BEIRUT – Ahmad Helmi credits his “iron mother” for ending his three-year ordeal of detention in nine Syrian prisons between 2012 and 2015. Most of Helmi’s friends who—like him—were arrested for their activism against the Assad government in the early days of the Syrian uprising were killed in detention.
“Without my iron mother, I would be dead by now. I got out because of her,” Helmi said. While he was detained, his mother learned how to navigate and bribe within the Syrian prison system. She managed to secure her son’s release and remove him from the list of Syria’s more than 130,000 detained and forcibly disappeared people.
In November 2012, a young dentistry student, Ayham Ghazoul, was detained by military intelligence forces at the University of Damascus. He was tortured, and died of internal bleeding five days later. But his mother would not know with certainty what happened to her son for years.
Three months after Ayham’s arrest, a released detainee told his mother, Mariam al-Hallaq, that her son died in detention. But another former detainee later told her Ayham was still alive. “I became hopeful, and thought maybe there’s a mistake. For one year and five months, I looked for him every day. I needed to know if he was alive or dead,” Hallaq said.
In May 2014, her search finally ended. After visiting multiple security branches to ask about her son, she received Ayham’s death certificate from the Tishreen Military Hospital in Damascus. She also found him among the Caesar photos, images leaked by a defected military police photographer showing the bodies of thousands of detainees. Al-Hallaq, now in exile in Germany, she is still looking for Ayman’s remains.
Helmi and al-Hallaq are among the thousands of Syrian detention survivors and family members of Syria’s missing and disappeared who, for more than a decade, have fought for the right to learn what happened to their loved ones. In 2018, al-Hallaq founded the Caesar Families Association, which she heads. Helmi received asylum in the Netherlands and co-founded the Ta’afi Initiative, a survivor-centered organization that supports former detainees.
These two associations, together with the Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS (Massar), Families for Freedom and the Association of Detainees and Missing Persons in Sednaya Prison, publicly called in 2021 for the creation of an international mechanism to unify efforts to uncover the fate of Syria’s thousands of missing and forcibly disappeared people.
Such a mechanism would be the first global, coordinated step to actively search for the missing in Syria.
In response to their call, the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) published a study last month that laid the groundwork for a possible mechanism. At the request of the UN General Assembly, the UN Secretary General and the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), have also prepared a feasibility study on “how to bolster efforts to clarify the fate of missing people.” The study was initially set to be released in June, but is still in the final stages of clearances.
If the UN study recommends a unified mechanism be created, the next step would be “lobbying and pressuring states to take that recommendation and to pass a [General Assembly] resolution to create the mechanism,” Helmi explained. Advocates like himself are “asking Latin American states to lead on this front because they have the agency, and a long history of fighting for the issue of missing people.”
What concrete steps could a mechanism take?
The task of revealing the fate and whereabouts of Syria’s missing and forcibly disappeared, locating those who are still detained, and identifying the remains of those killed so their families can have a dignified burial sounds like a formidable mission, given that the Syrian government remains in power and some non-state groups responsible for disappearances retain control in parts of the country.
But such a mechanism, even if unable to work inside Syria for the time being, could still take meaningful steps to collect and preserve already-available information, such as the testimonies of former detainees, before it is lost.
“When I was in detention, we created songs with the names and phone numbers of each person in the cell,” Helmi said. When someone was released, he would call the memorized numbers to inform their families their loved one was alive. “When I was released, I had all the information in my mind. Now, after 6 years, I can’t remember lots of the names.”’
After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued an amnesty decree in April leading to the release of hundreds of detainees, “families went online asking survivors if they had seen their loved ones. If there’s no single entity for survivors to provide information about those who are still alive or passed away, that information will fade,” Helmi said.
Like the phone numbers in Helmi’s song, crucial information is being left untapped because it is approached through the lens of criminal prosecution, not searching for the missing, he said.
This year, “the gravedigger,” an anonymous Syrian whistleblower, testified in the US Senate and a German court about atrocities during the Syrian war. The line of questioning in both instances aimed at “criminal accountability,” Helmi said. “But had he been asked about forensic information like the size of mass graves, the orientation of the bodies, if they were face up or face down,” a mechanism could have compiled this postmortem information that is key for the search of the missing.
As activists and family members envision it, a unified mechanism could also review photo and video evidence to identify missing people. For instance, in the case of the Tadamon Massacre, “people had to look into the video to see if their loved ones’ faces were there,” Helmi said. Similarly, when the Caesar files surfaced in 2014, “the families took on the burden of searching through the horrific pictures, trying to find their loved ones. This should not be a burden on the families, an entity should do this,” he said.
Mariam al-Hallaq at a demonstration in Berlin, holding a photo of her son Ayham Ghazoul with her right hand, and activist Bassel Khartabil, also killed in detention, with her left, 07/05/2022 (Yasmin Mashaan/Caesar Families Association)
The five Syrian organizations argue that “disjointed or piecemeal work, insufficient coordination and lack of centralized information,” are why a mechanism to find the missing is needed. Over the past 11 years, entities such as the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI), Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) and the Syrian Archive have collected data on violations that is crucial to the search for the missing. An international mechanism could unify all that data.
In June, the COI recommended that the first steps toward creating a unified mechanism should be to coordinate and consolidate claims and information currently held by a wide variety of entities, create a unified database and offer families a “one-stop shop” where they could file their tracing requests. The mechanism should also “facilitate joint tracking and monitoring of alleged burial sites with remains—at least remotely via satellite for those areas of Syria where access would initially be lacking,” the body wrote in their June study.
What should the mechanism look like?
