when a speeding car hit her in the dark. Her death passed unnoticed. Only other desperate mothers in a desolate tent missed her.

Odette is no longer there to flag the names of Richard and Christina. Salem. We will.