The Syrians campaigning for justice for those disappeared
A bus journey provides a window into the unbroken spirit of the Syrian revolution and one of its terrible costs: tens of thousands of people missing, disappeared by the Syrian regime.
“We started it with peaceful protests and we will end it with peaceful protests”.
Houria, a young Syrian woman, is boarding a bus from Holland to Geneva. She is going to protest outside the United Nations and call for the release of Syria’s disappeared detainees.
It’s March 2016, 5 years since protests first started in Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring.
We’re following Mazen Alhummada on this trip for our film Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad. Mazen worked for a French oil company in Syria and came from a left-wing family who had wanted democratic change for decades. Mazen helped organise protests in his hometown of Deir Ezzor and filmed the demonstrations to communicate the Syrian revolution to the international community.
A young man on the bus tells us, “To say the word ‘freedom’ here in Europe, or to go on a protest, doesn’t seem like a big deal, but for Syrians it was a very big deal”.
The huge protests were unprecedented. Syria was known as the Kingdom of Silence. Life was generally good, provided you didn’t question the authority of the regime. Dissent was crushed and the security services were so omnipresent that people whispered that ‘the walls have ears’.
The early protests demanded political reforms. Their calls for greater freedoms were met with gunfire and the security forces conducted mass arrests. The regime’s violent response provoked more protesters to take to the streets.
Like many supporters of the uprising, Mazen says, “This is the price of the revolution. The bill is very high for freedom but it is a debt that must be paid”. Others wonder whether the cost was worth it. The country has since descended into a civil war and a proxy war with atrocities on all sides.
Those on the bus, who we travel with for 13 hours, are still singing the songs of the Syrian revolution. They are men and women of all ages. The atmosphere is celebratory and hospitable, with sweet treats shared along the bus. Yet just beneath the surface lies tragedy. Every person we meet has friends or family missing in regime detention. Some were themselves detained and tortured, but were lucky enough to be released. All have made long and perilous journeys to get to Europe.
Mazen spent eighteen months in detention and has several close family members currently disappeared. The Syrian regime refuses to disclose the names of those detained or acknowledge how many people are being held in its clandestine prisons. Families and friends of detainees search for news about their loved ones, not knowing if they are dead or alive.
Tens of thousands of Syrians are currently missing in detention.
Arriving at the UN, Mazen takes out laminated photos of the missing and carefully places them on the concrete square in front of the UN building. He tries to engage tourists and passers-by to look at the photos, but most of them want selfies with the UN flags instead.
Wassim, a middle-aged man from Aleppo who travelled with us on the bus, picks up one of the photos. It’s of his friend Mohammad. He’s been missing in detention since 2011 and for almost five years there has been no news whatsoever. Wassim cries.
Wassim tells us, “Unfortunately now we only see our friends in photos. If only we could find out if they are alive or not. Is this the price that people must pay for freedom? Losing their freedom, perhaps forever? Many have died. That’s really hard. But we will always, in memory of these people, keep our principles and demand to be free from tyranny”.
Mazen doesn’t expect to see his missing relatives again. He’s emotional and his friends help him scrape up the photos from the ground. Wassim quietly rolls up the Syrian revolution flags, in front of the imposing UN building and the flags of its member states.
The UN has accused the Syrian government of the murder, rape, torture and extermination of detainees. Yet 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 their detention facilities. Amnesty International 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.
It’s now been one year since our bus journey. Many of the Syrians on that bus still have photographs of their missing loved ones displayed on their Facebook profiles. They are still waiting for news of their disappeared.