Do not forget Syria’s disappeared

Syrian families continue to struggle to get information about their loved ones disappeared by the Assad regime.

Syrians hold portraits of disappeared loved ones during a protest at the Bebelplatz to call on governments to do more to seek information about prisoners in Syria, in Berlin on August 28, 2021 [Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters]

One of the hardest things we go through as families of the disappeared is the wait. For many years we have been waiting for answers, for any clue about the fates of our loved ones, and for justice and accountability.

During the weekend, I joined fellow activists and Syrian families whose loved ones are still missing after being detained or disappeared by the Syrian regime and armed groups. We placed hundreds of landline telephones on the cobbles of Bebelplatz square in central Berlin as a call to governments to do more to seek information about our loved ones.

My son Ayham Ghazoul was one of tens of thousands of Syrians who were detained and tortured for daring to peacefully oppose Bashar al-Assad’s regime. He was my youngest son, and the closest to me. His older brothers got married and moved out and my husband passed away in late 2011, so it was just he and I at home.

During his teenage years before the revolution, he used to bring me stories written by former prisoners on computer disks. Those stories were banned in Syria but Ayham wanted me to know what it was like being a political detainee in al-Assad’s prisons.

At the start of the revolution, he was studying for his master’s degree in dentistry and taking part in the uprising in Damascus. He joined the movement to defend freedom of expression and was so proud to be participating in the demonstrations, chanting and calling for freedom.

He and some of his colleagues were arrested by the Air Force Intelligence Directorate and later taken to the notorious Fourth Division Branch where he was frequently tortured. His friends inside were amazed he was still alive after the torture sessions, his wounds were very serious but he always tried to smile until he was too tired to do so. They released him after three months with severe bleeding in his kidneys.

Once he recovered, he returned to his studies and started to attend activism workshops in Beirut. The night before he was meant to travel home he called me to tell me about the best night of his life on the beach in Beirut. “I’ll tell you about it when I get back, Mama,” he said. I was waiting to hear about that night.

The day after he came back from Beirut on November 5, 2012, he went to work at the university and this was when he was arrested. They took him to a room inside the university, filled with torture tools.

A fellow detainee told me they beat him severely all over his body. When they beat him on his head, Ayham lost consciousness and died a few days later. He told me they stuck a white piece of paper to Ayham’s forehead with a number on it.

Three months after he was killed, I learned of my son’s death. We started to grieve and to accept condolences from friends. At his memorial, a government official arrived and told me that Ayham was actually alive. He gave us details and it was enough for me to let myself believe and have hope.

My journey of searching for answers about his whereabouts lasted for 17 months, going everywhere, asking everyone I could. I would go to the intelligence branches with other mothers and we would ask them to tell us about our children. They all denied having any information at all until one day one officer finally nodded his head at me. My son had died, he confirmed.

When the Caesar photos were first released, it uncovered the horrific atrocities committed by the Syrian regime against political prisoners. It left the world in total shock. I tried to search for Ayham in the photos but looking through such horrific pictures was difficult. A friend of the family managed to identify him.

Since then, I have not stopped campaigning. We families have spoken out against state-sponsored torture and detention at every opportunity. We went to the German city of Koblenz to file a lawsuit against two Syrian regime officials who have been accused of torturing detainees. Families who recognised their loved ones in Caesar’s photos have come together and are trying to find out where they are buried.

I need to know where my son is so I can bury him and sit next to his grave. This is why I wait by the phone every day hoping for some sort of information about where his body might be. Nothing can bring back my son, but burying him would ease my pain and provide me with a place where I can grieve and tell him what I have wanted to tell him for years.

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