Despite having been granted political asylum in Germany and having lived in Berlin for many years, former detainee Fadwa Mahmoud is still haunted by the dark and lonely cells of Syria that have marked her life and the lives of other generations in her family.
The 65-year-old has been a political activist in the organization of the Communist Labour Party, which has been banned in Syria since the 1970s. During the reign of Hafez al-Assad party members were subjected to arrest and intimidation campaigns.
In the early 1990s, Fadwa was arrested on false charges. She left behind her two sons, Maher and Ayham, who were then not even ten years old. About two years after her arrest, Fadwa was devastated when her children asked her: “Mother, why did you leave us when we needed you most?” Fadwa could only reply that she did what she had to do to spare them a similar fate in the future.
Unfortunately, Fadwa failed to protect them. Rather, they suffered even a harsher fate.
Fadwa’s husband, prominent opposition figure Abdul Aziz al-Khair, and her youngest son Maher, were kidnapped at Damascus airport in 2012. She has not heard from them since. Another tragedy carved in her memory.
Following the arrest of her husband and son, Fadwa in 2013 fled to Lebanon, where she was repeatedly harassed by the security forces. Having moved around several times, she finally settled as a refugee in Germany. There, she and a group of other women established Families for Freedom, an association concerned with following up the cases of detainees and forcibly disappeared persons in Syria.
“My son Maher was 31 when he was imprisoned,” said Fadwa. “Today Maher is 40 and I don’t know where he is. I only know that he and I, like many Syrian mothers, count the moments and hours, while years are spent in detention. “
“Today it’s Maher’s turn and if this regime persists in Syria, my grandchildren will be next.”
Tens of thousands of Syrians share Fadwa’s pain. They all saw loved ones and family members being detained or gone missing during the brutal war that has dragged on for ten years, in which so many horrific events occurred. It is too hard to explain everything that has happened in a decade but, in short, it is the story of an impossible revolution that was savagely destroyed.
According to conservative statistics, the number of detainees and/ or forcibly disappeared persons in Syria has reached 149,000, of whom more than 85% were detained by the regime, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Most of them were arrested or disappeared shortly after the 2011 outbreak of peaceful protests against the Assad government, which responded with brutal repression.
A Plea for Justice
On February 11, survivors of Syrian prisons and families of detainees and missing people launched the Truth and Justice charter, a collective plea for justice, with a clear message: stop the torture in Syrian detention centers immediately, reveal the fate of the tens of thousands of missing persons, and include the issue of the detainees and missing in the negotiations over a final resolution to the war.
So far, efforts to include the latter on the agenda of the talks led by UN-envoy Geir Pedersen have not yielded any results. So far, the negotiations, which have focused on drafting a constitution and holding elections, have made little progress.
“In 2019 we met with Pedersen and I found myself telling him that I want a grave for my son,” said Maryam Al-Hallaq about meeting the UN official. “Those around me burst into tears. I told him we would not have such a wish if you work to have the detainees released. Petersen promised me the issue would be among the priorities in the negotiations with the regime.”
Maryam lost her 25-year-old son Ayham, who was a graduate student in dentistry when he was kidnapped from the Damascus University campus in November 2012. He was killed under torture.
She spent more than 17 months wandering around government departments looking for a death certificate for her son. Ayham’s classmate, who was arrested with him and later released, had told her that Ayham was tortured for hours and beaten on his head. He breathed his last breath in his arms, five days after his arrest.
Ayham’s body appeared in what later became known as the “Caesar Photos.” There was a sticker on his forehead reading: “Corpse 320 belonging to detention facility 215.”
Ever since their appearance in 2013, the Caesar Photos have caused shock among the families of those disappeared in the regime’s prisons, especially among those who were able to identify their relatives. The photos constitute an important element in the many judicial cases various human rights organizations are working on an attempt to hold the Syrian regime accountable.
They also played an essential role in attempts to tighten the screws on the regime in the recent years. The most severe US sanctions package to date, for example, was named after the Caesar Photos.
