Maryam Al Hallak is one of many Syrian mothers who learned of her son’s murder in Assad regime custody through photos leaked online. As she tells Al-Jumhuriya in this interview, she now heads the Caesar Families Association, advocating for the rights of detainees, justice for their killers, and the preservation of victims’ memories.
Syrians have been reeling from the so-called “Caesar photos”—images of tens of thousands of detainees tortured to death in Assad regime custody, leaked by a defector codenamed Caesar—since they first began appearing some six years ago. For the families of those forcibly disappeared in the regime’s prisons, the shock was severe; especially for those who were able to identify their loved ones in the photos. Some already knew the fate of their children, while others only learned the dreadful news through the images. Published in the media and widely circulated, they continue to resurface from time to time in response to events or news related to “Caesar;” the conditions inside Syrian prisons; or new information about certain detainees or disappeared persons.
The Caesar photos have acquired significance for numerous legal cases pursued by various human rights organizations aiming to hold the Syrian regime to account. More generally, they have played an important role in endeavors to clamp down on the regime in recent years; endeavors which culminated in the latest, and most severe, package of US sanctions regarding Syria, named after Caesar himself.
Many relatives of missing persons whose photos were found in Caesar’s leaks have been in touch with each other for a while now. The desire to develop a collective framework aimed at coordinating mutual psychological support, demanding the rights of the victims, and preserving their memory and status led to the establishment of the Caesar Families Association in February 2018, registered in Berlin. Al-Jumhuriya spoke to Mrs. Maryam Al Hallak, who runs the Association, about its work, the Caesar photos, and the struggle for accountability and memory. Being the mother of the late Ayham Ghazzoul, killed in regime custody after his arrest in Damascus in November 2012, has been Al Hallak’s driving force. She tries to represent all the mothers she saw searching for their own sons’ fates while she was looking for news of Ayham, and to carry their voice and safeguard the rights and memories of all who fell victim to forced disappearance and torture in the regime's prisons.
Al-Jumhuriya: It is noticeable that most of the partners mentioned by the Caesar Families Association in its documents are victims’ and survivors’ organizations (e.g., the Recovery Initiative; Families for Freedom; and the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison). Does this mean there are efforts to expand the range of work and activism from the perspective of the victims and their families?
Maryam Al Hallak: Exactly. The Caesar Families Association is one of Syria’s numerous victims’ groups. We now number five, after being joined recently by the Coalition of Families of Kidnapped by ISIS. We introduce ourselves as victims’ associations, since we have all lost someone dear to us, or have loved ones in detention, whether currently or previously. We have a cause, and we will keep going till the end, God willing.
There are organizations, such as the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (which oversees our association); the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research; the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights; and others which operate at various level using a specialized and legal-based approach. We cooperate and work together, especially at the level of our Association, because we aspire to achieve accountability. As such, we are now working to build a comprehensive judicial file, based on the clear evidence represented by the images of our children and loved ones leaked by Caesar.
Al-Jumhuriya: Do you intend on more joint work with human rights activists regarding the issues of victims and their families?
Al Hallak: We, the five partner organizations, seek to forge relationships and partnerships with influential decision-making bodies. For example, we seek to be part of the working group on the release of detainees and missing persons. In order to reach this level of coordination, it is necessary to communicate, collaborate and meet with other victims’ groups.
Al-Jumhuriya: Does the Association have relationships and contact with victims’ groups from other countries and contexts?
Al Hallak: Yes, with groups from many countries in Latin America and elsewhere. For example, the Syrian Legal Development Program organized workshops to communicate with victims’ groups from several countries, including Peru, Argentina, and Chile. As for our Association, we also have relationships with groups from Colombia and Nepal. We value this type of communication, and seek keenly to benefit from other experiences.
Al-Jumhuriya: How does the Association see its role in Syrian public affairs, and how does it get involved in and influence the Syrian cause and political efforts?
