The women fighting for Syria's vanished

Al-Jumhuriya speaks to three women from the Families for Freedom movement about their campaign to free Syria’s 200,000-plus missing detainees; a campaign they say makes the Assad regime "really angry."

As well as the dead in Syria (numbering at least 500,000) and the displaced (more than 10 million), there are the disappeared. While no official data exist, credible estimates run to over 200,000 unaccounted-for detainees and abductees. Some, like the Douma Four, were vanished by armed opposition groups; others by ISIS’ jihadists. The vast majority, however, were taken into the Assad regime’s extensive network of lockups and dungeons, where torture, starvation, and execution are meted out as a matter of policy.

Almost every Syrian family now has its version of this miserable story to tell, and yet it is a tale that rarely makes headlines. For that reason, a new movement led by detainees’ widows, wives, and other women relatives, called Families for Freedom, has launched a tour of Europe in their ‘Freedom Bus’ to draw the attention of Western publics (and politicians) to this neglected aspect of Syrians’ suffering.

Having already taken their bus to London, laden with portraits of the disappeared, the activists—who include Noura Ghazi Safadi, widow of the renowned online activist Bassel Safadi; and Fadwa Mahmoud, wife of the missing Communist leader Abdul-Aziz al-Khayyir—moved next to Paris. After their stop at the Place de la République on January 27th, Al-Jumhuriya spoke to Safadi and Mahmoud, as well as fellow campaign member and surgeon, Hala al Ghawi, about their advocacy and the prospects of securing detainees’ releases any time soon.

Al-Jumhuriya: How did you start the campaign?

Hala al Ghawi: Several activists supporting this campaign contacted me, as I was actively working for detainees’ issues and documenting cases. My brother and my father-in-law [were] disappeared and detained about five years ago. I have no news about them.

Fadwa Mahmoud: Ever since my husband and my son [were] taken, I have been working on my own to release them, trying to go to every single place where I could get my voice heard. When the movement was forming at the beginning of 2017, I really liked the idea of a group effort. Five ladies founded it. All of us have a first-degree relative who’s missing. I personally believed in group work and thought of how much our voices would be amplified that way.

Noura Ghazi Safadi: Each one of us thought about bringing our efforts together as families. I knew Fadwa before. With the help of organizations such as the Syria Campaign, which introduced us to each other, we began in Geneva last year. At first, we just wanted to campaign during the negotiations in Geneva and from the first meeting when we were writing down our demands and describing ourselves, we knew that rather than a campaign, it had to be a movement. We were five and are now eight. We have different opinions and each one of us comes from a different place and cultural background, but we’re like a family together.

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Families for Freedom (Image credit: @noorandzee Instagram account)

Al-Jumhuriya: Were you aware of the reality of Syrian prisons before your relatives were disappeared?

Al Ghawi: Before the detention of my relatives, I was already defending the rights of detainees, because I used to meet survivors of torture in prison. When I became involved personally, I became more connected. I suffered a lot from my relatives’ absence, an experience which mirrors those of thousands of Syrian families. I found myself more engaged, monitoring it very closely.

I had worked in several NGOs in many fields since the beginning of the revolution, in Zaatari camp in Jordan, for example, which is the biggest camp for Syrian refugees in the country. I’m a surgeon and all the doctors inside Syria are targeted by the Assad regime. My husband is a psychiatrist and was detained at the start of the revolution. He was treating people in opposition areas and sometimes involved in peaceful demonstrations—at the beginning of 2011, there were no arms. But he was lucky to be released and escaped to Jordan. A lot of my colleagues were killed in detention.

Safadi: I work as a human rights lawyer, defending prisoners of conscience since 2004. At the beginning of the revolution, I participated in the protests, while continuing my work. In the beginning, most of the detainees were from Daraa, so they wouldn’t spend a lot of time in prison. After a few days, they’d be brought to the court for trial. I’d go there every morning and meet them, sometimes there were hundreds of people. It wasn’t legal work, just psychological support, to let them know that there are people interested in their case. Most of the time they were coming shoeless, so my husband and I used to bring shoes and wait for the detainees to show up. We [would] also rent buses to bring them back to them to their homes in Daraa. I also worked in documenting the violence against protestors and the detainees. This led us to collecting evidence of crimes committed by all factions against the peaceful people. We knew from other countries’ experience that we might one day have a court where we could hold everyone accountable. Our work was a mix of that done by doctors, journalists, and lawyers.

Mahmoud: I have always been politically involved as a member of the Syrian Communist Labor Party since the late seventies. All political work under Hafez al-Assad was banned. There were several waves of detention which targeted our party. I was arrested during the last one, alongside Abdul-Aziz al-Khayyir, my husband [the longtime party leader who was later detained and disappeared upon arrival at Damascus Airport in September 2012].

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Fadwa Mahmoud (Image credit: @noorandzee Instagram account)

Al-Jumhuriya: Is it fair to say that the issue of detention, which was also characteristic of Syria under Hafez al-Assad, has only really gotten attention after the Syrian revolution?

Mahmoud: Before the revolution, we used to speak up but there wasn’t this crazy number of people detained and disappeared. One of the reasons the revolution happened is that people were detained for speaking about other detained. Now, the difference is that a huge number of people are missing.

Al Ghawi: I am from Hama, a city which was subjected to one of the biggest massacres in Syrian history in 1982. A lot of my family members [were] affected. One of my uncles was killed and the other one is missing to this day. I was a very young child and used to hear nothing from my family about the event. When I asked them about something I heard in the news, they refused to even talk to me, saying that “the walls had ears.” When I was 13, I asked them about Hafez al-Assad. For me, he was a hero, but they told me that he was a dictator. When I was a child, I had a talent for painting and painted his portrait. Today, I’m ashamed of this. He was a killer, and so is his son.

Later on, when I started asking around, my aunt, who was 15 years old when the massacre took place, told me she was accompanying my grandfather who was very sick. She refused to run away. When she was going to the mosque with her grandfather, she saw a lot of dead bodies and pieces of people who had been murdered in horrible ways. I questioned my mother more insistently: she was in another city when the massacre happened but my father was besieged in Hama and escaped miraculously.

Each family in Hama suffered […] So when I saw the revolution in Syria, I saw the same happening again, but in all of Syria. What makes me very upset is that in 1982, there was no way to expose it. Here, the whole world saw everything every day and kept silent.

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Hala al Ghawi (Image credit: @noorandzee Instagram account)

Al-Jumhuriya: Did anything change after the transition from Assad Sr. to Assad Jr.? Is the regime using the same tactics from decades earlier?

Mahmoud: When Bashar al-Assad came to power, we had some hope that things would be different. As someone who has lived under Hafez for a long time and has observed Bashar for a while, I actually predicted that Bashar would carry on just like his father. When he took power, he pretended to be more open politically, so he allowed debates and groups to be formed. He only did that so he could have a full picture of who might come out to challenge him and then he cracked down on them. As soon as the new groups or clubs started challenging Bashar’s authority, he turned much worse than his father.

Al-Jumhuriya: What did you feel when the revolution started?

Safadi: 2011 was the most beautiful year in my entire life. When the uprising started in Egypt and in Tunisia, we really wanted it to happen in Syria, but we were very scared. Syria is so different: we have many religious and ethnic minorities. But then the first demonstration happened in Daraa and the main reason for it was political detention. So the Friday after, we wanted to organise a protest to support those killed in Daraa and the detained children.

I felt alive for the first time. I felt I learnt the meaning of freedom: when you can express yourself and don’t mind the violence against you. We were protesting in front of guns and then in front of tanks. Most of our friends were killed and arrested in front of us, and we had to continue, because there was no time to waste. You have to focus on your goal. I was so depressed when it turned into an armed conflict, I knew we were going to lose.

Al-Jumhuriya: How do you think the issue of the Syrian disappeared is treated at the negotiation table?

Mahmoud: I’ve been present in the negotiation process since day one. I can tell you the issue is neglected and none of the negotiating parties is serious about. It is there and gets discussed, but it’s not fundamental. It’s [a] very complicated issue, especially for the regime, which finds itself in a hard spot, as a lot of detainees are missing and the government doesn’t know where they are. They have died under torture, and so the regime doesn’t have answers.

The opposition tries to bring the issue forth […] But I think those negotiating on behalf of the Syrian people should put the issue of detainees above negotiations. It should be resolved before they start negotiating anything.

Al Ghawi: During peace talks, the issue of the detainees is being bound to the negotiations. We don’t want that. This is a humanitarian issue, it’s of a different order. Most of the detainees aren’t party to the military conflict. Some aren’t involved in activism at all; others are peaceful political activists.

Al-Jumhuriya: We’ve heard of torture in Syrian prisons, but I think that for many it’s still hard to imagine what exactly is going on.

Al Ghawi: Syrian prisons are unlike prisons anywhere else in the world. I used to document the torture of survivors and know their suffering. They are severely beaten. All kinds of torture are used: burns, electrical shocks. The detainees develop serious psychological issues. They’re often left with dead bodies for days. My husband sometimes describes his experience, even though his torture wasn’t as horrible as what happens now. He didn’t have the space to sit down completely, they were in a dark and wet place, and were only allowed to go to the restroom one time every day for about thirty seconds. He was left thirty days without a shower. It was also very cold.

