Ten years on from the start of the Syrian revolution, many families have been waiting for a phone call with any kind of news about their loved ones. Even while Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad claims that the war is over and peace is returning, medics, humanitarians and human rights defenders continue to be detained and tortured. Many have gone for years not knowing what has happened to their relatives, crippling themselves financially to find any information, always fearing the worst.
Through a series of photographs and interviews, this essay tells the stories of those demanding justice and accountability on behalf of the detained – they are determined not to be silenced.
Samar, Antwerp, The Netherlands
Samar Alouni is a member of Families For Freedom, a women-led movement of Syrian families demanding freedom for all of the country’s detained and disappeared. She continues to campaign for answers about her husband who has been detained for more than six years.
“He was a university professor and every day passed through checkpoints without any problem. Then one day they stopped him and took him away,” she said.
“The regime told me if I wanted to see my husband again I had to pay a lot of money. Two days before they were meant to hand him over they told me I had to pay even more. Then suddenly the person organising the arrangement called again and told me to forget about it, my husband wasn’t coming back. This was in 2015.”
Samar browses a photo album with photos of her detained husband
Samar tried to find any information she could. Everyone kept telling her to leave because she and her family were in danger. She managed to get out with her children to Lebanon and eventually settled in the Netherlands, where she continues to campaign to find answers about her husband.
“Nothing is harder than waiting like this, not knowing what news might come. And not being able to do anything at all, it leaves you hopeless… I called people every single day to find out anything about what had happened to him. Without him, without knowing, I’m not really living. My life is just waiting.
“The hardest thing about waiting is the constant fear. I used to hide my fear from children and they did the same for me. I feared reading the names of detainees and those who died in case I saw his name. I need to keep hoping. I don’t just want freedom for my husband but for everyone who has been taken away. I want the regime to be held accountable for what they have done. I want to be able to say one day that we got our rights and the rights of the detained.
“Even if they’re dead it is our right to have their bodies. The families want the bodies of their loved ones, to know how they died. The regime tells people that they die of heart attacks but we know that is not true. We know what happens in the detention centres. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognise their faces because of torture and sickness. I wait for justice and to be treated fairly. This is a long road but we will continue looking for them.
“The other families and I have all dedicated our lives to this. We’ll do everything we can to keep going, to find any information. We will always raise our voices and keep talking about this. Maybe one day it will reach the ears of someone who can actually change something. I will always keep fighting to be heard. But so far no one is listening.”
Latifah, Al-Bekaa refugee camp, Lebanon
Latifah lost one of her brothers to bombings in 2018; the same year her other brother and his wife both disappeared, on separate occasions.
“We’ve never been given any information at all. We don’t even know who took him or why. It could have been the regime but it also could have been Isis,” she said.
“My brother and his wife had four children. The youngest, who was only nine months old, got very sick after they took away his parents and died. Their other three children are now with me here in Lebanon. I had already left Syria when this happened. I came to Lebanon in 2013 and lived in a refugee camp. It was extremely hard to bring the children to Lebanon. They had no ID with them at all, there was no proof they were my family. It took 18 months working with a lawyer to prove who they were and to bring them here.
“At least we have a grave for the baby where he can be visited and grieved. We have nothing for my brother and sister-in-law. We’ve searched and searched, trying to find any information about what happened but so far we have been given nothing.
“Being in the refugee camp makes it more difficult. It’s not stable here. It adds more fear and uncertainty to our situation. But we can still search for information. We’re going through any channel possible. I will wait for 100 years if I have to, to know what has happened. It is my right. I’ve knocked on every door possible trying to find an answer.
“But I have not lost hope. Every time my phone rings I believe it is my brother calling. I can’t describe how hard those feelings are.
“The children are just waiting. I talk to them about their parents all the time. I tell them stories about them, how they used to live their lives. My heart breaks when I see my niece sleeping alone, dreaming every night that she holds her mother’s hand. She lives on a hope and she will not give it up as long as she breathes.
