The hellish search for Syria’s lost prisoners

New documentary hears from those who made it out of Assad’s prisons – and their gruesome quest to identify others who have died in custody

Tuesday, 21 March 2017 published by the Guardian

“I still remember their last words to me, ‘please don’t forget us’. This rings every day in my ears like church bells, like a daily call for prayer”.

Mansour al Omari, a Syrian human rights activist, recalls the moment that his name was called by the jailer after spending nine months in detention. He was lucky to be released but is haunted by those he left behind.

Conditions in the Syrian regime’s detention centres are hellish. Detainees describe being held in over-crowded cells, suffering from malnutrition and regular physical and psychological abuse. Thousands have died under torture or due to the hostile conditions and neglect.

Many former detainees that we’ve interviewed for our film ‘Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad’ harbour survivor’s guilt.

Mazen Alhummada, a left-wing activist and employee of an oil company who was detained for eighteen months, told us, “When we were imprisoned, we promised each other that if one of us got out we would tell the world what was happening inside. I am determined to expose this regime just as we agreed in prison. It’s my duty to the people who are still there.”

Mazen and Mansour both work tirelessly to draw attention to the urgent plight of detainees. Mansour told us, “It is always a cure to my soul’s pain to help those who are still underground”.

Tens of thousands of Syrians are currently ‘missing in detention’. Detention has long been a tool of repression for the Syrian state to silence and punish its critics, but it has never before been meted out as punishment on such a large scale.

From the outbreak of the peaceful protests in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring, President Bashar al Assad’s regime cracked down heavily on all opposition. Demands for reform were met by gunfire and the security forces made mass arrests. The arrests and detentions have continued to the present day.

The Syrian regime refuses to disclose the names of those detained or acknowledge how many people are being held in its clandestine prisons. For families and friends of those detained, this is another form of torture. They search for news about their disappeared loved ones, not knowing whether they are dead or alive.

Mazen has several close family members currently disappeared in detention. “I miss them so much. They don’t leave my mind. I look at their photos every day and they give me strength to keep going.”

Documentation created by the Syrian regime attests to their brutality. Photographs taken by the Military Police catalogue the dead. Thousands of these photographs were smuggled out of the country in 2013 by a defector codenamed Caesar. They show more than 6,700 corpses of those who died in regime custody. Many of the bodies are emaciated and exhibit clear signs of torture with bruises, burns and eyes gouged out. The corpses are numbered and are pictured with a card recording their detention facility.

The Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees has published headshots of these corpses online to enable identification. Families trawl through these images from the Caesar photographs looking for missing loved ones. This grim search is plagued with uncertainty; some faces have been mutilated or changed by dramatic weight loss. Relatives look again and again at lifeless bodies trying to recognise a person they once knew.

Despite the difficulties, hundreds of individuals have been identified from the Caesar photos. For Mariam Hallak, finding the photo of her son Ayham brought her some relief. There was a sticker on his forehead saying he was ‘corpse 320 belonging to detention facility 215’. For Mariam, he was her youngest son, 25 years old, a popular and kind young man who had been studying for a Masters in dentistry.

Seeing Ayham’s photograph provided some closure for Mariam, but she still has no clue where his body is. She dreams of having a grave for her son. She also wants President Assad and the heads of the security branches to be prosecuted.

The UN has accused the Syrian government of the murder, rape, torture and extermination of detainees. Yet action on accountability for these crimes against humanity has been hampered. A Security Council resolution to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court was vetoed by Russia and China.

The Syrian regime has consistently refused access to independent international monitors to inspect its detention facilities. Amnesty and other groups have been calling for action on this, and for the regime to publish names of detainees, their whereabouts and what has happened to the bodies of those who have died.

Mansour pleads, “We have the evidence. There is an urgent need to save those who are still alive. It is our duty to act.”