He was arrested along with six of his comrades on 30 December, 2013, in a raid by Syrian security forces on their home in Damascus. It was his second arrest in as many years.
A founding member of the Revolutionary Syrian Youth, a nonviolent leftist collective based in the Syrian capital, Imad was arrested for the first time in November 2012. Almost three months in detention, thirty-seven days of solitary confinement, and non-stop torture might lead many to capitulate. Imad, then aged 24 and with little political experience prior to the Syrian uprising, held firm and did not wilt under interrogation.
Shortly after his release, he left Syria for Egypt. But he couldn’t stay away from his country and so decided to go back.
By then, Damascus had become even more strangled than before; if holding or organizing protest actions had been extremely difficult in 2011 and 2012, by 2013 it had become virtually impossible.
It was during Imad’s first arrest when his friends created a Facebook page demanding freedom for him and for the two fellow Revolutionary Youth activists taken prisoner with him.
Creating Facebook pages demanding the release of detainees was common during the first two years of the uprising. Their creation in itself illustrated a remarkable change in a country where political detentions before the uprising used to be cloaked with the utmost secrecy and censorship. But it was also a testament to the lengths that Syrians had come and of the various cracks they managed to break in the regime’s previously impenetrable wall of fear.
But the Facebook page created following Imad’s second arrest, this time with six of his friends, was quickly removed at the request of the detainees’ families. This time around, they said, they did not want any noise or publicity. A seemingly small detail, one illustrating a new shift taking place in Syria.
As the revolt eventually gave way to civil war, the initial sparks of hope and buoyancy were quashed and transmuted into utter despair. The cracks that Syrians had made in that impenetrable wall had all but faded, giving way to even greater fear: fear of the mere mention that a son or daughter had been detained; fear of demanding their release; fear of merely uttering their names.
Of each of Imad’s friends, news of their death under torture began to trickle in, one by one. Indeed, six of the seven who were arrested on that night, including Imad, were killed in this way.
It’s not uncommon to feel helpless when we hear that detainees are being tortured to death in another country, knowing that this has been the fate of thousands of civilians since 2011. But helplessness assumes a whole new meaning when our lips have been fused together by fear—this, to the point where we are unable to talk about those who have been killed; we cannot honor their memory, mourn their loss, pay them tribute, tell the stories, share their pictures.
Here in Palestine, we have the opportunity to take to the streets in solidarity with political prisoners, scream our lungs out for them and get tear-gassed, shot and beaten in the process. We also have the chance to share the stories of our martyrs and pay them the homage they deserve.
In Syria, a country ruled by the tyranny of fear and silence, having a name is a curse in life and in death, and even sharing the stories and names of most victims is never taken for granted. This explains why we couldn’t write Imad’s last name and why so many of Syria’s detainees, alive and dead, remain unnamed. Not just because they are too many to be documented, but also because many fear to simply name them.
In this sense, forced disappearance in Syria doesn’t just target people’s bodies; it also targets their names, memory and legacy. It renders hundreds of thousands of people nameless, almost annihilating their very existence and stripping their loved ones of any tangible evidence to clutch at after their death.
In her essay in The New Enquiry, Genna Brager explains that forced disappearance is not just a euphemism for state murder, but a “necropolitical creation of disposable classes whose disposal is intrinsic to capitalism.” Brager’s deconstruction of the apparatus of disappearance as used in Latin America during the 1970s and the 1980s echoes in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
In Syria, the forced disappearance apparatus doesn’t only seek to conceal evidence, exonerate perpetrators, and intimidate the survivors. It also operates to subsidize the Syrian regime’s prison industrial complex. The numerous security and intelligence services use the information they withhold as a bargaining chip, misleading families and exploiting their need, powerlessness and vulnerability, eventually forcing them to pay millions of SYPs for the evidence that will never come.
Fear, silence, exploitation and intimidation become essential to the perpetuation of forced disappearance as an effective weapon in the state’s arsenal against the people, against the “unwanted” disposable class.
It becomes more than just a punitive measure for caging dissidents and squelching dissent. It carries a far more destructive and collective impact, constantly hovering over entire communities.
In the Syrian context, talking about “arbitrary detention” is a legal extravagance and standing even a sham trial is a luxury.
It comes as no surprise, then, when many Syrians tell you that they prefer to be killed by a missile or a shell over being detained. It’s not just the fact that the latter is far more tolerable and painless than the slow, daily death in detention. But also, even when the rocket tears the body of the victims asunder, it does, unlike death under torture, leave something for the family to mourn, material proof to grasp, and a grave to bury.
Forcibly disappearing hundreds of thousands, killing thousands of them under torture and then casually phoning their parents to tell them to come get their IDs, without even allowing them to see the corpse, is the epitome of systematic and deliberate dehumanization. Dehumanizing the detainees by vanishing them, turning them into numbers and dumping their corpses in mass graves; dehumanizing their loved ones by stripping them of the right to mourn, to shout, to say a final goodbye, to see and know the truth, and to have a closure—albeit heart-wrenching— to their agony.
Few days after Maria was arrested by Syrian security forces, a family friend shared her picture on Facebook and called for her release. In any other country, that would be a basic, harmless act. Not so in Syria. Her friend was soon asked to remove the picture, her family fearing that even such a mundane post might have some negative repercussion on her. Maria was fortunately released, but hundreds of thousands of Marias are still languishing in Syrian prisons with their loved ones not even daring to call for their release.
A thought has to be spared to those whenever we write down a hashtag that includes the names of prisoners. Because in Syria, the hundreds of thousands of forcibly disappeared will never be hashtagged, and neither will be their tragedies.
In Assad’s Syria, families are tired of hoping that their loved ones will be free; all they can say, after an estimated 20,000 had been killed under torture is, “Save the rest!” They already know that no one will listen to their shattered voices and pleas.