“We have a right to know what happened to them. They are stealing our rights. We are living under oppression and we’re not able to do anything. We can’t even ask about our loved ones, they threaten to kill us if we try to find anything out.
“I will never be quiet. The regime uses detention as a way of trying to silence the people. Once they see what has happened to their loved ones, they’re so frightened of losing the remaining members of their family that they stay silent. But it makes me want to speak out even more. If there’s any chance that it could increase my chances of seeing them again, I’d shout as loudly as I could, whatever the danger.
“To my brother and sister-in-law: I’m waiting for you. I’ll do anything to get you back.”
Mariam, Berlin, Germany
Mariam al-Hallak is an activist and former educator now based in Berlin. She’s one of the many Syrians who learnt of their loved ones’ deaths in Assad regime detention centres through the “Caesar photos”— leaked images of thousands of detainees tortured to death in custody.
Dr Ayham Ghazoul was the youngest of Mariam’s three sons. At the start of the revolution, he was studying for his masters degree in dentistry and taking part in the peaceful uprisings in Damascus.
After he joined the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, he and his colleagues were arrested by the regime’s intelligence services and tortured. They released him after three months with severe bleeding in his kidneys.
Once Ayham had recovered he returned to his studies, before being arrested at the university and tortured again. He was beaten severely until he lost consciousness.
At Ayham’s memorial Mariam was told by a government official that he was still alive. For a year and a half, she looked everywhere for him, until another official eventually confirmed that Ayham had died.
“They refused to give me his body and when I asked where he was buried they shouted at me and told me to leave. They said if I weren’t an old woman I would be arrested as well and would never be freed,” she said.
“After six months I received a piece of paper from a government source confirming he had died. The paper had the number of his body and stated the cause of death was a heart attack.”
Mariam had to flee the country to Lebanon, where she met with human rights groups. Together they started to speak out about what was happening. When the Caesar photos were first released, a friend of the family managed to identify Ayham and confirmed it to Mariam. Since then, she has not stopped campaigning.
Mariam met with other families who had learnt of their loved ones’ deaths through the leak of the Caesar photos, and in 2018 they founded the Caesar Families Association to campaign for justice and accountability.
“I need to know where he is so I can bury him and sit next to his grave. This is what I am waiting for every day. I didn’t get to see him or talk to him but a place to bury him would allow me to ease my pain and tell him what I want to say.
“We have spoken out about this at every opportunity. But still we have been let down for ten years. No one is taking action. Other countries say they are, they say they want to help the Syrian people but they are not doing anything.
“My fight is not only for my son, he is one of so many. I send a message to everyone in our situation to say we are working hard to find them and find our peace. We are working hard to free those who are still in prison. We raise the voice of other mothers, those not able to speak. This is the story of all Syrian people, they are all our sons and daughters.”
Hossam, Istanbul, Turkey
Hossam Koussa’s family had been in Syria since his grandfather left Turkey 40 years ago for work, living comfortably until the start of the revolution. Due to the Turkish government’s position against Assad, they were targeted by the regime.
“One day my uncle was going to work as normal and they stopped him at a checkpoint and asked for his papers. When they saw he was Turkish they took him away. The next day they called our family to tell us to take his body. They’d done so many terrible things to his body, they’d slaughtered him. We were told not to let anyone else see his body but to have him buried immediately,” said Hossam.
“His body was proof of all the barbaric crimes they were committing. Then they warned us not to go to his grave, but my dad insisted he went and he took two Syrian friends with him. There was another checkpoint on their way and they asked for their papers. The Syrians gave their papers and were allowed to pass but when my dad gave his, they took him away. That was in 2012.”
Hossam and his family tried desperately to find out what had happened to his father, while also facing constant harassment for being Turkish. There was once an entire building that the family lived in, then one day there was an announcement that it must be evacuated and no one could enter it because terrorists owned it.
Hossam was 16 at the time, and he knew that it was time for him and his siblings to leave the country. Soon after they left, they heard that the regime had, on several occasions, come to arrest Hossam and his 12-year-old brother. Their mother stayed to look for their father. Some people tried to help her in return for money but all the information was false. In 2015 she left, along with the rest of the family.
