Syria’s Desaparecidos

Syrian desert, somewhere between Dair-Az-Zur and Tadmor

Finding others through mutual loss

Queremos que nos digan dónde están los cuerpos de los desaparecidos.

We want them to tell us where the bodies of the disappeared are.

–Teresa Meschiatti, survivor of Argentina’s concentration camps for political dissidents in the 1970s

BASSEL Khartabil, 35, is a Palestinian-Syrian open source developer from Damascus, Syria. He belongs to Safed, a Palestinian town in the Galilee region of historic Palestine, and from where his family was displaced in the wake of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Zionist militias.

Buoyed by the dream of transforming Syria into a free, just, and more inclusive country, Bassel was one of many youths who flooded the streets in 2011. He decried violence and renounced revenge even against his jailers. After his imprisonment for his leading role in promoting digital freedom, he was known for treating prison guards with empathy, according to his former cellmates. His wife and partner in struggle, Noura Ghazi, a feminist and human rights attorney, shared Bassel’s commitment. In fact, it was their longing for a Syria that respects human dignity, freedom, and social justice that brought them together.

Much has been said about the lack of a “third alternative” in Syria, which has been cast by western media as a binary conflict between a military dictatorship and Islamists. Bassel and Noura opposed both while also rejecting foreign intervention, as do thousands of Syrians who are still languishing in the Syrian regime’s jails. Surrounded by some terrorists in suits and others with long beards, and betrayed by a fragmented opposition handcuffed by donor states and driven by foreign agendas, there are Syrians who want to reclaim a country they could call home; a country where they wouldn’t have to choose between assorted evils; where they don’t have to choose between death by beheading or shelling or starvation.

These are precisely the Syrians who are targeted by a complex apparatus of disappearance and torture. While the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad imprisons and forces into disappearance the highest number of Syrians (and has the most sophisticated means of doing so), soldiers of the Islamic State and various Islamist rebel forces also hold thousands of Syrian civilians indefinitely and in secret. The terror carried out by all sides challenges the conventional narratives about Syria and forces analysts, on the right and the left alike, out of their comfort zones. This partially explains why the voices of the disappeared and their beloved, and the different discourse they offer, have been overlooked.

In October of last year, after three years and a half in detention, Bassel vanished. Before his disappearance, Noura used to visit him at Adra Prison, a civilian detention center on the outskirts of Damascus, every Wednesday. During one of those visits in 2013, she and Bassel signed their marriage contract. Their love, Noura told me, was greater than any legal document could convey, but the official procedure was necessary to facilitate her visits.

Bassel was arrested on March 15, 2012–a day that marks the anniversary of the Syrian uprising. Bassel met Noura during one of the many peaceful protests that took place in April 2011. At the time of his arrest, Noura was waiting for him to accompany her to the tailor to pick up her wedding dress. That was the first time Bassel had been late since the couple first met. Neither the military checkpoints tearing Damascus apart nor the traffic wreaking havoc in the city stopped him from arriving on time. But that March 15, Bassel encountered something worse than checkpoints: He was snatched by security forces and remained under incommunicado detention for several months. Noura heaved a swollen sigh of relief when she learned that Bassel had been sent to Adra, where he would be spared the unspeakable daily torture delivered by security forces elsewhere.

Noura’s weekly visits to Bassel in prison were an inspiration for other prisoners; visiting a political prisoner was a luxury in Syria, one that most families and loved ones are deprived of. Those few minutes of looking at Bassel’s face and touching him and hearing his voice, of seeing him try to dig a smile from his agony, helped Noura maintain her sanity. Conditions in Adra are harsh, but significantly more tolerable than in the city’s various intelligence and security prison branches, where Bassel endured horror for almost nine months. His transfer to Adra placated Noura’s worst fears.

When security forces transferred Bassel to an unknown location a year ago, however, Noura lost her last remaining physical connection to him. A month later, she received information from sources close to the Syrian government that Bassel had been sentenced to death. Some unverified rumors indicated that he was actually executed. In a matter of months, Noura’s ambitious demand for Bassel’s release was reduced to a desperate hope of hearing anything about him at all.

Forced disappearance violently destroys hopes for reunification. Since the only news leaked about Bassel for a year has been about his impending execution, Noura is beginning to consider the painful certainty of his permanent absence.

“Perhaps it’s time to start dealing with Bassel’s disappearance in a rational and logical way,” Noura wrote on Facebook on the first anniversary of his disappearance. “This is so cruel to say. Even more cruel is the feeling that I have nothing to wait for anymore. Hanging on to hope is beautiful, but clinging to an illusion can turn into a fatal illness.”

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, looking only at victims of the regime or its independent agents, estimates that over 65,000 people disappeared between March 2011 and August 2015. Of all the blood spilled in Syria’s war, forced disappearance has received comparably little attention; articles about Syria’s disappeared can be found in various news outlets, and Amnesty International hosts a petition on its website addressed to al-Assad demanding he reveals their whereabouts. But most reporting on Syria’s unremitting bloodbath tends to emphasize barrel bombs, sieges, and airstrikes by foreign powers despite the lasting and profound effects of forced disappearance. By disemboweling Syria’s civil society of its dissidents, the regime long ago deflated the democratic essence of the uprising. The factions that have arisen to oppose the regime, including the Islamic State and Islamist rebel forces, have kidnapped their perceived enemies in return, creating an environment of extreme terror where loved ones can vanish instantly and without a trace.

Noura resists the apparatus of mass kidnapping and the fear it generates by telling her husband’s story and continuing to call for his release, but many families in Syria cannot afford to do that. The anxiety of acknowledging forced disappearance can be overwhelming. Fear for the safety of their disappeared children, fear of retribution, fear of collective punishment and stigma–these all force many families into silence. The widespread fear of coming forward has the added consequence of reducing the total number of known disappeared, which an Amnesty International report from last November suggests is far greater than what has been reported.

Coordinated state-sponsored disappearance is a “necropolitical creation of disposable classes whose disposal is intrinsic to capitalism,” writes Genna Brager in her analysis based in Latin America, where the designation “desaparecidos” originates. This assessment holds true for Syria as well, where the dictatorial regime’s neoliberal policies helped spark a revolt. Apart from intimidating survivors, concealing evidence, and granting impunity to torturers, forcibly dislodging Syrians deemed as enemies is done clandestinely to mitigate national and international outrage at their kidnapping. The mothers, wives, and friends of the disappeared in Syria have no access to public spaces in their country where they can collectively demand justice. They cannot hold sit-ins in public squares, and some are even scared of mentioning their loved one’s disappearance in private conversations. There is no grave to visit and lay a wreath of flowers on, no corpse to hug, no information about the reason for their death. All the families are left with are the identity cards of those extracted from their arms.

The legacy of forced disappearance will haunt Syrians for generations to come. The failure to attain closure from the suffering, to reach truth, to make up for all those lost years of chasing a mirage to achieve a semblance of justice, will make it extremely hard for Syrians to heal. This is why drawing on the experiences of other countries where people have grappled with the transgenerational trauma of forced disappearance, and building solidarity will be crucial moving forward. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and their weekly protests for the last four decades have inspired numerous grassroots, women-led movements in search of the disappeared in Latin America and beyond. Among them are the Saturday Mothers, who held their first sit-in in Istanbul in 1995 and continue to demand justice for those forced into disappearance by the Turkish state with the same resilience shown by the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The movement in Argentina has also inspired the Mourning Mothers and Mothers of Khavaran in Iran, the Committee of Mothers of Disappeared Migrants in Honduras, the Comadres in El Salvador, and the Tiananmen Mothers in China.

The late Argentinian poet Juan Gelman was supported by Uruguayan citizens and intellectuals in his search for his disappeared granddaughter in Uruguay. In his case against the state of Uruguay in front of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, some of those Uruguayan supporters, including the late writer Eduardo Galeano, also spoke out in court. Just as military dictatorships struck alliance with one another to disappear dissidents, dissidents from those countries stood up for each other, facing inhumane repression with solidarity and mutual aid.

In their quest for truth and justice, Syrians, especially Syrian women and mothers of the disappeared, can draw inspiration and courage from movements that have come before. Last May, Syrian activists launched the initiative “Detainees First” with the aim of generating more attention for the cases of detainees and forcibly disappeared in Syria. The group, which is mainly active online through its Facebook page, staged its largest action in June with a protest in Central Paris, but overall action and attention to the cause remains very limited in scope and influence. Some reasons for this silence include a lack of organization among Syrian activists and the failure of the regime’s political opposition to make information on detainees’ whereabouts a top priority. Moving forward, creating a unified movement to confront the legacy of forced disappearance may be complicated by the diffused responsibility for disappearance across many different political factions in Syria.

But pain and memory also have the power to bring people closer together. Syrian mothers of the disappeared tell each other “No one feels my pain as a mother like me.” Forced disappearances expose the vulnerability of families and loved ones. Receiving support from other places, especially from those who have suffered similarly, can help turn this alienation into strength and fortitude. Solidarity can come in the form of active communication to learn how others have confronted similarly complex situations, especially in territories where both the state and rebels have inflicted massive emotional trauma on non-combatants. Reaching out to the victims of disappearance in Syria and helping them build resiliency could constitute a collective, Syrian-led act of rebellion against extreme oppression.

It is for this reason that global solidarity, from grassroots movements, pro-justice activists, and Syrian communities in the diaspora, is urgently needed. Such a campaign may not secure the release of detainees or disclose the whereabouts of the disappeared, but it assures Syrians that they are not alone and that their plight is not forgotten. It will ensure that their cause lives on, outlasting both the war and the war criminals.