After painful search, Syrians learn detained relatives are long dead

Their relatives are left in limbo, spending years and precious savings shuttling between security services to know where loved ones are held or if they’re even alive. (File photo: AFP)
Updated 24 July 2018

After painful search, Syrians learn detained relatives are long dead

  • The SNHR estimates 80,000 Syrians remain forcibly disappeared by the government
  • Tens of thousands of people are estimated to be held in government jails across Syria

BEIRUT: “That’s it? You’re sure he’s dead?” Seven years had passed with no news, but Salwa could hardly believe her nephew, a Syrian activist arrested in 2011, had been dead the last five.
That’s what the civil records employee in Salwa’s native Hama, a central government-held city, declared last month after shuffling through papers at her desk.
“She told me, ‘Yes, we received the names of everyone who died inside’” prison, Salwa told AFP, using a pseudonym because she fears reprisals in regime territory.
Tens of thousands of people are estimated to be held in government jails across Syria, with relatives and advocates saying they are often tortured, denied fair trial, and deprived contact with families.
Their relatives are left in limbo, spending years and precious savings shuttling between security services to know where loved ones are held or if they’re even alive.
Now, activists and families of imprisoned Syrians say authorities have quietly updated civil records to mark detainees as “deceased,” backdating deaths to as long ago as 2013.
Hearing of this through word of mouth, families of detained Syrians are flooding registries to ask: “Are they alive?.”
For around 400 detainees in recent months, the answer has been “no,” said Fadel Abdul Ghany, head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
The SNHR estimates 80,000 Syrians remain forcibly disappeared by the government.
“Before, the regime was giving no details on the detained. It wouldn’t declare them dead,” Abdul Ghany told AFP.
“Now it is, but in a barbaric way.”
Hama’s records were updated first, followed by Homs, the capital Damascus, Latakia and Hasakah, and new names are still arriving at registries, the SNHR said.
In seven years of documenting Syria’s uprising-turned-war, Abdul Ghany said he had never before seen families learn of the fate of the detainees in this way.
“Usually, you take a death certificate to the registry and inform them your relative is dead, not the other way around,” he said.
On that June morning, Salwa and her sister-in-law worried they’d be the only people at the registry asking about imprisoned relatives.
“But when we got there, we saw a line out the door,” she said.
“Most were women, mothers and sisters of detainees. Security forces stood among them, and every single woman was wiping her tears and covering her face with her scarf.”
Weeping, Salwa went home to hold a single day of hushed condolences for two nephews: Saad, arrested in 2011 and marked deceased in 2013, and Saeed, detained since 2012 and recorded to have died last year.
The family had no bodies to bury and was afraid of grieving publicly in a regime-held city.
“They scorched our hearts — those two boys were like roses. Even in mourning, we’re afraid and hide our grief,” Salwa said.
The last time Islam Dabbas’s family saw him was late 2012, behind bars at a regime prison near Damascus.
“He wore a sweater that read ‘Just Freedom’. We stopped hearing anything a while after that,” recalled his brother Abdulrahman, who has since moved to Egypt.
This month, a relative still in Syria learned of the updated files and checked Islam’s.
“It said he died January 15, 2013 in Saydnaya,” Abdulrahman said.
Amnesty International has dubbed the infamous prison “the human slaughterhouse,” after reports of mass executions there.
“Honestly, it’s a relief. My mother told me, ‘He’s lucky. He’s at peace,’” Abdulrahman said.
They held condolences for Islam last week in Egypt, hundreds of kilometers (miles) from home and without a body.
Abdulrahman and his mother then broke the news by phone to his father, still in Syria serving out his own prison sentence.
But confirming what many long suspected is not enough, said Noura Ghazi, a Syrian lawyer and member of the detainee advocacy group Families for Freedom.
“OK, you’ve told us they’re dead, but we want to know where the bodies are. We want to know the real way they died,” Ghazi said.
Others are hesitating.
“People are so tired. Of course there’s denial. Others are suspicious, saying ‘Why would we believe this document is real? Or this date to be true?’” said Ghazi, who lives in Beirut.
Her husband, activist Bassel Khartabil, vanished after his October 3, 2015 arrest. In 2017, through her networks, Ghazi confirmed he died in regime detention.
“I held condolences for him, I wore black. I thought I had processed the truth,” she said.
That changed when a relative of Khartabil visited a Damascus registry in early July and saw the government’s freshly-recorded date of death: October 5, 2015.
“When we saw that, it’s like he died all over again,” said Ghazi.
“There’s no going back. For more than two years I fought to know his fate. Now I’ll be fighting my whole life to get his body.”