“We didn’t have any information about him for eight years. It was only when we found a lawyer to help us in 2020 that we were told he had died four days after he was taken. The lawyer showed us the Caesar photos and I could see it was him… he looked similar to when we last saw him,” he said.
“When we heard the news we went into shock. We’d been told by so many sources for so many years that he was alive and well. We never once considered that we would receive news that he had died. We had kept hope alive all this time. For eight years all we did was wait for him to come back to us.”
“Once I saw the photos and was certain it was him I decided to file a lawsuit in the Turkish courts against the Syrian regime, against those who had done this to my father. I need to hold them accountable. I’m demanding my right to know where his body is so I can bury him in Turkey. I need a proper place for him so that I can visit him like everyone else who has lost a loved one.”
Hossam has also joined the Caesar Families Association.
“I’m doing everything I can but my case hasn’t been given any attention at all. It is just buried amongst many others. But I need to keep fighting… We will get there, however long it takes. In the end we will get there.”
Yasmin Almashan comes from a family with a long history of campaigning. Her father, her brother and uncle were had all been detained and then released by the Syrian regime before the Arab Spring.
When the revolution began in 2011, Yasmin and her family helped to organise peaceful activities and demonstrations in their hometown Deir Ezzor, despite intimidation from the regime.
Her brother Zouheir was killed in 2012 by a sniper when the security forces opened fire on them during a protest. Later that year her brother Oqba was arrested, then her father for asking about his whereabouts. While their father was released months later, the family kept waiting for Oqba. When the regime was bombing the city, her third brother Obaida, who used to work as a first responder, was also shot dead by a sniper.
“That’s what the regime does. They wait until after a bombing for people to come out and help and then they shoot them,” said Yasmin.
Only days later, her fourth brother, a father of eight, was killed by Assad’s bombs that fell on his house. Despite her unimaginable shock, Yasmin kept searching for any information about Oqba, while watching his two daughters grow up not knowing where their father is and if he’s ever going to be back.
In 2014, Yasmin received the news that her youngest brother Bashar, recently married, had been killed by Isis while helping to evacuate the injured from bombings. The family looked for his body, but couldn’t find a trace.
“By this time three of my brothers had been killed, and two had disappeared. You can’t imagine the pain and anxiety we all went through, especially our mother. It’s agony not to know the destiny of your loved ones. We wanted to stay and wait for Oqba but eventually we felt that if he were released, he would find us. But when we arrived in the refugee camp in Turkey in March 2015 a friend came to me to identify one of Caesar’s photos. Immediately when I saw it, I knew it was him, Oqba.
“Even though I now know what happened to him, I’m still waiting. I’m waiting for the moment when I can hear the declaration that all political prisoners are released. When Oqba made the casket for our brother who was first killed, he arranged a huge funeral for him. It’s my responsibility to do the same for him, and let him be buried with respect as a hero and son of Syria.
“When you’re made to wait like that, you feel paralysed. It’s as if someone has pushed a pause button and your life is on hold. It’s very difficult to describe that feeling of being made to wait. It’s like you’re standing still but everything else around you is moving. Everything is growing older, the seasons are changing but you are stuck in the same place, in the same time.”
Yasmin is now based in Germany and campaigns with the Caesar Families Association.
“Because these people are not numbers,” she says. “We all want the same thing: truth and justice.”
Fadwa, Berlin, Germany
Fadwa Mahmoud is an activist, former political prisoner, and a co-founder of Families for Freedom. Her son, Maher Tahan, and husband, Abdulaziz Al Khair, were both detained by the Syrian regime in 2012 when Maher went to pick up Abdulaziz, who was the head of a banned political party, from Damascus airport upon his return from a political conference in China.
“At 5:05pm Maher called me to tell me he was at the airport waiting for his father and I just felt in my heart something was wrong. There was something different in his voice, an unease. When I called back ten minutes later to check on them and the call didn’t go through, I told myself he could just be out of signal. But deep down I knew. I tried to keep myself busy, preparing their food, getting everything ready on the table. But by 8 o’clock they had still not arrived and I knew they’d been taken”.