When my husband was released from prison, he lost about twenty-five kilograms despite having only been detained for two months. And then you see the Caesar photos. The prisoners are suffering from starvation, not just torture. If someone is wounded by torture, they aren’t treated and end up developing infections. I saw prisoners’ scars and burns. There’s a survivor who has third-degree burns on his back and now he is practically disabled. Another one is a father of four children who was tortured by stretching: he was attached on a wooden board, and his body was stretched to the point where he felt something was fractured. Now he can’t move and is unable to provide for his children. It’s very hard emotionally and psychologically for prisoners. They require too much rehabilitation, as they suffer from depression and PTSD.

Al-Jumhuriya: We often hear about the imprisoned men, but what about the women and children detained by the regime?

Al Ghawi: Of course, there are also women and children who are being imprisoned. Rania, a doctor who’s a sister of one of my colleagues, was detained along with her husband and several children and no one knows about them. I also met a woman formerly in detention who was nine months pregnant and she gave birth to twins while in prison. She had two other children in addition to that. When the twins turned ten months, they were taken away from her and put into an orphanage. She found them after she was released, but as a mother I cannot imagine the horrible pain of being separated from babies. Even as I leave for Paris, I take my daughter with me. Through my work in documentation, I also met a lot of female survivors who talked about torture and sexual abuse they were being subjected to.

Al-Jumhuriya: If your relative is disappeared by the regime, is there any way to know the truth about what happened to them?

Safadi: It’s possible but not easy. You have to distinguish between the detainees killed under torture or those who died because of the living conditions or illness. The latter situation started to become common in 2014. The families can go to the military police and ask about their relatives, and now they almost always get answer, that the prisoner died of a heart attack. The real cause of death is concealed and the family receive a certificate. But when the prisoners are executed, there will be no admission of death and you’ll spend your entire life wondering about them. You can find out unofficially, but there are no death certificates. So I’m still married in the civil records—and this is the case of thousands in Syria—so if I wanted to marry again, I’d have to file for divorce.

Al Ghawi: I heard a lot of stories from families who just wanted to hear any news about their disappeared relatives. They are sometimes told that their relatives are dead, but they need to take a look at their bodies, just to know for sure.

Safadi: The way they arrest people in Syria is a kind of kidnapping. My husband, Bassel [a software developer and pioneering online activist whose execution in regime custody was confirmed in August 2017] went for an appointment and didn’t come back. A week later, he came with the security to fetch his things. There was an arrest warrant against me at the time, and my mother and sister were in the house, so they got scared as they thought I’d be taken away. I had the flashback in my mind of the moment they came to arrest my father in 1992. My father has been detained nine times and when he was taken away the last time, I prevented myself from crying, but when they took Bassel, I cried so much. He told me: “Please wait for me.” This is the most important sentence which a prisoner tells his beloved ones.

I knew nothing about him for almost nine months, then he was transferred to Adra prison in Damascus. He wasn’t allowed to get visits, and a month later, he was transferred again, this time to Saydnaya […] and I knew it was a disaster. We raised a campaign which resonated greatly, so he was brought back to Adra. I visited him for the first time on December 26, 2012, and we made our marriage contract on January 7, 2013, in prison. I spent almost three years visiting him three times a week. He called me October 3, 2015, telling me that they came to take him somewhere he didn’t know. Then I learnt that he was transferred to a military field court.

A month after his transfer, rumors surfaced that he was sentenced to death, which I refused to listen to. I told all his friends from Adra prison that I didn’t want to know anything about him, I just wanted to believe that he was still alive and wait for him. Because I worked in psycho-social support for the female members of the detainees’ families, I was visiting a mother who lost her two sons under torture: she was telling me that she went to the military police to get their IDs and death certificates. I felt so weak and cowardly. I didn’t want to face my husband’s death. This isn’t my right. The world has a right to know about Bassel: it’s more than a personal story.

If Bassel was killed, I knew I could make a crazy noise about him [as he was so well-known], which wasn’t the case for many other Syrians. So I decided to face it, and I got news from six different sources that Bassel was killed days after his last transfer. Then I asked the Russian embassy in Damascus through my friends, and they confirmed it.

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Noura Ghazi Safadi (Image credit: @noorandzee Instagram account)

Al-Jumhuriya: Knowing that the regime wants these issues hidden from public sight and that you discuss them openly, have you received any reaction from the Syrian government?