Russian forces deploy at Syrian border under new accord

Updated 10 min 49 sec ago

Russian forces deploy at Syrian border under new accord

  • Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached an agreement Tuesday that would transform the map of northeast Syria, installing their forces along the border
  • The Kurdish fighters were given a deadline of next Tuesday evening to pull back from border areas they have not already left

AKCAKALE, Turkey: Russian military police began patrols on part of the Syrian border Wednesday, quickly moving to implement an accord with Turkey that divvies up control of northeastern Syria. The Kremlin told Kurdish fighters to pull back from the entire frontier or else face being “steamrolled” by Turkish forces.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan echoed those warnings, saying his military would resume its offensive against Kurdish fighters if the new arrangements are not carried out.
Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached an agreement Tuesday that would transform the map of northeast Syria, installing their forces along the border and filling the void left by the abrupt withdrawal of American troops. The Kurdish fighters, who once relied on the US forces as protection from Turkey, were given a deadline of next Tuesday evening to pull back from border areas they have not already left.

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday hailed the deal struck between Russia and Turkey to remove Kurdish fighters from the Syria-Turkey border, calling the agreement a "big success."

"Big success on the Turkey/Syria Border. Safe Zone created! Ceasefire has held and combat missions have ended," the president tweeted. "Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us. Captured ISIS prisoners secured."

Iraq, meanwhile, closed the door on the US military’s attempt to keep the troops leaving Syria on its soil. Iraqi Defense Minister Najah Al-Shammari told The Associated Press that those troops were only “transiting” Iraq and would leave within four weeks, heading either to Kuwait, Qatar or the United States.
Al-Shammari spoke after meeting US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who earlier this week had said the American forces from Syria would remain in Iraq to fight Daesh. Iraqi’s military quickly said they did not have permission to do so.
The clumsy reversal underscored the blow to US influence on the ground in the wake of President Donald Trump’s order for US troops to leave Syria. Those forces were allied to the Kurdish-led fighters for five years in the long and bloody campaign that brought down Daesh in Syria.
Now a significant swath of the territory they captured is being handed over to US rivals, and the Kurds have been stung at being abandoned by their allies to face the Turkish invasion launched on Oct. 9.
The Kremlin pointedly referred to that abandonment as it told the Kurds to abide by the Russian-Turkish accord.
“The United States was the closest ally of the Kurds during the last few years, and in the end the US ditched the Kurds and effectively betrayed them,” leaving them to fight the Turks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Russian newswires.
“It’s quite obvious that if the Kurdish units don’t withdraw with their weapons then Syrian border guards and Russian military police will have to step back. And the remaining Kurdish units will be steamrolled by the Turkish army,” he said.
Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. It has demanded they retreat from the entire border region, creating a “safe zone” where Turkey could also settle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees on its soil.
Ankara would gain that goal under the new accord with Moscow along with the agreement last week with the US that put a cease-fire in place.
Kurdish forces completed withdrawing on Tuesday from a stretch of territory 120 kilometers (75 miles) wide along the border and 30 kilometers (19 miles) deep between the towns of Ras Al-Ayn and Tal Abyad. That pullback, allowing Turkish-backed forces to take over, was required under the US-Turkish accord.
The new agreement with Russia allows Turkey to keep sole control over that area. For the rest of the northeastern border, Russian and Syrian government forces will move in to ensure the Kurdish fighters leave. Then after the deadline runs out Tuesday, Turkish and Russian forces will jointly patrol a strip 10-kilometers (6 miles) deep along the border.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a convoy of military police had crossed the Euphrates River and deployed in the Syrian border town of Kobani.
“The military police will help protect the population, maintain order, patrol the designated areas and assist in the withdrawal of Kurdish units and their weapons 30 kilometers away from the border,” it said.
The Turkish military said it would not resume its offensive “at this stage” after the US-brokered cease-fire expired Tuesday night. However, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolgu said that Turkish forces would “neutralize” any Syrian Kurdish fighters they come across in areas that Turkey now controls.
President Erdogan said the attack would start again if the Kurdish pullback does not take place.
“Whether its our agreement with the United States or with Russia, if the promises given are not carried out, there will be no change concerning the steps we need to take,” he told journalists, according to the newspaper Hurriyet.
Erdogan said he had also asked Putin what would happen if the Syrian Kurdish fighters donned Syrian army uniforms and remained in the border area. Putin responded by saying that he would not let that happen, Erdogan said.
Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said the deal with Russia would continue until a lasting political solution for Syria is reached. He also said that Turkey agreed not to conduct joint patrols in the city of Qamishli at the eastern end of the border, because of Russian concerns they could lead to a confrontation between Turkish troops and Syrian government forces in the area.