Fadwa continues to wait for news about her son and husband. “Every time I receive a call from an unknown number I feel great happiness and great fear – this could be the call that tells me where they are. When I’m asleep I often think I hear my phone ringing but when I check, no one has called. It’s like my subconscious is willing it to ring. Whenever I receive a call my hands tremble and my voice shakes as I pick up. It’s the same intensity every time. We’re all feeling like this agony – thousands of families who have had loved ones taken from us. But I don’t let myself think that there is bad news. My mother’s instinct tells me they are alive.”
Fadwa says her fight for answers and justice “is for everyone who has had someone taken from them, and for those who are still in Syria, living in daily fear that they or their loved ones will be taken. The more I speak out, the more I hear from others that they support what I am doing. They tell me when I am strong, they are strong. This gives me strength and motivation to continue.
“I’ve been warned from the beginning not to speak out because it may make their suffering worse. But this is what the regime wants: to silence us. But really, I know they are already being tortured, it won’t stop them being tortured if I stay silent. If I stop speaking out, it’s like telling the regime you can do what you want with impunity. I’m telling the regime we won’t give up. We are still here and we are still fighting to be heard. These are the sons and daughters of Syria who deserve to be free. Other countries talk about supporting human rights but they don’t do anything. They’ve done nothing for the Syrian people.
“I want to shout and be heard at every opportunity I can, and I will do so until my last breath.”
Iman, Idlib, Syria
Iman Obeid’s family had been some of the early organisers of the peaceful protests in 2011 in their hometown of Idlib. As a result, they were constantly targeted by the regime.
Her husband was arrested and harassed by the intelligence services before being released, after which he escaped the city, returning years later when it was liberated from the regime. The family lost all of their belongings in the war, and now struggle to even pay rent.
When Idlib was still under regime control in 2012, Iman’s eldest son was arrested and taken to the main security branch. Three months later, her 14-year-old son was arrested too, staying with his brother in the same prison for 15 days before being separated and taken to a security branch in Damascus. They put 16 accusations against them. One of them was that they had a tank, which even the judge said was too much. The younger son was released three months later. Eight years on, there are still torture marks on his body.
“I can’t describe my feelings when I opened the door and saw him. It was a very strange feeling, he looked totally different: he was much skinnier and he was bleeding, he smelt terrible. I don’t know if I was crying from happiness of seeing him again or sadness of seeing him in that state. He had medical treatment for six months before he started to properly recover. Although psychologically I am sure he is still damaged. He felt so guilty that he was released and not his brother,” she said.
“We have received no real information about my older son. We heard a rumour that he died under torture but we can’t be sure what actually happened, there has been no proof of anything.
“There is always hope. We’ve heard about detainees who have been released. Until I see any proof of my son’s death I will always hope that he will come back. Many mothers hear news that their child has died but they never believe it. I do not believe it.
“I’ve heard they transferred him to Sednaya Prison, but I’ve never been able to visit him. It’s almost impossible to visit anyone there. But even if I were able, I can’t go, they will take me as well because of how I have spoken out against the regime. I heard that all the people from Idlib are forgotten in Sednaya Prison. They don’t even open the files or process their cases.
“The regime wants to silence everyone and make people too afraid to speak but we will keep speaking out. We will keep being the voice of those who’ve been taken from us. These children took to the streets for us, for our future, for our freedom, for our country. So, in return, it is our duty to be their voices.
“I have the right to know about my son and his fate. Our children are not numbers. We raised them, we cared for them, we gave them the best education, the best food and the best life we could give them. It is every mother’s right to know about her children.”
Photographs by Abdullah Hammam, Aref Tammawi, Dalia Khamissy, and Sameer Al-Doumy
Find out more about the organisations mentioned in this photo essay and the work they do:
- Families for Freedom
- The Caesar Families Association
- The Association of Detainees and The Missing in Sednaya Prison
If you’d like to support the people featured above, and the thousands of other families like them, you can start by signing Families for Freedom’s petition.
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