Syrian family associations are pushing for a mechanism under the UN umbrella. Helmi and al-Hallaq said China and Russia’s vetoes in the Security Council eliminate that venue. Instead, they pin their hopes on the General Assembly to create a mechanism. “If it is under the UN General Assembly, it will reflect global political will to advance on this issue, and it will be sustainable,” Helmi said.
Families and survivors should be central to this mechanism, al-Hallaq said. “As families of the victims and disappeared, we are lobbying for us to have an active role in the establishment of the mechanism, its decisions and its program.”
Advocates and survivors envision this mechanism as a humanitarian, not prosecutorial, body. “If this mechanism will have the mandate to locate the fate and whereabouts, without the accountability mandate, that might lead the Syrian regime and other actors to collaborate” with it, Helmi said. Other entities, such as IIIM or COI, already focus on criminal accountability.
Focusing on the humanitarian aspect of disappearance “doesn’t mean we forget about accountability, which is fundamental, but we have to focus on those still detained so they can be released while they are still alive,” al-Hallaq said.
She herself was part of the criminal complaints filed in 2017 against Jamil Hassan, the head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, for crimes against humanity and war crimes. She also testified in the landmark torture trial of Koblenz and the ongoing trial of Alaa Mousa, a Syrian doctor facing torture charges in Germany.
The Truth and Justice Charter of the five Syrian organizations calling for a unified mechanism, makes a distinction between “short-term justice,” or revealing the fate of the missing, and “long-term justice,” wider accountability.
The COI has noted that in previous conflicts “mechanisms that did not have any explicit criminal justice-related mandates, but more humanitarian objectives and a focus on the right to know were more successful.”
International organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) could also play a key role in this mechanism, and have both expressed their will to join efforts in such a mechanism.
To date, ICRC has received more than 13,000 tracing requests for missing people in Syria. “As of now, the vast majority of cases remain unsolved and the search is continuing. Every day we receive new requests,” said Adnan Hezam, ICRC spokesperson in Syria. ICRC, which works out of Damascus, periodically visits detention centers in Syria. As part of their program to reconnect detainees and their families, ICRC helped exchange “23,000 messages between detainees and relatives last year,” Hezam explained.
ICMP, established in 1996 after the wars in the former Yugoslavia, is the only international organization tasked exclusively with working on the issue of missing persons. Following the Bosnian genocide in 1995, ICMP identified 70 percent of the missing in Bosnia through a DNA-based database. In Syria, their database contains 22,000 records of the missing and 65,000 records of the families of the missing, explained Lena al-Husseini, head of ICMP’s MENA Program.
ICMP works “with former detainees to collect data on those who they may have seen in prison,” al-Husseini said. The organization is also “mapping out the different detention centers.”
Since conflict continues in Syria and the actors responsible for forced disappearances remain in power, ICMP has not been able to start excavating mass graves in Syria, as it has done in Iraq. For now, the team is focusing on training professionals to safeguard mass graves so they can identify and store evidence safely.
“This is criminal evidence for a future rule of law” and it is crucial to ensure that no action is taken that could “jeopardize the credibility of the evidence,” al-Husseini said.
ICMP has trained first responders, law enforcement, families of the missing, lawyers and judges on the ground in northeastern Syria, as well as through virtual trainings in the northwest. Their aim is “to work in all Syria, once it becomes feasible or realistic,” she added.
‘I don’t have the luxury of moving on’
In the last decade, Syrian survivors and victims’ families have met with activists from countries such as Bosnia, Argentina, Guatemala and Colombia who have fought to uncover the fates of their loved ones.
“We have learned lessons from Latin America. As long as families are behind it, they can achieve it. It is hard, but not impossible,” Helmi said.
For decades, Latin American families have been looking for their family members who were disappeared by right-wing military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-1983) and Guatemala (1960-1996), as well as those who went missing during nearly six decades of conflict between state and guerrilla forces in Colombia.
In the case of Colombia, Helmi noted how family members work for “criminal accountability and in parallel on the search of revealing the fate and whereabouts.” The high identification rate of Bosnia’s missing is a hopeful example, “but it’s a very different context [than in Syria] because in the Balkans there was huge political will,” Helmi said.
“Guatemala has done good work on mass graves, and after long years they were able to gather the remains and bury them in a humane way,” al-Hallaq added. And from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina—the women’s movement that since 1977 has gathered weekly to protest for their right to know the fate of their loved ones disappeared by the Argentinian dictatorship during the “Dirty War”—she learned “their persistence through long years to keep the missing file alive.”
Persistence is perhaps the biggest lesson. The timeframe for the work of a possible mechanism for Syria is long. “We need to manage expectations,” Helmi said. “This issue takes time: We are not talking about weeks or months, we are talking about a strategic step” on the road to uncovering the fate of the disappeared, he added.
“The families of the victims and disappeared have been waiting for 10 years, so even if it takes one or two years to establish this mechanism, if there’s a result, it would be worth it,” al-Hallaq added.
The issue of the missing goes beyond the right of the families to know what happened to their loved ones. “Enforced disappearances are a root cause of conflict. Without providing answers to the families, there won’t be justice. And without justice, there won’t be lasting peace,” Helmi said, pointing to examples of instability in Guatemala, Colombia and El Salvador.
Al-Hallaq finds the strength to keep fighting from her will to find her son’s remains, as well as from the feeling that she carries “the voice of the mothers in Syria who can’t speak out,” she said.
As a torture survivor, Helmi finds that “fighting to make sure that what happened to you will not happen to anyone else gives meaning to what you have been through.”
“I don’t have the luxury of moving on.”