Al Hallak: Currently, and within the ambiguous status quo, the Association focuses only on its goals. In the future, if there is political change or a transitional stage, then the Association and all victims’ groups will certainly contribute to transitional justice and advocate for the rights of victims and their families. But this is in the future. As for now, we, the victims’ groups, have developed a charter containing our vision regarding the detainees. This charter was developed at a high level, drawing on the opinions of legal specialists with expertise in international law. The charter will be published soon, having been delayed by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Al-Jumhuriya: The Association includes those who learned the fate of their detained children through the traumatic medium of the Caesar photographs. Was any thinking done at the time about other ways the photos could have been handled, rather than being made public?
Al Hallak: The emergence of the Caesar photos had a positive aspect, in that it exposed criminal practices and allowed a large number of people to learn what happened to their detained children, about whom they had little to no information prior to that point. Nonetheless, it was done in a poor and crude manner. It is distressing to repeatedly see your dead son’s picture because someone thought it was a good idea to post it. They could have at least provided a link to direct to its content and invite stakeholders to discuss it, as the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees did recently. But this was done very late, after the photos were already shared widely. The same association helped disseminate the photos in 2015, and again not long ago.
I understand that parents are desperate to search. It is agonizing and heart-wrenching to live with unrealistic hopes. I compare myself to a friend of mine whose husband and son are forcibly disappeared. Certainly I’m not saying I feel comfortable, but at least I know my son’s fate, while my friend waits for an answer every day and every moment. This puts life on hold. As a mother, she cannot stop thinking about her son, but what about her as a wife? How long does she have to wait? Nine years? A decade? Doesn’t she have the right to think about her future? There are thousands of young women whose lives are frozen; thousands of children waiting; possessions and interests; and so on and so forth. Many things are suspended, but could be set in motion again if the fates of the detainees were known. Of course, we hope everyone is alive. Even myself, despite everything, despite having seen a picture of my son and despite obtaining information confirming his death, I hold an enduring hope, even if one in a million, that what I know is not true. But regardless, to know something, to act accordingly, and to move towards a new situation are necessities of life, whether you are a father, mother, husband, wife, son, whatever.
For this reason, parents’ anxious quest to search for their children and find out what happened to them is certainly understandable. However, the way the photos were circulated was disturbing, very disturbing. As an Association, we have asked people not to take part in disseminating the photos. In fact, we aimed to group the photos in one place, to provide a link that people could access and make them accessible to those helping parents look for their children. We are working on that, and others are too. We recently received about 250 requests for assistance; we try to help parents verify the fates of their children according to the existing photos and information. We do this through someone who has experience in dealing with such documents, and who has no direct relationship with the family, and is not searching for their own missing loved ones. This happens so that fathers and mothers need not look at and search for images of their children or see them like that.
Al-Jumhuriya: What does the Association think of the media’s continuing use of the victims’ images, especially the republication of them following specific news or events, as happened two weeks ago?
Al Hallak: In truth, the way the media handled the images was very problematic. On social media it was even worse, especially in two regards. The first was the disrespect for the feelings of the victims’ families, by exposing them to such harsh and harrowing pictures at all times. The second was the irresponsible use of the photos in terms of identifying people hastily or inaccurately, without the possibility of being certain. A while ago, a member of the Association found that the photo documented as showing her brother was presented on social media as though it were someone else. This hurt her deeply.
The premature and impulsive mismanagement of the photos has weakened the credibility of what should be professionally considered evidence. We saw how a photo was said to depict Adnan al-Zeraei, then the claim was retracted. The same thing happened with Hussein al-Harmoush. This demagogy is dangerous; it undermines the pictures’ critical credibility and clarity, and desecrates them along with the privacy of the victims, our martyrs.
Al-Jumhuriya: Is there a message you’d like to convey regarding the use of the photos leaked by Caesar?
Al Hallak: Yes. I would like to ask people not to treat the images as material for publication in the way they are doing at the moment. Instead, I would ask them to cooperate with credible and professional entities. I would ask these entities to be reachable by families and to assist their search efforts using the available information in order to spare them the harm of sifting through the photos themselves. There are many things people can help with, such as providing information, cooperating with identification efforts, or matching data.
I ask families to communicate with reliable, specialized entities and associations, and not to search through the photos themselves.
