UNITED NATIONS — Hala Al Ghawi’s eyes water as soon as she starts talking about her brother.
He went missing when anti-government protests broke out in Hama, Syria, in 2011, presumably dragged into what has become a mass detention system for opponents of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
“More than 100,000 detainees are still missing and thousands of families of these people are waiting for any information about their fates. You cannot live in this uncertain condition, not knowing if they have died or not,” Al Ghawi told TRT World on August 9.
According to the United Nations, vast numbers of Syrians have been “disappeared” and likely endured rape, torture or execution. But as the Syrian war’s endgame plays out, Assad may have to start shuttering these lockups and come clean about those who died.
Al Ghawi, a doctor, fled Syria in 2011 as the country spiralled into civil war and now lives in Turkey. In the uncertain hope that her brother has survived years of detention, she is careful not to reveal details that could put him in danger.
Like members of many Syrian families who believe their friends and loved ones were taken by Assad’s security services, one of Al Ghawi’s greatest agonies is not knowing whether her missing brother is dead or alive.
“Since that time, we didn’t hear anything about his situation,” said Al Ghawi, holding back the tears during a visit to UN headquarters this month. “We don’t know. You’re not sure if he has died, so you can pray for him.”
There is good reason to think Al Ghawi’s brother met a nasty fate. UN reports reveal that food is scarce in regime lockups. Few have toilets, diarrhoea is rife. Sick inmates cannot see doctors, many perish in drawn-out deaths.
Worse still, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry has described “extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, and imprisonment in the context of its [the regime’s] widespread and systematic detentions of dissidents”.
Detainees have reportedly been beaten, hung by their wrists, crammed inside tires or electrocuted. Others have been ordered to act like animals, beat one another or have been doused with fuel and burned alive.
A senior sergeant and forensic photographer in Syria’s army, known by the code name ‘Caesar’, left the country with some 55,000 images from inside Assad’s sprawling detention system and made them public in 2014.
They showed thousands of victims of eye gouging, strangulation, long-term starvation and other horrors in what war crimes prosecutors have said is “clear evidence” of systematic torture and mass killings.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre and other legal groups have amassed documents showing that regime officials signed off on arrests and torture at the state-run Saydnaya prison, near Damascus, and other lockups.
Despite this, the overall picture remains vague. Estimates of the number of ‘disappeared’ range up to 140,000. While Jabhat Fatah al Sham and other forces in Syria’s war have caged opponents, the government is believed to be responsible for 90 percent of detainees.
This is heartbreaking for their relatives, which include women and children, Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s head of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, told the Security Council on Wednesday.
“Places of detention are not accessible to the UN or international monitors,” said DiCarlo. “Records from hospitals or burial sites are not public. Some families have been forced to pay enormous sums of money in hope of obtaining information, often in vain.”
Since December 2017, officials from Turkey, Iran and Russia have worked on a UN-sponsored peace process to free detainees in Syria. But these “one-for-one exchanges” have yielded only 109 releases to date, said DiCarlo.
Last spring, regime officials started issuing death notices for political detainees faster than before — often letting relatives know that a loved one had died in custody in the early years of the war.
This was seen as a sign of confidence as Assad’s forces were clawing back some of the remaining pockets of rebel-held territory, supported by Russian airpower and Iran-backed militias on the ground.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and driven millions from their homes since it started with the repression of anti-government protests in 2011, sucking in Turkey, the United States, the Gulf and other players.
Damascus denies running a large-scale abduction, torture and execution programme, saying all arrests and detentions are in line with Syrian law as the government fights terrorists and the presence of foreign forces.
At the council meeting, Syrian diplomat Louay Falouh blasted Britain, France and the US for “double standards” and “blackmail” by backing armed extremists in Syria who have themselves executed thousands of civilians.
For Hanny Megally, a member of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry, the questions over detainees is one of the trickiest issues facing Syria's government, which is currently fighting the last rebel stronghold in the country’s northwest.
On one hand, locking up opponents neutralises them and reminds the rest of the population not to ask too many questions, particularly at a stage when the regime is “fighting for its survival”, said Megally.
But as Assad feels more secure, the calculus changes and he may release detainees to appease a war-weary population and regain legitimacy on the world stage, particularly when reconstruction funds start flowing, he added.
“No state can continue holding tens of thousands of detainees and expect to function,” Megally told TRT World.
“The message is ‘release the women, children, elderly and disabled’. Start somewhere, show the population you’re not vindictive. Lots of people have been caught up in the process who could be released tomorrow.”
For others, this is overly optimistic. Al Ghawi lost not only her brother to Assad’s detention network. Her husband was held and tortured for 70 days. Her father-in-law, seven cousins and many colleagues disappeared and never came back.
For Al Ghawi, clemency and kindness are in short supply in Syria.
“Even people in government-controlled areas don't all support Assad. A lot are just sitting there because they have no choice,” said Al Ghawi. “He wants to exclude any voice that opposes him and drive fear so the people do not rise up or demonstrate against him again.”