Maryam Hallaq and other victims’ relatives founded the Caesar Families Association in order to reveal the victims’ fate. Hallaq clearly remembers Pederson’s promise, but weeks and months have passed and nothing has changed.“We met with Pederson again and asked him about what was happening with his promise,” Hallaq told Daraj. “He said the regime was not cooperating.”
And thus the case returned to square one, the inescapable square one of the regime, for which arbitrary arrest and torture are still the number one tools.
“In 2020, according to human rights organizations, 1882 young men and women were arbitrarily arrested, of whom 157 were killed under torture,” said Fadwa Mahmoud. “The numbers are not accurate. We Syrians know that these aren’t rosy numbers, yet the reality is even darker.”
Arrest and torture are at the core of “Assad’s Syria,” a bloody name that carries the memory of tens of thousands of people killed, tortured and forcibly disappeared. Without detainees the ruling Baath Party and Assad family lose their legitimacy. The detainee is at the heart of their ideology. It is one of the system’s main foundations ever since its inception. In the last ten years, however, its function has doubled.
What makes Fadwa even more bitter is the fact that she was arrested by her own brother Adnan, head of the Political Security branch. He took her to prison himself and even slapped her in the face.
“At that moment I felt how much the regime was able to crack our own home,” Fadwa explained the family rift caused by the Baath regime. “Hafez al-Assad’s game was dirty.”
Torture and forced disappearances have not stopped since, while no serious international efforts have ever been deployed to solve the matter.
Pressure on Egypt and Saudi Arabia: Syria Next?
Following the arrival of US President Joe Biden, American pressure has contributed to the release of well-known Saudi activist Loujain Al-Hathloul and others. Saudi Arabia furthermore announced the abolition of the death sentence for several dissidents and prisoners of conscience. Egypt released Al-Jazeera journalist Muhammad Sultan.
So far, however, the American and the Western approach to the file of Syria’s detainees and forcibly disappeared remains limited and flawed.
“We’ve waited for too long,” said Fadwa. “It’s about time the victims and their families take the initiative and point at the international community’s responsibilities. The same international community that has failed us as Syrians, and as victims. Our document offers a road map and plan of action.”
In recent years, Damascus has begun updating civil records and sending death certificates, without mentioning a cause of death, to the victims’ families. Many human rights groups consider this an attempt to close the file amidst growing international pressure, without establishing any accountability and without disclosing any facts.
For the families of the detainees and disappeared time has stopped. Years pass yet they only strengthen the pain. These families are forced to pay bribes to find out the fate of their loved ones or desperately search through a labyrinth of prisons and detention centers. The detained and disappeared were absent from life, a fate that at least half a million Syrians have faced over the past ten years.
And this suffering takes place in a country whose sons have been displaced. There are more than 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey, about a million in Lebanon and over six hundred thousand in Jordan. There are furthermore about a million in Europe, and there may be another half a million Syrians dispersed throughout the rest of the world: from Egypt and Iraq to Japan and Brazil.
It is this suffering that motivated the members of the five associations to launch the Truth and Justice charter, seeking to put the issue of the detainees and those forcibly disappeared at the hands of the regime and all other factions involved in the conflict, including ISIS, at the heart of any talks on the future of Syria.
Ahmed Helmy was detained in the Syria’s prisons in 2013 for about 3 years. He remembers how rumors of a possible general amnesty kept the many prisoners crammed together in a small cell living on false hopes. “The cell door never opened,” he said. “After midnight, I heard each of the detainees crying. They waited until the jailers slept to cry for themselves and their families. We became used to false hopes and were forced to cling onto them.”
After his release from prison, Ahmed launched the Recovery initiative, which concerns itself with the fate of the detainees. Ahmed considers the false hope that once controlled his feelings, and the feelings of thousands of other detainees, his motivation to work today, so that those still behind bars do not suffer an unknown fate.