AMMAN: When Tawfiq reached the bus station in central Syria’s Homs city on February 12, 2014, he called his wife Suad, as he always did after making the journey south from their home in Hama province.
Tawfiq, a commander in the Syrian Arab Army who worked at a state security branch in Homs, told Suad that he had returned safely from his biweekly trip to visit her and their four children.
Later that evening, Suad called to speak to Tawfiq again, but received an out-of-service response. Immediately, she recalled a special army assignment he mentioned while at home.
She grew concerned and called one of her husband’s colleagues at the security branch. He confirmed Tawfiq was out on a mission and would call her back when he returned.
“My heart started racing,” Suad tells Syria Direct. She continued to call her husband throughout the night, but he didn’t respond. The silence stretched into days.
“I told myself that his phone was probably dead, or that he was somewhere without reception,” she says.
A pro-government soldier in Aleppo province, November 2015. George Ourfalian/AFP.
Three days after Suad first tried to reach her husband, she says the security branch called her. An employee told Suad that Tawfiq still hadn’t returned from his mission and asked her to inform the branch if he showed up at home or tried to contact her.
Four weeks passed without a word from Tawfiq, and Suad noticed that his monthly salary, usually transferred to a government-issued bank card, did not arrive.
An officer at the Homs security branch where Tawfiq worked told Suad that because her husband was registered as a missing person, he would no longer be paid.
“Pray for him to return,” she recalls the officer telling her. “We can’t register him as a martyr because he went missing.”
When Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers are confirmed killed in the ongoing civil war, they are officially registered as martyrs—a term used both colloquially and officially in Syria to describe victims of the war. The families of military martyrs are entitled to an array of state benefits, including financial compensation, a monthly salary and medical care.
But for the families of SAA soldiers who disappear, as Tawfiq did, no such privileges exist. Instead, three families tell Syria Direct, they face both the pain of losing a loved one and the difficulty of navigating a legal system that offers them little guidance or support.
‘No offices to visit’
When employees at Tawfiq’s former workplace told Suad that her missing husband would no longer receive a salary, she says she was at a loss for what to do.
At the suggestion of friends, her next step was to visit the government’s Office for Martyrs’ Affairs in Homs city. There, she says she was told there was nothing they could do to help her.
“Your husband isn’t a martyr, he’s missing,” she recalls them saying.
All three families of missing SAA personnel who Syria Direct spoke with say they are unaware of any government entity specifically devoted to the issue of missing soldiers.
“There are no offices to visit—not even to inquire about the status of the missing person or their family’s rights,” says Khayrea, a 26-year-old Homs resident who lost contact with her husband Emad, an army lieutenant, in late 2016.
Emad went missing as battles raged near a checkpoint where he was stationed in the Hama countryside, she says.
Firas al-Dimashqi, a Damascus-based lawyer who has worked on a number of missing persons cases, confirmed to Syria Direct that “there is no specific office” dedicated to supporting families.
Instead, any available information regarding a missing soldier’s status is provided by “those who were with [him] on the battlefield, or from the army command,” he says.
Al-Dimashqi asked to be identified by a pseudonym due to the sensitivity of discussing government-related matters. For similar reasons, the relatives of missing soldiers who Syria Direct spoke with for this report asked to identified only by their first names.
Khayrea, who now lives with her two-year-old son and relatives in Damascus, says she frequently visits an SAA office in the capital to inquire about her husband and inform the office about the financial difficulties she faces raising a child in his absence.
All Khayrea was told is that Emad’s death could not be confirmed, she says. At the SAA office, “they asked me: ‘Do you really want us to record him as dead just for the salary?’”
“No one is concerned with our situation,” she says.
Syria Direct spoke by phone with the Syrian Ministry of Defense in Damascus six times over the course of two weeks before being told that a comment could not be given to an organization based in Amman.
More than 60,000 government troops have been killed during the war, the UK-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human rights estimates.
The Syrian government pledges to provide the families of soldiers whose deaths are confirmed with various benefits and privileges.
Currently, those benefits include “a full salary to the parents of an unmarried martyr,” state media outlet SANA reported this week. Widows and children are entitled to a government job offer.
Other benefits include funds for burial procedures, healthcare and free public transportation, says Damascus lawyer al-Dimashqi.
