In his eleventh letter to his missing wife Samira al-Khalil, abducted in Douma in 2013, Yassin al-Haj Saleh ruminates on the temptations of vengeance, and the indispensability of justice.
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 9 December, 2018]
Sammour, I must have thought a thousand times about what I would do if I found myself face to face with the monsters who abducted you. I’d abduct their souls, in a nutshell; those dead souls that subsist by ruining life and restlessly spreading death all around them. Do you know what al-Mutanabbi said of such people? “Death doesn’t snatch away one of their souls/ Unless with a stick to stay their stench.” It would take a very long stick indeed to keep away the stench of those rotten souls from which Death itself recoils.
But even if I did get my hands on them, and I had that long stick, would taking their souls be the just punishment for the crimes of kidnapping, forced disappearance, lies, and denial all these years? Sometimes the aggrieved leans towards something simpler; something less violent and perhaps longer-lasting: to keep them under his or her watchful eyes; stripped of power, followers, and money; and stare at their faces up close. I want them to be near at hand; within eyes’ reach; my eyes and those of the families of the disappeared. I think of them not being abused, but rather fed, given water and clothes, and preserved as living monuments to their crime.
Yet, again, is that a fair punishment? Is it right for us to go to such lengths to look after cheap criminals and exhibit them to viewers, rather than just executing or imprisoning them as is done with other criminals, murderers, and rapists? Should they perhaps be kidnapped and forcibly disappeared? I would rule out the latter, not only because it afflicts their families (those rabid thugs do have parents and children), but also because it creates new kidnappers and absentees, which is something that ought never to happen, never to be experienced, never to exist.
My imagination in this regard is only modest, Sammour, and I don't know if that’s a good thing. In the early months of our imprisonment, we used to think about what we’d do with Hafez al-Assad if we ever got hold of him. The only suggestion I remember now was the most brilliant one proposed by one of the comrades: place him standing upright in a hole of his height, submerged up to the neck in human waste, with someone repeatedly bearing down on him with a sword yelling, "Watch out for your head!" Hafez would then have to duck into the filth time after time to protect his head. This was imaginary revenge by defenseless detainees against their vindictive jailor, who I think at the time had yet to commit his worst crime; the 1982 Hama massacre.
Today, I wonder what might be the fairest punishment for Bashar, and the perpetrators and administrators of his regime’s mass-murder (his brother Maher, Ali Mamluk, Jamil Hassan, and the rest). Perhaps nothing; perhaps there isn't a punishment fair enough for his ilk, just as there’s no fair punishment for Samir al-Kaakeh, Omar al-Dirani, Hussein al-Shazli, and Essam al-Buwaydhani of Jaysh al-Islam, who kidnapped you along with Razan, Wael, and Nazim. For Bashar to be placed under the watchful gazes of the countless Syrians he killed, displaced, and tortured, whose lives and hearts he smashed and destroyed; for him to be forced to listen to his victims recounting his crimes against them; for him to remain exhibited before their constant stares; this might perhaps be the closest thing to justice.
The question here may be: for how long should the criminals be kept as exhibits? Should they spend the rest of their lives under their victims’ scrutiny? We ourselves don't deserve that, even if they do. Our eyes deserve better than such hideous spectacles. Our souls deserve better.
We wish for the criminals to be punished and removed from sight, so that nothing remains of them but the memory of wounds we want never to re-open.
And yet, why do not we think of eye-for-an-eye retribution (Arabic qisas)? Why not make them experience exactly what they made others go through? This would involve putting Bashar and Maher and their murderous accomplices in narrow, poorly-ventilated cells, where they would suffocate and not shower for weeks or months. It would mean beatings and shabeh1 from time to time; electrocuting their genitals; sodomizing them with sticks or glass bottles and forcing them to violate each other, as they did with their victims in Saydnaya prison. It would be to deprive them of the relief of dying for the longest time possible. And it would also entail locking Kaakeh, Dirani, Shazli, Buwaydhani, and Yunus al-Nisrin in iron cages and parading them throughout the industrial district of Adra al-Ummaliya2. Why not force them to read and memorize the speeches of Bashar and his father, as they forced some of their prisoners to memorize the Qur’an? Perhaps they themselves could teach Bashar and his associates how to pray, and test them on the ten “Nullifiers of Islam,”3 or on the pamphlet by the megalomaniac Kaakeh on Al-Wala' wal-Bara' (“Loyalty and Disavowal”), flogging them if they don’t know the answers.
