The journey into the twilight world of the Syrian regime begins with a name; sometimes shouted out in the middle of the night by armed men, sometimes spoken calmly by an officer arriving unannounced at a workplace. Too often, it ends with a name too, starkly printed on a list of the dead. Between the two lies imprisonment and torture.
Last Thursday, August 30, marked the International Day of the Disappeared, a day remembering the victims of enforced disappearances. This year, the day has particular significance for Syrians, because, in the past few weeks, the Assad regime has abruptly started publishing lists of those who died over the past few years while in custody. For years, the regime has refused to identify those it has imprisoned, not even acknowledging that they were being held. But since April, thousands of names have been released, with families who thought their loved ones were imprisoned discovering they have been dead for years.
Many more are still unidentified. The families of these disappeared exist in a legal and emotional limbo, unable to get on with their lives, unable to mourn, unable to live. Even as the lists of the dead come out of the prisons of the regime, there is still silence for thousands of families. For them, the long wait to discover the truth may only just be beginning.
Forced disappearance has long been a tool of repression by the Assad regime. During the 2011 uprising and the civil war it became, tens of thousands of Syrians – estimates vary: 80,000, 100,000, perhaps more – were abducted, ending up in the sprawling network of jails run by the various military and intelligence agencies.
Many have not been heard from since. The sheer number of Syrians vanished means that many of those in exile or seeking refuge abroad have stories of family members who were taken without warning.
They often have a similar theme: the husband or brother (the disappeared are usually, though not always, men, and many are children) abruptly vanishes and it is only days later that the family realize he has been kidnapped. They ask at the police station and the jail. They seek information from the military authorities. Everywhere is a dead end, a blank wall. No one confirms if they are imprisoned, on what charges, where, and there is no access to lawyers. Sometimes relatives who enquire are themselves arrested. This uncertainty goes on for years, an impossible emotional situation and, in a society where the husband is usually head of the household, an economically devastating one.
Something shifted inside the regime earlier this year, and lists of thousands of names of the dead have been released since April. Relatives described military personnel turning up at their doors with death certificates, and of lists unceremoniously displayed in public places.
In many cases, the date of death was listed as years earlier. Some families – having heard from released detainees that their family members were alive more recently than the dates on the death certificates – have raised suspicions that the certificates are either fake, clinging to the hope the detainees may still be alive, or that the regime recently executed prisoners to end the issue.
A convincing argument can be made that the regime, believing it is within striking distance of victory, is seeking to tie up loose ends and give the population the sense that the civil war – and all that happened during it – is over.
Death certificates end the legal limbo of families, allowing them to sell property or gain access to bank accounts, but it cannot end the emotional limbo. Without genuinely knowing how their family members died, without seeing a body, without feeling that they have some answers, tens of thousands of Syrians are caught in a twilight zone, unable to properly mourn.
The fear is that the wait to find out about their loved ones may stretch into a few years or longer.
That has been the horrific experience of thousands of Lebanese families, whose husbands, mothers, sons and daughters disappeared during the 1975-1990 civil war. An estimated 17,000 Lebanese vanished in those 15 years, taken to prisons in Lebanon, Israel and Syria, and the families of most have never been given answers, decades later.
All they have to cling to are faded photographs, small mementoes like school bags, and their memories. Activists, such as the Lebanese photographer Dalia Khamissy, who documents the haunting limbo these families find themselves in, have tried to keep the issue in the forefront of the public’s mind, calling for a national commission, along the lines of the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, to get to the truth of what happened. But there appears to be little political appetite to reopen old wounds, in a country still scarred by the civil war and with another civil war next door.
But without knowing what happened, these families will be continue to live in limbo, caught between hope and mourning. The war will never truly be over.
Those who disappeared, in Syria as in Lebanon, were not simply names on a list. For their families, they were their whole world. No one can forget the day their whole world vanished.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.