Mahmoud: Especially the first time we stood in Geneva, we delivered the message to Mr. [Staffan] de Mistura [UN Special Envoy for the Syrian Crisis] and the regime got really angry about it. They wondered who the hell we were and what we were doing. We were in the square in front of the building where the negotiations would happen and demanded that Mr. de Mistura come and stand with us, and we gave him a letter. The letter got to the regime people as well.

Al-Jumhuriya: Are you in danger for continuing your work?

Mahmoud: [Laughs] I was already in danger before that, it’s been this way for a while.

Al Ghawi: I still have relatives in Syria. That makes me concerned about them and limits my ability to speak openly about Syria to the media, for example. That’s why I’m taking a step back. They’re in areas controlled by the regime and are waiting for my brother.

Safadi: When I worked in Syria before the revolution, I was followed by the regime’s security. I had a travel ban from 2007 until 2014. We were living in a kind of environment as if we were locked, but still we tried to go on. In those days, there was a supreme security court, which was abolished and replaced by a counter-terrorism court.

During the past seven years, I received plenty of arrest warrants, but each time it was solved […] the first two by my husband Bassel, who made a deal with the security to tell them everything they wanted for cancelling the warrant. The last one was solved by Russia, which is not usual, but I’m a well-known activist. Each time I wanted to travel out of Syria, I had to get permission and after I came back, I was investigated. They were really angry with the Families for Freedom movement. But since we talk about our issues from a human rights angle, this gives us the credibility. We are separating our work for Families for Freedom from other activities.

Lately, I was in Riyadh for the second conference for the Syrian opposition, and despite only staying there for a few hours, I was reported to the security. And then I went to Geneva, as part of civil society for detainee issues, and there was another report against me. I don’t know who made it. It’s strange, because there was only opposition in Riyadh and I didn’t speak to the media.

Then I was called late at night and told that I may be killed. I was surprised and for the first time, I felt the risk. As I would be of no use if I was arrested or executed, I decided to leave Syria about a month ago. In the past four months, the bar association cancelled my lawyer’s license and I wasn’t given the permission to renew my house. I had spent five years in the same house and realised it was time for me to go. I don’t know what is the worse feeling for me, that I lost Bassel or that I had to leave Syria.

Al-Jumhuriya: What’s the reaction of your relatives still in Syria?

Mahmoud: I come from a divided family. One part supports the regime and the rest are against. The first time I was detained, it was my own brother who did it. He was the head of a political security branch at the time. For the Assad-supporting part of my family, this work means I’m with the revolution. I respond back to them saying that whether I’m with the revolution or not is irrelevant, I really just want my loved ones back. The regime really worked on dividing the families and the communities, and fostering this division.

Safadi: All my family is still in Syria. I am scared about them all the time but they don’t want to leave, they don’t mind the risk. I’m so lucky with my family, they’ve taught me love and faith, and they’re always proud of me.

Al-Jumhuriya: Your dream is to bring your bus to Damascus. Do you see that happening if the regime stays in power?

Mahmoud: This is our dream. The dream is that we drive to Damascus and don’t even have to put the photos of our loved ones on it, that they will be there in person. That we can put them on the bus and take them home. But we don’t know when that’s going to happen.

Safadi: Going to Damascus is a dream for us and we’re working to make it come true. Our main goal is not to take the bus to Damascus, but to make change happen which would enable us to free the detainees. We are trying to convince the public opinion in the whole world, that we have a real case and rights and that we are fighting for them. We depend on the communities around the world, not the governments. In democratic countries, the community can pressure the representatives.

Al Ghawi: I’m based in Gaziantep. It feels close to my country. Before Turkey, I was in Jordan, just kilometres away. Maybe two hours away from Hama and Damascus and yet I can’t go. I refuse to go to Europe or the US despite having the opportunity and visas. I would be so far from my people. My choice is to stay close and do something for Syria. I’m scared to go back to Syria. I’m wanted and will absolutely be arrested. But even if they promise me safety, I cannot return to this kind of oppression. I won’t bear to see soldiers at a checkpoint every 200 meters. It’s as if I’m constantly crossing into some other country. But this is my city, how can I move freely if every time I have to give my ID? It feels like a big prison for all Syrians.

I hope that we can reach Damascus. Our dream is for it to be a nation-wide celebration when all detainees will be free from the prisons’ darkness.

Mahmoud: Bashar al-Assad staying in power will prevent a lot of refugees from going back, but those negotiating should work on diminishing his reach as much as they can.

Al-Jumhuriya: What’s the importance of coming to France?

Noura: In Syria, we use French words like “bonjour,” “merci,” “pardon,” and “salut” in our daily lives. We have the same style of architecture. In secondary school, we studied the French Revolution. I remember Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. We were inspired by these values, and we’re supported by French activists. It’s so special for us to come here.