We won’t stop fighting for justice for Syria’s disappeared

Tens of thousands of forcibly disappeared continue to languish in al-Assad’s prisons.

Fadwa op-ed photo
We want states to ensure the freedom for all the detainees in Syria, both those held by the regime and those held by other armed groups, writes Mahmoud [Courtesy of Fadwa Mahmoud]

It is very painful for me to talk about my story, though it is one shared by many, many Syrians. In 2012, my 34-year-old son Maher Tahan went to Damascus airport to pick up my husband, Abdulaziz Al Kheir. Abdulaziz, who was the head of Syria’s banned Communist Action Party, was returning from a conference in China and Maher was supposed to drive him home.

But the regime took both my boys at the airport, and I still don’t know what has happened to them. All I have left of Maher is a radio he smuggled to me when I was imprisoned by the Assad regime in the early 1990s for my politics. Along with my husband’s wallet, I carry it with me everywhere I go.

A few months ago, the regime shocked us all by releasing the names of detainees who had died in its prisons. Some of the names were on lists, released by civil registry offices; others, who we believe were executed, were on statements; the rest were on formal death certificates issued by the military police.  

I don’t have the courage to check whether my son and husband’s names are on any of those lists. I live with the hope that they’re still alive, and one day they will be set free.

This is a very painful time for us at the Families for Freedom, a movement I co-founded to campaign for justice for Syrian detainees, and the families of detainees who have learned about the deaths of their loved ones in such a cruel and merciless way. 

My very best friend learned in 2013 that one of her sons died as a result of torture in detention and she received his body. Now, she has found her other son’s name in one of these lists. I can’t describe how painful this was for her, for all of us. My heart breaks for all the detainees, I see them all as my children, my family, and I care about them all.

My dear colleagues and co-founders of Families for Freedom have also learned of the death of their loved ones recently. Both Amina Khoulani and Bayan Shurbaji learned that their brothers died in detention in 2013 while Noura Ghazi received confirmation of what she already knew – that her husband died in 2015.

It’s not easy to say why the regime is doing this now. Perhaps releasing these lists is a way to close the detainees’ files once and for all. Although Bashar al-Assad has never been held to account, he has come under international pressure for the high number of detained and disappeared Syrians in his prisons. Maybe this is a way for the regime to say: “OK, you want to know the detainees’ fate? Here are the lists”.

I think it wants to stop the Syrian people and the international community from asking any further questions and demanding justice.

If al-Assad thinks releasing these lists will make us quiet, if he thinks this will break us and stop us from demanding our rights, he is mistaken. He should know we are willing to fight and to endure all this pain and cruelty for as long as it takes to achieve justice.

We will never let this break us. In addition to our demand that the regime must be held accountable for these horrible crimes, we need to keep fighting for our loved ones, we need to keep stating our right to know what really happened to them, the real reasons for their death, and the locations of their graves.

These lists can be used against the regime, but only if there’s international intent to hold it accountable. Although the lists lie about how detainees died, either leaving the cause of death blank or providing a vague reason such as heart failure or a virus, they are so numerous that they have now become evidence that can be used to prosecute the regime for crimes committed against detainees.

It is impossible that all these people died of heart attacks and viruses, especially since so many were young and healthy. That some of the names can be found in the Caesar photographs is further proof of the lists’ power to convict al-Assad. 

But I lost faith and trust in the international community a long time ago. All these governments who say that they care about Syrian detainees have failed in my eyes, and I don’t expect much of them. I, and many others like me, have spent more than seven years campaigning on Syrian human rights issues and still, governments have largely failed to do anything to save the detainees.

I know that lawyers and investigators are working to build a case against the regime. They now have proof that senior regime officials knew about the deaths in detention and Germany has taken the first step in issuing an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, the head of Syria’s brutal Air Force Intelligence.

Other countries need to follow Germany’s example and do much more to convict the regime and free the innocent. Our organisation, Families for Freedom, has five main demands.


First, we want states to ensure the freedom of all the detainees in Syria, both those held by the regime and those held by other armed groups.

Second, we want to know the whereabouts of the detainees; we want the international community to force the regime to reveal the fates and locations of all detainees. My husband and my son have been disappeared for six years and I still don’t know where they are. I want to know where they are.

Third, we ask that international organisations be given safe passage to inspect the detention centres. In Syria, we only know of the locations of the civil prisons, not where the intelligence branches and secret detention centres are based. We need to insist that organisations like the Red Cross and the United Nations put pressure on the regime to allow their representatives to visit the detained. They need to learn more about their fate and about their conditions: Are they being tortured? How is their health? Are the sick and injured being properly treated?

Fourth, Syria’s kangaroo courts must be stopped. In the rare cases where detainees have committed a crime, they deserve the right to a fair trial in civil courts, supervised by international juridical bodies.

Last, we want the international community to hold the regime accountable, we want those criminals brought to justice. Everyone involved in torturing and killing detainees must be prosecuted.

History has taught us that it is hard to bring dictators to justice, but it can happen when there is the international will to do so. Today, all we can do is keep going, keep pushing and keep calling on the international community to hear our demands. The Assad regime won’t break me by releasing its lists and won’t stop me from fighting until every last detainee in its prisons is freed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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