Al-Jumhuriya: The relatives aside, what about the people who post and share the photos as media material?
Al Hallak: A while ago, I pointed out to a friend that he should stop publishing the pictures, and should not claim to know the identities of those in the photos without sufficient proof, otherwise it could be harmful. He defended himself by saying his audience was not Syrians, but Germans, to whom he wants to show the regime’s brutality. OK. If that’s his aim, he can share the photos in a private message, and he still shouldn’t determine the identities of the victims based on his own judgment. My son’s photo has frequently appeared in front of me because people I know share it without any consideration for my feelings. I realize that my son’s photo has appeared in human rights reports, but does that mean that out of nowhere I should see it on Facebook? This is wrong, and it hurts the families. Perhaps we, as members of the Association, are able to remain composed because this is our type of work, but there are others who cannot tolerate this constant suffering.
Al-Jumhuriya: We can say, then, that there’s a need to treat the images solely as legal evidence, and that families and stakeholders of missing detainees should be able to communicate and collaborate with the relevant parties to discover what happened, in the most humane and dignified way possible.
Al Hallak: Exactly.
Al-Jumhuriya: And what about the general public, those who are neither relatives of, nor directly concerned with, the victims?
Al Hallak: They should not get involved with the photos. I wish they would not.
Al-Jumhuriya: The Association is registered in Berlin. How does it deal with the widely-scattered Syrian population today?
Al Hallak: We have groups in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, and obviously here in Germany. There are also families in Lebanon and Jordan, as you’d expect, but it’s more difficult to communicate with them. There are groups in Turkey too, especially in Gaziantep, Reyhanli, and Istanbul. We seek to form groups and expand our presence; therefore, we plan in the coming period to organize a meeting in Lebanon or Jordan and, if possible, in Turkey. We want to get in touch with the families of missing detainees and provide them with information and tools that help them know more about their rights. We want to see how we can support them materially or psychologically, and to get in touch with more families and learn about their situations.
This requires us to be on the ground. Online communication is not enough; it lacks the sustainability and proximity necessary to deal with such issues.
Al-Jumhuriya: What programs is the Association currently working on, given all the complications brought about by the Coronavirus crisis? What are the plans for the foreseeable future?
Al Hallak: Several projects have been postponed this year. We had planned a psychological support workshop for the Association members who are in constant contact with victims’ families. The workshop would help us talk and listen to the families while ensuring their psychological safety. It was to be held in Paris under the auspices of the Red Cross, but it was postponed. Recently, we have been under a lot of pressure with the re-publication of the Caesar photos. We receive daily calls from people who believe they have found their loved ones in the photos and other similar cases. So we think this workshop is essential for us. If things go well, we will hold it in Paris early next fall; if we cannot travel, we will do it online.
We’d like to participate in the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy if it is held physically; we don’t know yet whether this will happen.
We have established our office in Berlin, and we have an Association member who has accumulated experience in methods of psychological support. We aim to make this kind of support available for the members who need it. We will continue our work on the aforementioned judicial dossier in cooperation with specialists in the field.
Our schedule is packed, in truth. We are taking off now. Even though we’re two years old, our work is only now starting to become structured and orderly.
We, as the Syrian diaspora spread across the world, have much work to do.
Al-Jumhuriya: The core of the Association is the coming together of those who have lost their relatives and loved ones at the hands of the regime’s brutal machine, and their endeavors, following their personal loss, to influence public affairs. This is another way of understanding the slogan “the personal is political.” Everyone expects this to be difficult and draining in the long run. How does the Association deal with it? How do you yourself deal with it?
Al Hallak: You should look at this from a different angle. Our mission has become to follow up on the victims and their families, as well as on the conditions of the detainees, whose release and return to life should be our priority, instead of building mass graves for them. Personally, I consider this to be my message, which I must hold onto, and I will continue to work on it to stand for the rights of my son and others.
