In Syria, Forcibly Missing People… Are Looking for Someone to Find Them
Uncle, could you please check my aunt and her children? after the barrier, we are no longer in touch with them.” With these words, a young man at Damascus University informed one of his relatives by phone that a whole family might have disappeared while they were moving from the countryside to the capital, so that his cousins would apply for the university public trade-off of 2013.
He was talking in the phone with stifled and frightened words, while he was about to end the conversation with a clear weakness. There was almost no hope of daring to get close to the barrier that is set on the outskirts of Damascus, after the increase in the number of detention cases that have gone through similar experiences, to the point that the number of missing people today has exceeded 85 thousand civilians, according to the Syrian Networkfor Human Rights (SNHR).
Mothers and fathers have lost their children either by random raids, or after being arrested at a barrier. They are often arrested because they belong to certain revolutionary areas against Assad’s regime.
“We want to know whether he is dead to bury him, or alive to wait for him, we just want to understand his situation, not to get him out,” says one of the mothers whose son has disappeared.
Over the past seven years, the Syrian regime has refused to admit committing enforced disappearance crimes, as well as the torture and execution of tens of thousands of his detainees, who have been classified as forcibly missing people, because their families have no information about them.
Former detainees who survived the cellars of the general intelligence describe the ways the regime used to erase evidence of their existence, the most important of which is registering them with fake names and numbers so that no international investigation committee, in case it managed to reach these prisons, can find the people whose families are looking for them.
“Turki was sent to the military intelligence office after being interrogated,” this was the latest information available about a young man from Deir ez-Zor who was arrested in Rif Dimashq, after escaping from the affected governorate. However, for three years, his seventy-year-old father did not give up going to the courts, the doors of brokers and officials on a daily basis, looking for his son. Nevertheless, he could not get any official answer which might just inform him about his son’s whereabouts, not even about his health or the reason for his disappearance.
Surprisingly, the information that has been cut for less than a year after Turki’s disappearance, reemerged through several young men, each of whom was detained in a different security office, reassuring his father, that Turki was with them. “Perhaps, he was sent to every single office, none of which accepted to tell me about his whereabouts,” says Abu Turki.
Forced disappearance was not limited to the regime-controlled areas, eastern Ghouta, which at some point was the refuge of those who escaped from the regime, has suddenly lost a number of its citizens. There is no information about their fate, and the kidnappers this time are the opposition factions.
Several demonstrations took place in the towns of Ghouta that called on the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) and other factions to send the detainees to trial and reveal information about their fate.
“We are al-Nusra Front, we have your son with us,” this was a quick telephone call to the father of Hammam who has disappeared since 2014, without any further details.
Only two years later, his mother received the shocking news: “Your son is in Sednaya Prison.” So far, the family has not been able to know the party that kidnapped their son, whether he is arrested by the regime or by the opposition.
However, the rumors say, with a lot of whispering so that only the disappeared people’s families can hear this talk, that the exchange process of prisoners and detainees between the regime factions and the opposition states that detainees are to be perpetually transferred between the gunmen, whose purpose from this exchange process and the way names are registered in it is kept unknown.
The Syrian regime takes advantage of these exchange deals, which focus on “quantity”, by arresting new people then releasing them under agreement with the opposition factions.
What is the fate of Human Rights Watch’s demand and its strong recommendations to those responsible for the peace talks on Syria to form an investigation commission with wide authorities that ends the issue of enforced disappearances and mass graves in the country? in light of using highly complex arrest methods, the perpetrators themselves may have lost a lot of important information about the fate of their victims.
On the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared, which is celebrated on the 30th of August each year, several voices around the world have risen to demand that the fate of the missing Syrian people be uncovered, especially mainly in the regime-controlled areas. There are no exact figures that might reveal their actual number. However, their families, friends and loved ones do wish that every day would be an International Day of the Disappeared, hoping that a small piece of information, even if it is the confirmation of the death of one of their children, might reassure their hearts, whichhave been blinded from the truth for years.
Demands to form an independent commission to investigate the “disappearance” cases in Syria
Human Rights Watch called to form a powerful independent commission to investigate the “disappearance” cases in Syria.
In its statement that was issued on August 30, in conjunction with International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance, Human Rights Watch said that it is immediately crucial to form an independent institution that would be responsible for investigating the fate and whereabouts of the missing people, and reaching the remains of the unidentified people and mass graves in Syria.
The organization also stressed that “this institution must have a wide authority allowing to conduct its investigations, including reviewing all official records and interviewing any official. In addition, it has to be internationally supported, both politically and financially.”
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria has revealed that the Syrian regime widely uses enforced disappearance, which might reach a level of being a “crime against humanity”.
Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said that Syria “will not be able to move forward if negotiations fail to adequately address the atrocities of detention and disappearance. This should not be ignored since with each passing day, more missing people would be tortured and executed.”
The number of Syrian missing people cannot be precisely determined because the vast majority of detention centers are closed in the face of external parties, according to the organization. Detainees are often held by the government security services and several non-governmental armed groups in Syria, and are isolated from the outer world.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights documents more than 65 thousand people who have been forcibly disappeared or abducted in Syria since 2011, the vast majority of whom were victims of government forces and pro-government militias.
However, SNHR says that the number of disappeared people and detainees might be bigger than the aforementioned number.
Human Rights Watch called on international supporters of the planned political processes in Astana and Geneva to ensure that, during the negotiations, the issue of detainees and disappeared is thoroughly addressed.
It also stressed that Russia and Iran, the most prominent supporters of the Syrian regime, must push the government to immediately publish the names of all deceased persons in detention centers, and to notify the deceased people’s families and give them back their remains. with the same thing should be done by countries that support non-governmental armed groups such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States, which must compel these groups to disclose the fate of their detainees.
The organization also called on the United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to openly talk about the reasons of the lack of progress in the document of the disappeared people, and to strengthen efforts to address this devastating problem.
According to the international law, enforced disappearance is defined as the arrest or detention of a person by government officials or their agents, and the refusal to admit the arrest or to disclose the person’s fate or whereabouts.
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