Dubai: Today the world marks the inhumane practice of enforced disappearances. Amnesty International describes the phenomenon as follows: People literally disappear, from their loved ones and their communities, when state officials grab them from the street or from their homes and then deny it, or refuse to say where they are. It is a crime under international law.
Often people are never released and their fate remains unknown. Victims are frequently tortured and live in constant fear of being killed. They know their families have no idea where they are and the chances are no one is coming to help.
Enforced disappearance became a world-wide phenomenon in brutal internal conflicts of the 1980s and early 1990s.
In the late 70s and early 80s, during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’, around 30,000 people were believed to have been disappeared. Thousands of others also disappeared during the Yugoslavia war, the Lebanese Civil War and in Chile, under dictator Augusto Pinochet.
One brutal conflict, however, has topped the record for enforced disappearances. As of today, it is estimated that just under 100,000 Syrians remain unaccounted for — most of whom disappeared in the regime’s prisons.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which has been widely referenced by such international organisations as the UN and Amnesty International, at least 95,056 people have been forcibly disappeared in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011.
Most people in Syria know at least one person who has disappeared.
According to SNHR, the Syrian regime was responsible for a whopping 90 per cent of those disappearances, totalling 81,652, including 1,546 children and 4,837 women. Meanwhile, 9,994 individuals, including 321 children and 237 women, have been forcibly disappeared at the hands of Daesh and other Islamist extremist groups.
The remainder have gone missing at the hands of rebel and Kurdish militant groups.
In 2011, Syrians took to the streets as a part of the so-called Arab Spring protests across the Middle East, calling for regime change. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad was quick to order a violent clampdown on the largely peaceful protests, which ended up spiralling out of control into a brutal conflict, later muddied when international players joined the fray. It is estimated that the bloody war has killed at least a half a million people, and displaced at least half of Syria’s population.
In the early days of the uprising, hundreds of peaceful activists were arrested and thrown into regime prisons. The government, of course, labels these people as terrorists or colluders. However, the list of arrests ranges widely from activists, to doctors to humanitarian workers and lawyers. Those considered disloyal to the Syrian regime, or those who were related to wanted individuals, were also targeted for forced disappearances, according to Amnesty International.
Those who inquired about their relatives had to pay hefty bribes to “middlemen”, “brokers”, or “mediators” for information on the whereabouts and health of the disappeared. The “middlemen” were usually people with ties to the authorities, possibly prison guards, lawyers or former detainees. The sums family members paid for information ranged from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands.
Compounding the financial strain for relatives of the missing is the mental and physical distress of a missing family member.
Having someone from their family disappeared isolates the family, making neighbours and relatives fearful that they might also get in trouble.
Speaking to Gulf News, Obeida Shubayji reflected on the trauma he experienced when his father, Mohammad, and uncle, Yahya disappeared. The men were from the Damascus suburb of Daraya — a place that bore the brunt of regime repression for its activism. Hundreds of residents were arrested by the regime.
As the oldest child, Obeida took it upon himself to be strong for his grandmother, mother and younger siblings. But the agony of living each day without any information about his father took a toll on him. “It is one thing to experience loss and to bury a loved one, but another experience entirely when you do not know whether that loved one is dead or alive,” Obeida said.
When nearly two years passed without any clear word about their whereabouts, he began to assume the worst. He had also heard many stories of prisoners being tortured to death in regime prisons.
“I had to start to prepare my younger siblings, who didn’t understand what was happening, for the worst. I started to explain to them what a martyr is and what heaven is. Of course, my grandmother never wanted to believe it and held out hope she would one day be reunited with her son.”
In 2013, the family received a government notice that Mohammad and Yahya had been executed in prison. “My entire family broke down in tears and my grandmother had a breakdown. I will never forget the sound of her agonising cries,” Obeida said.
The family’s pain, however, has never fully subsided due to the fact that the bodies have never been released.
“Even though the civil registry listed Mohammad and Yahya as dead, legally they are still classified as disappeared because the government failed to produce their bodies,” Fadel Abdul Al Gany, told Gulf News.
Importance of documentation
Although many Syrians have yet to get closure about the whereabouts of their loved ones, Al Gany believes the work his group is doing is giving them a bit of comfort.
“At least the documentation is there and they know their stories are out there. Having defeated the uprising, Al Assad’s backers, like Russia and Iran, are working to change the narrative and facts on the ground, but our work and the work of other international organisations stand in their way.”
Asked about a recent Russian drive to repatriate Syrian refugees, Al Gany is not optimistic people will feel safe to return. “Our logo is there is no justice without accountability. While there is talk that the Syrian war is ending, I do not believe this is the case,” he told Gulf News.
“The situation in Syria is still terrible. The regime did not change its barbaric ways. Actually it has become more brutal because it was able to get away with committing atrocities without any international repercussions.”
Death notices released
After years of government silence about the fate of tens of thousands of Syrians, authorities, this year, have begun quietly updating registers to acknowledge hundreds of deaths.
Starting in April, families began discovering what happened to their loved ones by chance, when they requested records from register offices, rights groups and Syrians said.
“Mothers are going to see if their sons are on the lists. Those that find out drop to the ground and faint,” Fadwa Mahmoud, a Syrian refugee, now living in Germany, told Reuters. She still hasn’t received word about her missing husband or son.