Even so, the benefits for army personnel killed in the line of duty were more extensive before the war, al-Dimashqi tells Syria Direct. Pre-war benefits included a one-time payout, housing and special schools for the children of martyrs, he says.
But years of war have battered the Syrian economy, leaving the government with depleted resources.
Today, “with the increase in the number of martyrs, the privileges have become very limited,” says the lawyer. Salaries are minimal, schools are full and compensation packages are delayed, he claims.
“Now, the family of a martyr is given a wall clock, a goat or boxes of oranges as a tribute,” he says. “The matter has become farcical.”
Even at a reduced level, the entitlements for army personnel officially recorded as martyrs still surpass anything provided to the three families who spoke with Syria Direct.
Suad says she received documents identifying her husband as a missing person following a visit to the Department of Social Affairs in Homs, but that the papers have done little to improve her situation.
“I show [the documentation] to charitable groups,” she says. Sometimes they offer support with items such as blankets and basic food products.
To support the family, Suad does handiwork from home, and her teenage son, Adham, has dropped out of school to work as a carpenter’s assistant. Still, the family struggles to get by.
On the government’s part, the Syrian Cabinet discussed a draft decree in October that would give the children of missing soldiers preference in university admissions, SANA reported.
One option for families of missing soldiers seeking access to government benefits is to have their relative declared dead through the courts. However, the legal process is lengthy and success rates are low, legal sources tell Syria Direct.
“Syrian law has been, overall, limited with regard to the topic of missing persons,” says Muhammad Nour a-Deen al-Hamidi, a former judge who defected from the Assad government in 2012.
Article 205 of Syrian personal assets law stipulates that if a person is missing “because of war operations or similar situations,” they will be considered dead after a period of four years.
In order to obtain a death certificate, however, al-Hamidi says families need to raise a court case. They may only do so at least four years after the initial disappearance.
“The families can obtain all of their rights,” adds the former judge, “if they win.” Al-Hamidi says he presided over a successful case of this type before his defection.
Missing persons cases were relatively common prior to the outbreak of the war, al-Dimashqi, the Damascus-based lawyer, tells Syria Direct.
“They had a high success rate,” he says, “if the missing person’s security record was clean.”
But in recent years, both al-Dimashqi and al-Hamidi say the number of cases declined, even as the number of missing people increased. The International Commision on Missing Persons reports an estimated 60,000 missing and disappeared Syrians since the start of the civil war.
“There’s a large chance that the case will be lost,” claims al-Dimashqi. “The state is running from its financial obligations due to the war and the increase in missing persons and martyrs.”
The lawyer believes that a decline in missing person cases may also be due to the possibility that a soldier who disappeared defected from the army.
Abu Saeed, a high school physics teacher in Damascus, tells Syria Direct that he has faced doubts over his son Saeed’s loyalty to the government since he went missing in 2013.
Six months after Saeed first disappeared from a Syrian army base in Damascus’ East Ghouta suburbs, his father says he received a call from the army’s social affairs department. They asked if Saeed had been in touch with him.
“They told me, ‘Maybe your son defected from the regime and joined the terrorists,’” he recalls.
“To be honest, I wish that was the case. It would preferable to him being dead.”
While it has been more than four years since Saeed disappeared, his father doesn’t see going to court as a realistic option. He fears the fees required to raise a case would exceed any compensation he might receive.
“Our country is at war and in chaos,” he says. “There is no justice.”
For the families of the missing, the designation of “martyr” is significant not just for the privileges associated with it, but also as recognition that a family member was lost for a noble cause—in this case, defense of the homeland.
“The wife of a martyr is respected and valued wherever she goes,” Suad says. Some days, she tries to imagine what life would be like if her husband’s body were found, and his name recorded on the list of martyrs.
“We would be able to live with dignity,” she says.
The difficulties Suad now faces have led her to question whether her husband made the right choice to serve his country. She often asks herself, “If [Tawfiq] had known that after all he did for the sake of the homeland, his life would be taken like this, would he have stood by the regime?”
“We’ve received nothing for his sacrifice,” she says.
Abu Saeed, whose son was accused of joining the opposition, feels similarly betrayed.
“My son went to serve his army, and maybe he died five years ago,” he says. “No one will admit that he gave his life to save the homeland.”