BEIRUT – “What did you fear most in prison?” Yasmine asked her brother after he was released from a 7-month ordeal in a Syrian detention facility in 2011. Her brother’s answer has haunted her ever since: “I feared that my voice was suffocated by the regime and that you were not talking about me. If my family doesn’t raise the voice, we are done.”
Two years later, Yasmine’s brother – a university student who was taking part in the protests in Syria – was detained again and his fate remains unknown up until today. He is one of the 60,000 people who have gone missing since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. “I can’t remain silent; I will raise my voice for my brother because he can’t raise his,” said Yasmine, now 31-years-old and living in Lebanon.
Today Yasmine is part of Families for Freedom (FFF), a women-led movement that raises the cause of detainees and the forcibly disappeared in Syria. They have active groups in Lebanon, Turkey, Germany and the United Kingdom, and are working to create groups in Jordan and the Netherlands. FFF was launched in Switzerland in 2017 by five women, among them human rights lawyer Noura Ghazi.
Noura felt from a young age the weight of not knowing the fate of the loved ones. Her father led an opposition party and was constantly detained. “I grew up between detainees, when I was 12-years old I decided to become a human rights lawyer,” Noura told Syria Direct.
Early in the 2011 revolution, Noura met Bassel Khartabil, a prominent internet freedom activist who would later become her husband. He was detained and then transferred to an unknown location.
“We are not just relatives to missing persons, detainees or forcibly disappeared, we are activists, we advocate for the cause of detention and forced disappearances,” explained Ghazi from a Beirut café. She currently leads No Photo Zone, an organization that offers legal assistance, education and psychosocial support for the families of the detainees and forcibly disappeared.
As most of the detainees are male activists, Yasmine thinks that the Syrian regime underestimated the power of women due to its patriarchal mentality. “They considered that when the men die, the woman will die in life, staying at home grieving all day, but then they discovered that women were organizing and raising their voice,” she said.
Women have played a key role in demanding accountability for the fate of the missing, from Argentina to Bosnia to Lebanon. For decades, the ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’ and Lebanese women have been demanding the truth about their missing loved ones in the Balkan wars and during the Syrian army presence in Lebanon, respectively. After meeting with these two groups, Noura learned “how to be patient, build steps, be powerful like them and accept what happened to our beloved ones.” And for Yasmine the main lesson was to unify their voices: “It makes the cause stronger because this is an international cause.”
Breaking the fear
Currently, forty women are active in the FFF Lebanon group, but building the group meant that fears had to be overcome. Yasmine remembers seeing families crying alone in their houses, but when they started participating in activities “the fear was broken.” She told them: “We need to take action; our prayers won’t get the detainees out.”
First, they distributed food during Ramadan to the families of the detainees to build trust. Then they learned how to document their file and look for their disappeared relatives through the International Committee of the Red Cross. The group also does psychosocial support and learns how to manage stress or panic attacks and openly discuss the effect of loss on their lives. “We need to be strong to carry the advocacy,” Yasmine explained.
Yasmine, who is about to finish her university studies in psychology, shared the technical word for their pain: “We live with an ambiguous loss, [my brother] has disappeared, so is he alive or dead? We don’t know, and it is very difficult.”
In July 2018, the Syrian regime issued hundreds of death certificates for detainees. Yasmine’s dad and Noura’s husband's names were on the list.
For Noura, FFF was key in those hard moments. “You feel that you are not alone and you are surrounded by family, we have the same pain and we dream to know the truth.”
Despite the tragic news, they kept the fight going. “I could choose to be tired and sad and that is not going to benefit my dad, brother or the rest of the detainees, or I can choose to take action,” said Yasmine. Twenty-five women organized an event in memory of the detainees distributing roses and water with the goal of raising awareness about their cause in Lebanon. “Here some people tell us to go back to Syria because there is no conflict, so we did this action to show what the regime does: it killed our loved ones,” said Yasmine.
Neither Yasmine nor Noura received the remains or were informed about the burial location of their loved ones. In their truth-seeking journey, they hope “to hold perpetrators accountable and to achieve justice for Syrians and the future of Syria, there is no sustaining peace without solving this fight,” said Noura.
Koblenz, a ray of hope
In the last few weeks, families of detainees and torture survivors have had their eyes set on the German city of Koblenz, where the world’s first criminal trial on state torture in Syria is taking place against two former officers of the Syrian security apparatus: Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Ghareeb.
The trial offers a ray of hope, although with limitations. “It is the first step towards justice, we are walking the right walk, the light is very far away, but I can see it,” said Yasmine. “This accountability is for people who took the orders from people above them, I hope that accountability will be for the leaders,” Noura pointed out.
The failure of the international community to stop the slaughter in Syria has left scars on many activists. “We don’t trust the international community because they see what is happening but don’t want to take action,” said Yasmine. Noura echoed a similar feeling when on June 16 she briefed the UNSC on the suffering of the Syrian people for ten minutes. “Will my presence here really constitute an addition to finding a solution to the issue of detainees and forcibly disappeared in Syria?” she asked the UNSC attendees – among them the Syrian government representative. “I feel that sometimes we are used somehow because there is not an international political will to stop our suffering,” Ghazi told Syria Direct.
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence as a crime against humanity
Syrian women are also at the forefront of the push for accountability for the sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) perpetrated in Syrian detention facilities.
On June 17, at an all-female press conference, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Syrian Women’s Network and Urnammu announced they had filed a complaint with the German federal public prosecutor against Jamil Hassan, the former head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate, and eight other high-ranking officers for SGBV in detention facilities in Damascus and the central city of Hama. Seven survivors (four women and three men) currently in exile in Europe are parties of the complaint: they witnessed or were subjected to rape or its threat, sexual harassment, electrical shocks to the genitals, forced nudity and forced abortion.
Globally, from Rwanda to Yugoslavia, efforts to hold perpetrators of SGBV accountable have often been led by “female and feminist civil society members and organizations,” the human rights law expert, Sareta Ashraph, said at the press conference held on June 18. “Now we are seeing this narrative replicated in the path of accountability for crimes committed in Syria currently being litigated largely under universal jurisdiction cases in the courts of Germany,” she added.
So far, the charges of SGBV crimes have not been framed as crimes against humanity but as methods of torture. “To recognize a crime means calling it by its true name,” said Ashraph. By framing it as a crime against humanity it is understood not only as “an isolated act but also as a state attack and oppression,” she added.
Sexual and GBV is “part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against a civilian population, and amount to crimes against humanity,” the UN Commission of Inquiry in Syria found in 2018. Their report detailed that women were subjected to humiliating body searches and rape, while men were subjected to rape, electrocution of genitals and genital mutilation.
Women, though, faced double punishment: torture inside the prison and social stigma outside it. Syrian society “looks at women who are detained as carrying the honor of the family and she lost that honor in detention,” said Sema Nasser, from Urnammu. “It was a policy to dehumanize and demoralize families and women using sexualized violence to have a long-term impact after the release,” she said at the press conference.
That is why the Syrian regime “was counting on the fact that it will be difficult to report such crimes in a society such as the Syrian society and they thought they could get away with impunity,” Joumana Seif, Research Fellow at ECCHR, said.
The Syrian regime was not counting on the fact that, years later, Syrian women would still be fighting to keep the record straight. Seif foresees that other Syrian regime perpetrators will be prosecuted in the future. “This kick-off in Germany is just a start,” she said.
*Yasmine’s full name was not disclosed for security reasons.