In Syria, I spent one year and five months going daily to the military judiciary to try and find out whether my son was alive. We received the news of his death three months after his arrest; we later learned he had been martyred five days after his arrest. We found solace in this discovery, until someone denied the information and told us my son was alive. For a year and five months, I kept trying to confirm this information at the Central Reconciliation Committee, the Ministry of Reconciliation, the military judiciary, the military police, and the security branches. I would do this every day and meet with fifty or sixty other mothers. Sometimes there were wives and fathers, but the vast majority were mothers. Consumed by fear, they were desperate to learn their children’s fate. I suggested that we somehow group together, and make our collective voice heard. They categorically refused. They would say, “Please, we’ve lost one son; we don’t want to lose another;” or, “We still have a home; we don’t want to lose that too;” or something else of that sort. In these encounters, we heard tragic stories. There was a mother who had lost five young sons. There was another who, with her husband, witnessed her daughter being raped, and when the husband screamed, they threw him off the balcony. It is painful in the extreme.
Having left Syria and the danger, I decided I wanted to make the voices of those mothers looking for their children heard; I wanted to represent them in some way. Most of them knew their sons were martyred. I knew that too when, after a year and five months, I was able to obtain my son’s death certificate from Tishreen Military Hospital. There I found about fifty women and three men waiting, and one of the women said, “Thank God, there are not many today.” Hearing this sent shivers down my spine. Every day they announce the number of our dead young men. I say “our” because the regime’s men were there too. We saw how they covered their bodies and prepared them to be moved elsewhere. But the bodies of our youths were unknown; we were not supposed to ask where they were buried. I went to Branch 248 (the Military Investigation Branch) and asked an officer there whether I could find out where my son was buried. He said, with menace, “If it weren’t that you were a respectable woman, you wouldn’t leave this place.”
I feel I carry the suffering of the people I saw and whose stories I heard while trying to learn what happened to my son.
When I started working, I genuinely felt I was being driven by their voices and hearts. When I talk about Ayham, I don’t only mean my son, I mean all of them. I used to be a school principal and I know the feeling of loving a large group of children as young as my son. They are all my children.
During the funeral held for Ayham, who was arrested on campus, his classmates came to pay their condolences. They proposed to organize a protest at the university. I asked them not to, and told them, “My son was martyred, I don’t want any of you to get hurt. You’re all my children; if you preserve your lives, in a way you preserve his.”
Feeling like you are on an important mission has its own momentum. All of us members of the Association feel this way. We want to tell the world about the suffering of thousands of Syrian families, and we want to show everyone the gruesomeness of this monstrous regime. This is our drive and the basis for our work. We are all volunteers here; we receive no pay for our work. Our sole and shared goal is to safeguard the rights of our children, the victims. Unfortunately, we cannot demand their lives back, but we can hold accountable those who committed crimes against them and all Syrians, and we can protect their memory. A few days ago, during a conference for the Association, I mentioned how I wished a museum would be built in Damascus to portray the atrocities committed by the regime, including the Caesar photos, so visitors could learn what the regime has done to us.
Al-Jumhuriya: You mean something similar to the efforts made by other countries to preserve historical memory, such as Germany?
Al Hallak: Exactly. I often contemplate the idea of the grave being a dream. Some time ago, I attended an exhibition on the Holocaust victims, where we were told that the major efforts to protect memory were carried out by civil society. We visited a symbolic cemetery for the victims, and saw volunteers caring for it, visiting it, and putting roses on the stones. I asked myself, when will we have this in Syria? When will we have a grave that, even if only symbolic, we can visit?
Al-Jumhuriya: How can those who support the Association’s cause, whether Syrian or otherwise, in Berlin or elsewhere, contribute to its work and sustainability?
Al Hallak: We very much welcome all the offers to help and volunteer, and I ask whoever is willing to contribute to contact us. We need help at several levels: supporting the members of the Association to improve their technical and data collection skills; translating to and from English and German; and assistance in social media promotion strategies. We have no specialists in these fields, and we often need help with simple things. This became clear to us recently with the Coronavirus crisis, when all meetings became virtual. Each meeting requires using specific programs for the call, and those of us with little technological experience struggled with this. We very much welcome all offers of assistance and volunteering, and we ask those who can and would like to help to contact us on the website.