Is my Baba lost in the midst of Syria’s thousands of disappeared?

‘Sometimes, in spite of myself, hope bubbles up … Will I see Baba again? Every day, I tell other people’s stories, this time I feel I have to tell my own.’

Mustafa leans on one elbow and looks at the camera in a grainy mobile phone photo
'My father, Mustafa Haj Suleiman, is one of the forcibly disappeared,' writes Ali Haj Suleiman [Courtesy of Ali Haj Suleiman]

When I go cover an event, I usually try to keep my feelings aside. But sometimes, in spite of myself, hope bubbles up when I’m heading out to cover an exchange of detainees.

My heart pounds, excitement building. Will my father be one of them? Am I going to see him again?

I am an internally displaced photojournalist living in northwestern Syria. My father, Mustafa Haj Suleiman, is one of the forcibly disappeared during the war, without charge, conviction or reason.

Every day, I tell other people’s stories; this time I feel I have to tell my own.

In Syria, nothing is certain

On April 2, 2013, I saw my father for the last time as he left for work – he was a driver for a food company in the suburbs of Damascus.

He didn’t come home that day, but I heard his voice on the phone the next day, telling us that he would return soon. Ten years and about five months later we’re still waiting for his return.

I was 13 years old, I called him Baba. I still call him Baba.

Every moment of hope has a heavy price of harsh despair that follows, but hope always remains in some form. In Syria nothing is certain, so we wait.

Men carrying the shrouded bodies of babies to bury
Ali has documented pivotal moments in northwest Syria for Al Jazeera, like the aftermath of the February 6 earthquakes that decimated the region. Here, volunteer gravediggers in Jandaris carry the shrouded bodies of children to bury after the quakes [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Some people spent more than 25 years in detention and then came home. And then there are those whose families were told they were dead, but they were alive after all.

There are also those who were killed for no reason, whose families are still waiting in hope for them, as we saw with the Tadamon massacre.

Some families clung to hope for years and were subjected to continuous blackmail, only to discover that their beloved had actually died years ago.

The United Nations has counted about 130,000 forcibly disappeared people in Syria. That’s 130,000 families who share the same pain of uncertainty and bitterness of faded hope.

Torturing the families

Ten days after Baba disappeared, someone called us to say he had been arrested because he was carrying money for work, 250,000 Syrian pounds ($1,725 at the time).

Baba believed that he would be released immediately because he hadn’t done anything against the regime.

I went with my mother from one security branch to the next to look for Baba, they all denied his existence. I remember seeing cars carrying detainees outside the branch and thinking: Is Baba among them?

Fateem smiling at the camera warmly, in her pink headscarf
Ali documented the story of Fateem, a displaced woman who lives in a tent with her husband and 14 children yet prepares a stupendous feast of kibbe for Al Jazeera’s Fork the System [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

The regime deliberately tortures the families by concealing information, forcing them to fall at the mercy of brokers and officers who promise information or to release detainees in return for huge sums of money, and often do not keep those promises.

Detention for no reason in itself is a cruel practice, but in Syria, it is a whole other nightmare.

Testimonies of former detainees, detailing the cruellest types of torture, echo in families’ minds and drive them to do everything they can, as quickly as they can, to try to save their loved ones.

Many have brought us information about Baba’s whereabouts and his condition, but the testimonies often contradicted. I remember someone told us that Baba had been tried and sentenced to 10 years. At the time, I wondered if we would still be waiting and hoping until 2023. It seemed unlikely.

My mother moved our family from Damascus to our village in the southern countryside of Idlib. She appointed a lawyer and got some information from her after paying 150,000 Syrian pounds, but we didn’t have any more money and the information didn’t seem reliable, so we had to wait.

Mohamad Al-Hassan with a photo of his daughter Fatima bundled in blankets while she was still alive
Ali documented the story of babies freezing to death in IDP camps in Idlib, catching the anguish of Mohamad al-Hassan, who showed him a photo of his daughter Fatima bundled in blankets while she was still alive [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

My mother worked as hard as she could to provide for our family of six while waiting for the man she loves. I was able to help her after I finished middle school and started to work.

I had a job as a janitor for weeks before a friend of mine started teaching me photography, and I started developing my skills, then I got a job with an NGO for two years before I headed to journalism.

Having an income didn’t compensate for Baba’s absence. Eid was always associated with the bitterness of loss.

We try to be strong in front of each other but it doesn’t work. My youngest sister swears that she remembers Baba and talks about him all the time, even though she was only three years old when he disappeared.

Never absent

I’m 24 now, Baba is never out of my mind, he’s with me whenever I need advice or help.

Pictures, and photographs, are my metier and my lifeblood, so imagine my sadness that I only have one mobile phone photo of Baba. It is very lonely in the midst of the thousands of photos I have.

Daaboul holds out a glass mug of fruit cocktail with a blue straw in it.
Ali documented the story of ‘Abu Cocktail’, aka Idlib’s Juice King, whose cheerful shop and elaborate concoctions give the people of Idlib a fun place to go on hot summer days [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Perhaps it is his disappearance that has lit a fire under me, pushing me to cover and document what is happening to Syria and the Syrians in these brutal times. Or maybe I’m hoping to find some information about him.

When I meet a detainee, I think about Baba. How is he living? What is he eating? What is he drinking? How is he doing? We try to act as if we forget so that we can go on with our lives, but we fall into memories and thoughts about him often.

The torture that detainees are subjected to is among the things that pains me the most. Some of the detainees I met talked about how they got punished when their families came to visit. That really conflicted me – I would love to see Baba if we ever found out where he is, but I wouldn’t want him to be harmed because of that.

We didn’t have the opportunity to visit Baba because we didn’t have any confirmed information about him. The news we receive from friends or strangers who have seen him or had access to information about him stopped in 2019.

Four fighters in camouflage uniforms and face masks on stand with their guns in front of vehicles
Ali spoke to Syrian National Army commanders in Azaz in June 2022 about their preparedness for a military operation Turkey’s President Erdogan had announced was coming soon [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Last year, when the regime released some detainees in Damascus, I was following every picture that was published, looking for the news of every detainee who was released with amnesia. Did Baba forget who he is?

The UN commemorates August 30 as the International Day of the Disappeared, and last June, after 12 years of war, it announced it had succeeded in setting up an institution for the disappeared and missing in Syria.

If the Syrian regime cared about international conventions or the UN, it would not have committed all these crimes.

And waiting for more than 12 years of killings, arrests, bombings, and torture carried on in the country shows the lack of international interest in what is happening in Syria.

Evidence has been introduced since 2014, when “Caesar” documented the death of more than 7,000 people under torture inside Syrian prisons. That alone should have prompted anyone with a conscience to stop these crimes.

Neither I nor any of the families of the forcibly disappeared are expecting any help from institutions that don’t work to stop the regime.

I am still waiting for Baba because the fact that he has disappeared doesn’t mean ever forgetting or abandoning him.

Baby Aya looks out of the incubator at the photographer
After the February earthquake, Ali went to see the ‘Miracle Baby’ who was born in the rubble of her home as her mother lay dying – becoming a symbol of hope in renewal among destruction [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera