By Hala Al Ghawi
When working with survivors of Syrian prisons, you hear terrible things. As a medical doctor, I have been dealing with the rehabilitation of forcibly disappeared people for five years now and I have heard countless stories of torture, suffering and disease in Syria’s underground detention centres.
I have even had such cases in my own family. In 2011 my husband was arrested and tortured by the Syrian regime before being released after 70 traumatising days. Two years later, long after we had fled the country, the Syrian authorities seized my brother, father-in-law and seven of my cousins, all of whom remain missing. Many of my medical colleagues were similarly detained by the regime for the “crime” of helping wounded protesters. I have since learned that some of them were killed under torture.
Among all these stories of human pain, there is one that has stuck with me and continues to haunt me. Around five years ago, as part of my work with the organisation I started to provide protection and support to detention survivors, Syria Bright Future, I had to assess a group of young girls who had been abducted by the Syrian regime because of their parents’ roles in organising opposition protests. My job was to document and evaluate the girls’ cases from a medical and legal perspective, and then recommend their cases to specialists if needed.
While examining the girls, I learned that the soldiers had singled out one of them, who was just 12 years old, and brutally tortured and sexually abused her. While in captivity, she had witnessed another child being killed. After she was released, her family rejected her and by the time I saw her, the girl had become suicidal because of it. Her story is shocking, but unfortunately not exceptional.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been forcibly disappeared by the regime, or who have lost loved ones to detention have many such stories to tell. Cases of brutality and torture, though in smaller numbers, can also be found among those targeted and arrested by armed groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS), Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, and the Syrian Democratic Forces.
As you read this, around 100,000 people remain missing in Syria, caught up in detention centres in locations unknown to their families. For too long the international community has overlooked this horror, rarely bringing up the issue of detention with the regime or its allies Russia and Iran.
In August, when Amina Khoulani, with whom I cofounded the organisation, Families for Freedom, and I were invited to give a briefing to the UN Security Council about the widespread use of arbitrary arrest and forced disappearances in Syria, I felt foreign governments might finally take action.
As Russian and Syrian representatives listened, we called for a new UN resolution to end these barbaric practices in Syria. We asked UN members to put pressure on the Syrian government and all warring sides to immediately release a list of names of all detainees, along with their current locations and statuses, and to immediately stop torture and mistreatment. In the case of a detainee’s death, we told them that a death certificate is not enough – a report on the real causes of death and burial location must be presented to the families.
We also asked that any future UN resolution on Syria call for the release of those arbitrarily detained, and that international organisations must be allowed unconditional access to detention facilities to provide medical treatment where needed. Emergency, war and counterterrorism courts must be abolished and fair trials guaranteed under UN supervision.
As we finished our speeches, those in attendance applauded and praised us. Afterwards, a video of the meeting was widely circulated on social media. Yet nothing happened afterwards; no action was undertaken to alleviate the suffering of Syria’s disappeared.
As world leaders meet for the 74th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), I have the feeling that the international community will once again ignore us. I desperately want to be proven wrong and to see our suggestions for resolution provisions discussed by members of the security council and voted on. What officials must understand is that without justice for Syria’s detained, my country will never move forward or be fully at peace.
With Turkey and Lebanon recently deporting Syrian refugees back to Syria, we are deeply concerned that detention cases will rise. Although authorities in both countries know that torture and arrests continue to this day, they refuse to halt the deportations. A new report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights has found that close to 2,000 citizens who have returned from countries of asylum or to their places of residence have been detained or disappeared since 2014; 15 of them have died under torture.
Forced disappearances have already taken a heavy toll on the Syrian people. We cannot afford to have the practice continue. In my work, I have seen repeatedly the devastating physical and psychological scars of detention. Many of my patients show me shocking injuries of brutal torture. Some report being hung by various body parts, which results in permanent nerve damage, broken arms and legs, or muscle tears. Some are malnourished or suffering from serious infections or permanent disabilities. Others bear the trauma and injuries of rape and sexual abuse.
My patients suffer from feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. They often have trouble sleeping, tortured by nightmares, in which they constantly relive their horrible experiences in detention. Women survivors may be subjected to domestic violence and exclusion by their own relatives.
Those who have lost loved ones to detention also suffer. Not knowing where the detained are, nor what has happened to them, families live in a state of fear, anxiety and sadness. They also suffer from depression and secondary trauma.
No country can be rebuilt on top of such pain and suffering. It is our moral duty to demand freedom and justice for Syrian detainees and their families, and to hold their jailers to account. We will not rest until we set them free. The UN must hear us and take action to save Syria’s disappeared.
Hala Al Ghawi is an Int’l Affairs Analyst.