Inside The Lives Of Syria’s Disappeared Citizens
Rania al-Abbasi is just one of more than 65,000 enforced disappearances in Syria
Syrian dentist Rania al-Abbasi, 45, and her six children were taken from their home in a Damascus suburb by government agents on March 11, 2013. The family has not been heard from since, making her just one of the over 65,000 Syrian disappearances that have taken place since 2011.
Rania’s children were 14, 13, 11, eight, six and two years old at the time of the arrest. In the days leading up to the incident, Rania’s husband, Abdulrahman Yasin, was arrested and her home looted of valuables, according to Rania’s family members. Syrian government authorities have not provided any reason for the arrest nor have they revealed the family’s whereabouts.
“She is not part of any political demonstration,” Rania’s sister Naila said in a Skype interview. Naila said Rania did not speak out against the Assad regime and did not feel she was at risk while living in Syria because she was not a political activist. Naila, who resides in Saudi Arabia along with the rest of the al-Abbasi family, said Rania had all of the paperwork to live in Saudi Arabia but insisted on living in Damascus, despite her family’s concerns.
“She [wanted] to raise her children at home,” said Naila. She said Rania, a successful dentist and former chess champion, is a modest person who is always looking to help others. Naila suspects Rania and her husband were arrested because they provided humanitarian support to Syrians who had been displaced.
Claudia Scheufler, Amnesy International’s campaigner for Syria and Lebanon, said enforced disappearances are a common and ongoing problem in Syria. The UN defines an enforced disappearance as “an arrest, detention or abduction, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by the concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared.”
She said the Syrian disappearances have been a “hallmark of the Assad family for a decade” and they have escalated since 2011. Initially, protestors were targeted but it has now become a systemic, widespread issue, with peaceful activists, journalists, doctors, lawyers, and any civilians seen as being unsupportive of the government sought out as well. Recently, anti-government groups have started disappearing people as well, sometimes using the victims as hostages and negotiating for ransoms.
“It’s very rare that we find a family that hasn’t been affected by forcible detention,” said Scheufler. She said families are given no information about their loved ones’ whereabouts if they are disappeared, and sometimes they pay bribes in a desperate attempt to gain any information they can. However, if they ask too many questions they could be arrested themselves.
In Amnesty International’s report about the detention cells, former detainees recall being tortured, drinking from the toilet, using blood-stained blankets previously used on a corpse, and taking shifts for sleeping since there wasn’t enough space for everyone to lay down. In the report, Raneem Ma’touq, a fine arts student, remembered dead bodies lying in the hallways and bathrooms for days. She said when she tried to go on a hunger strike, a guard took another woman who had attempted a hunger strike and sexually assaulted her with a bottle in front of Ma’touq as a warning.
These stories account for only a few of thousands of Syrians who have been forcibly disappeared since 2011. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented 65,116 individuals who were disappeared between March 2011 and August 2015 and were still missing in August. Of these individuals, SNHR estimates that 58,148 are civilians and 6,968 are fighters. Ninety percent are men, four percent are women and 6 percent are children. Due to the nature of the disappearances and the lack of information surrounding them, Syrian experts estimate that the numbers could be much higher than that.
Amnesty International put a spotlight on Rania’s case, highlighting her disappearance as part of their Write for Rights campaign, which ran from December 4 to 18. Amnesty’s campaign asked people to write letters, emails and tweets on behalf of 12 international human rights cases, including Rania’s. They have received approximately 2.1 million “actions” on all of the cases. Rania’s disappearance was also highlighted with a mural at an Art for Rights event in New Orleans on December 12.
A lawyer in Damascus brought Rania’s case to Amnesty International’s attention, and they were particularly drawn to it because the entire family was forcibly disappeared, including six young children. The hope is that Rania and her family will join the ranks of forcibly disappeared victims who have been released.
Journalist Mansour al-Omari, 36, was arrested in Feb. 2012 along with 15 of his colleagues at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. He was forcibly disappeared for almost a year and now lives in exile in Sweden.
In a Skype interview, al-Omari said he was not beaten during the first month he was detained. However, he said he could clearly hear other people being tortured around him. “The sound of electricity, we heard it all of the time, with people shouting hysterically,” said al-Omari, referring to people being given electrical shocks.
He said one guard told a victim to bark like a dog while he was being beaten. “The victim barked and the guard said ‘No, I don’t like it, you should bark from your heart.’” Al-Omari said one man in his cell was hung by his hand for 4-5 hours, then taken down and whipped.
When he and some of his colleagues were taken to a different detention center, he said he remembers walking down a row of soldiers who beat all of them using iron bars inside water pipes. He said his legs were badly injured and he could barely stand afterward, but it was about a month until a doctor came in to see him.
Al-Omari, who lost approximately 60 pounds while being detained, said he considers himself lucky that he made it out alive. He said one of his colleagues, Ayham Ghazzoul, was killed in the detention centers. After a variety of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, and political leaders campaigned for the release of al-Omari and his colleagues, al-Omari was released in February 2013.
When he left, al-Omari smuggled out a shirt with the names of about 57 detainees written on it. He and a group of others wrote the names down by mixing blood from their gums and rust, sewing the names inside the collar and sleeves of a shirt by using a chicken bone.
Conflict expert Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini said the enforced disappearances are, generally speaking, about “sowing fear and uncertainty” amongst the country’s citizens. She said that people who are peacefully trying to do work for their community, but who haven’t aligned themselves with the regime or the opposition, are often the most vulnerable for detainment and violent attacks.
“Basic safety for ordinary citizens, for the people who are keeping the communities together, that should be priority number one,” said Naraghi-Anderlini. “Because neither side likes them, they are probably at higher risk than anybody else.”
She said the international community should recognize the peaceful actors in Syria and take note of the abuses against them, coming from both sides of the conflict.
Meanwhile, al-Omari is working on a book about his experiences and striving to raise awareness to the plight of the disappeared.
“I guess the reason they are not talked about so much is because nobody sees them,” said al-Omari. “When some place in Aleppo gets hit by a Russian air strike and a girl dies, her photo will be all around, people will talk about it, because they can see it.” He said since people can’t see the conditions of the detention cells, it’s hard to draw attention to the horrors inside.
“This issue is so widespread and systemic that we think this amounts to crimes against humanity,” said Amnesty International’s Claudia Scheufler.
Rania’s family fears that the conditions al-Omari and others describe are what Rania and her family are enduring. Naila, who recently traveled around Italy to draw more attention to Rania’s case, said she is especially worried about the children. She said she stays awake at night wondering if they are hungry or screaming.
“They like to dance, to eat well, to party, “ said Naila. “They have nothing to do with this whole war. They cannot tolerate a very severe situation.”
She said that she hopes that Amnesty International and human rights groups can help secure Rania and her family’s release, or at least help her learn more about their whereabouts. “At the end of this, I hope I have any response.”