AMMAN — Mazen al-Hamada’s decision to return to Damascus last month was perhaps as shocking as the testimony he gave recounting his torture at the hands of the Syrian security apparatus in 2012.
Syrian social media activists claimed Hamada, a high-profile Syrian activist and Assad government torture victim, might have returned to Damascus “under mysterious circumstances” last month. Hamada suffered horrific abuse and witnessed distressing conditions before he fled Syria in 2013.
According to the opposition-leaning Zaman al-Wasl website, Hamada was arrested after landing at Damascus airport and taken to an unidentified location after he had arranged a reconciliation agreement with the Syrian government through its embassy in Berlin, which began in 2018.
The youngest of seventeen children, Hamada was born in 1977 to an educated, middle-class family in the northeast city of Deir e-Zor. His family was routinely followed and arrested even before the revolution of March 2011 because they were always critical of the government. His siblings worked as pharmacists, teachers, and lawyers and Hamada became a field specialist at Schlumberger, an international oil-services company. When the Syrian revolution began nine years ago, Hamada joined a team of coordinators to organize the peaceful protest movement in Deir e-Zor, his hometown, and across Syria.
Every Wednesday at the start of the revolution, he and his friends would meet inside their neighborhood mosque to organize protests after Friday prayers; he would videotape and upload them to YouTube and sometimes his videos appeared in Arabic news broadcasts. They garnered thousands of views. Hamada’s brother was arrested and Hamada was detained and released twice in 2011. After each release, Hamada returned to lining up protests to keep the revolution alive.
“I was hoping for a civil, democratic state based on rule of law,” he said in an interview with Web documentary Echoes of IS. “But that didn’t happen.”
One day in March 2012, a doctor approached Hamada in his hometown and asked him to deliver baby formula to a woman in need in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus. He and his nephews hid 55 packages of baby formula beneath their clothes and took off to meet her at a cafe. Soon after he handed her the bags, he and his nephews were ambushed by security agents who arrested them, pulling their shirts over their heads before throwing them into the back of a car, he said in an interview with Abdelrhman Al Hnedi.
They were stripped, beaten, and thrown in a twelve-foot square holding cell with about forty other detainees in the Air Force Intelligence branch at al-Mezzeh Military Airport, one of the most notorious detention facilities in the country. Hamada recounted the torture he endured in graphic detail during his third detainment in 2012. He was laid on the ground while four men jumped on top of him, cracking his ribs, he said. He was hung from shackles 40 centimeters from the ground for what seemed to be a never-ending amount of time with the weight of his body pulling at his wrists.
He also spoke extensively about the sexual abuse he was subject to and his deteriorating mental state. After nearly a year of detention, Hamada had an infection in his eye and it was dripping with pus. He was so severely beaten that he was urinating blood, he said. He was taken to Hospital 601, a military hospital.
“They said ‘forget your name is Mazen al-Hamada,’” he recounted. “Your name is 1858.”
“You start talking to yourself, saying, ‘where am I?’ You feel like you’re going crazy.”
In June 2013, Hamada’s case was referred to the judiciary and he was transferred to Adra Prison, in Damascus, where he filed an application for proof of the charges against him. According to The New Yorker, the written reply “said that he had been arrested ‘for the crime of terrorism and has been deprived of his liberty since June 5, 2013’—the same date that the charges were filed. Officially, his fifteen months in the Air Force Intelligence branch at al-Mezzeh Military Airport didn’t exist.”
After Hamada showed the judge his cigarette burns, deep purple scars engraved in his wrists, and the black-and-blue welts on his torso, the judge declared him not guilty. Hamada returned to his hometown to find his two nephews were still being detained in the Air Force Intelligence branch in Damascus and other family members had disappeared in security facilities.
“The day they released me, they called my name. I was blindfolded and handcuffed. They gave me back my ID. I went back to Deir e-Zor. Everything was destroyed. Some of my brothers and friends were killed as well,” he said in the interview with Web documentary Echoes of IS.
In his absence, the revolution transformed into a sectarian war. ISIS had established a foothold in Deir e-Zor; Jabhat al-Nusra, which became known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also became a dominating force. Moderate rebel groups were being led by corrupt warlords. Revolutionaries who once fought for freedom were radicalized or killed. Pro-Assad forces were receiving support from neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran.
“They destroyed my house, my youth, my dreams. Everything I was living for. They erased my memories through their killings and violence,” Hamada said. “They wrecked me both physically and mentally.”
Hamada fled to Turkey, then to Greece; he traveled more than seventeen hundred miles to the Netherlands to join his sister who moved there before the war.
Hamada returns to Damascus
Hamada has testified in front of foreign governments and met with U.S. government leaders to raise awareness about northeast Syria. He has discussed the torture he was subject to with national and international NGOs and media outlets. Despite the inevitably retraumatizing conversations, activists who know Hamada said he dealt with his emotional and psycho-social distress in exile, alone.
While reports surrounding Hamada’s return to Damascus have not yet been confirmed, activists agree that he was in need of psycho-social and emotional support and that his psychological and financial troubles “accelerated his return to the regime.”
“If the news of Hamada’s return is confirmed, it will reveal major defects in the approach that we activists take to the campaign for justice and accountability, in particular the respect for the needs of our witnesses and the principle of ‘do no harm’,” Syrian lawyer Deyaa Alrwishdi wrote.
Documenting human rights violations for international justice and accountability necessitates “prioritizing the safety and well-being of witnesses, avoiding exposing witnesses to re-traumatizing events, and calculating potential risks of harm when interacting with witnesses,” Alrwishdi added. “The principles also obligate anyone working with witnesses to assess their needs and provide the necessary support, including medical, psycho-social, and logistical. It is unclear whether Hamada was offered such support.”
If the reports that Hamada has been captured by the government are true, Alrwishdi fears Hamada could show up on Syrian government media, refuting his previous testimonies against the government. He would be unavailable to prosecutors to substantiate conditions, and, according to Alrwishdi, his testimony would be “tainted by the vacillating.”