Is there a path to justice without punishing these murderers, Sammour? I don't think so. Punishing them with the scrutinizing eye is not enough. There must be a material or corporal element to the just punishment, without it being simply a copy of the criminal’s crimes; that is, without retaliation in kind. An eye for an eye leaves all of us blind, as Gandhi said. And yet, the targeting of the entity of the criminal remains a solid foundation for just punishment. It’s not about kidnapping the kidnapper, or killing the killer, or cutting off the hand of the hand-cutter; it’s about stripping the criminals of their ability to harm, and protecting society against them.
In any case, if there is a future for justice in our country—or, rather, if our country has a future at all—it would not suffice to punish the perpetrators. The punishment in and of itself should be a major national event; indeed, a foundational and political one. In other words, Syrians have to know about it and keep abreast of it, and be aware of its justifications, the details of the crimes, and the mechanisms of attaining justice. It should happen in a way that creates a decisive break from what preceded it, turning a new page for the country once and for all.
Is there hope for that, Sammour? It might never happen, and we may not see it any day soon, but the very act of imagining it, thinking about it and working toward it might help win hearts and minds to its cause, and possibly expedite it.
But then, isn't forgiveness more worthy than unattainable justice, ever-postponed, leading one to live through days, months, years, and decades of flagrant injustice? I don't believe so. Not because we wouldn't be satisfied with a fraction of justice that wouldn't yield anything anyway. In fact, we accepted a fraction of justice before, but even that fraction turned out to be too much to ask for! Do you remember the initiative signed by ex-detainees in 2003, or 2004, asking for the return of their civil rights, and compensation for their years in prison? That was hardly even a sliver of a fraction of justice, and was known to—if not coordinated with—the security services, and yet it bore no fruit.
I'm sure you also remember that some former political prisoners, myself included, talked about national reconciliation and the redress of grievances to avert revenge and irrational explosions. Some former political detainees adopted Mandela's motto: "We forgive but we don’t forget"; I was one of them as well. In Mandela’s case, though, the motto implied what had already been achieved: turning the page on discrimination and the beginning of a new era. We hoped then for a new chapter and reconciliation, in order for us to truly enter an era of forgiveness. Not only did none of that happen, but we were the ones described as spiteful!
Forgiveness or reconciliation should not be traded for justice. This is a terrible deal. Lebanon is decaying today due to a similar bargain. We seek justice in order to be able to forgive.
When you return safely, when the criminals are brought before a fair court, and given the sentence they deserve, then and only then can we think together about forgiveness and reconciliation.
I’m asking for less than what the German poet Heinrich Heine asked for, when he joked that he was someone of “a most peaceful disposition” who wished for no more than “a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door,” then adding that, “if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one's enemies—but not before they have been hanged.”
I’d like to see my enemies deprived of power and money, the two gods they worship. I wish not for them to starve, but for them to eat only from a karavana4 like the horrible ones in which their prisoners are fed. I’m not playfully cruel like Heine, nor do I want to see my enemies hanging before forgiving them with a tender heart. I want them to live long as emperors without clothes, which is what they actually are when stripped of their lethal power and stolen money.
Sammour, there is no word in our language—nor perhaps in any other—for those with a forcibly-disappeared loved one, about whom they’ve known nothing for years. In my experience, those in the same situation as me do not appear to be agreed on the just punishment for the kidnappers. For my part, I can’t deny the validity of calling for executing those who threatened their victims, in the Assadist death dungeons (or their counterparts run by the Islamist patrons of torture and killing) that they would wish for death but not be granted it. But no punishment should occur before the murderers are stripped of their power and influence; before they are accused and convicted; and before justice is established as a public social norm laying a foundation for the future.
In my view, the crimes committed by torturers and disappearers are not like other crimes, and so their punishments should not be like others either. Their punishment must lead to the end of forced disappearances and torture, not merely to the end of the kidnappers and torturers themselves. The commitment to end disappearance and torture must then be renewed and celebrated every year, lest it slip from memory. It must be a celebration against evil, one we remember every year in order never to repeat it.
- 1. Shabeh is a torture technique used in Assad’s prisons which “involves the victim being suspended by their wrists, which are usually manacled to a hook or over a door or pipes in the ceiling, often for several hours.” See Amnesty International - 'It Breaks the Human': Torture, Disease and Death in Syria's Prisons (2016)
- 2. Jaysh al-Islam displayed civilians in their captivity in iron cages in Damascus’ Douma suburb in November 2015, justifying this as a means of preventing the regime from targeting the town. The captives hailed from the Alawite community, of which the Assad dynasty are also members.
- 3. The eighteenth-century theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s pamphlet Nawaqidh al-Islam, in which he outlined ten acts (such as idolatry) that, in his view, nullified a Muslim’s faith.
- 4. Karavana is Turkish for mess-tin, a pot used to serve food in Assad's prisons.