The Disappeared in the MENA
Neither Dead Nor Alive
She’s tried every single day for many many years without success. And yet, this morning, she’ll wake up and try again. She’ll answer calls from journalists who will ask her: how many years has it been? She will say: 7 years, 25 years, 36 years, an unfathomable number of years.
It’s the International Day of the Disappeared and – for just a few minutes today – she will have everyone’s attention and she will ask them not to forget her loved one. She will plead with rulers, with politicians, with men too attached to their guns. She will tell them she’ll never lose hope but in her heart, she knows it’s getting harder to hold on to hope.
She has many names. In Algeria, her name is Nassera Dutour. In Lebanon, her name is Wadad Halawany. In Syria, her name is Fadwa Mahmoud. And yet, her face is the same anywhere in the Middle East, anywhere in North Africa: tired, pensive, lined with worries, uncertainty, and pain.
Her story is too common across the region, from Iran to Morocco, from Yemen to Libya. Can you count how many people have been disappeared in just the time you’ve been alive?
The Families of the Disappeared
The associations are called some variation of “Families of the Disappeared” – but it’s always the daughters, the mothers, the sisters, the women left behind. Since its creation in 1998, the Algerian association, SOS Disparus, has been seeking truth and justice for thousands of missing persons who disappeared during the internal conflict which engulfed the country in the 1990s and after. Thousands of cases of enforced disappearances took place, with no proper investigation of the cases.
Using every mechanism known to pressure the national authorities, SOS Disparus reached out to the international mechanisms available: more than 4000 cases were submitted to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and dozens to the Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. The group also published reports, books and documentaries. They continue to patiently call for justice, peacefully protesting in the Algerian streets for the past two decades. They have faced it all: violent dispersal, arrests, harassment by the authorities who to this day, deny any responsibility.
"Twenty years after the establishment of the association, many of our members, mothers of disappeared who lived in hope, died in despair without knowing," Nassera Dutour, spokesperson for the association whose son disappeared in 1997, told Amnesty International. "So long as we have a breath of air, we will fight for truth and for justice to be done for the disappeared. We will keep moving forward even if the Algerian authorities ignore us because we know that the world has seen us, sees us and hears us."
Many of our members, mothers of disappeared who lived in hope, died in despair without knowing.
In Lebanon, women began a movement in search for their missing loved ones in 1982, right in the midst of the armed conflict. They are still campaigning today. For over 35 years, they have relentlessly protested, marched, investigated, campaigned, advocated, screened movies and displayed photos in mass exhibitions in public streets. They have spared no effort.
Local and international organizations have identified sites of mass graves, but the authorities refuse to protect these. A draft law to investigate the fate of the disappeared sits in Parliament, awaiting a vote. The families have declared this August the month of the disappeared in hope of ramping up pressure to pass the law. Thousands of people remain missing to this day.
The Wars that Took Them
Disappearances have long been a staple of Iraq’s cycles of violence, both under the authoritarian rule of the former Ba'th regime and during the US invasion and subsequent occupation in 2003. Thousands and thousands of men and boys have gone missing since the fight against the armed group calling itself the “Islamic State” (IS) started in Iraq. The massive number of recent disappearances has remained largely unacknowledged by the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities, as well as by the international community. Despite the prominence of this issue in Iraq, there is no centralized and unified mechanisms to tackle it. The disappearance of male members of a family can often create significant hardship for the family ranging from lack of sense of security to blocks on obtaining civil identification preventing access to education, pensions, and marriage.
“Whenever we’re in Iraq talking to people, the issue of disappearances will always come up," said Razaw Salihy, Amnesty International Iraq Researcher. "Women and men, clutching photos and IDs of their missing loved one, approach us to ask where they can register their family members. It has touched the lives of Iraqis with destructive consequences.”
In Libya, militias and armed groups affiliated to rival governments regularly abduct men and women from their homes or workplace. Victims are targeted for their perceived political opinions, regional origin, profession, or perceived wealth in order to extract cash ransom. Jaber Zain, who has been missing since 25 September 2016 is a prominent example of the targeting of activists. Jaber was abducted after he regularly participated in conferences and meetings on human rights and published Facebook posts critical of the role of militias in Libya and of the situation for women’s rights. To date, the Libyan authorities have failed to disclose Jabir Zain’s whereabouts nor have they ever investigated enforced disappearances or the other crimes committed by militias and armed groups.
In Aden, Yemen, on a hot afternoon in early May as temperatures neared 40 degrees, an Amnesty International researcher observed as a group of mothers whose sons have been missing since they were detained by UAE-backed forces nearly two years ago gathered outside the house of the Yemeni Minister of Interior. Families are not provided any information about where the detained are taken and are left trying to navigate a confusing structure of security forces, where different forces have been carrying out arrests. Mothers, wives, and sisters of those forcibly disappeared have been holding protests for nearly two years now, making the rounds between government and prosecution offices.
In Yemen, testimony after testimony echo the same sentiments. “Shouldn’t they [the detainees] be given a trial? Why else are there courts? They shouldn’t be disappeared this way – not only are we unable to visit them, we don’t even know if they are dead or alive,” said the wife of a detainee who has been held incommunicado for more than two years.
In Syria, more than 80,000 people have gone missing since the start of the crisis in 2011. It’s a deliberate campaign by the government, carried out as part of an organized, widespread attack to collectively punish the civilian population. Tens of thousands have been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance. Amnesty International has called this a crime against humanity. The families suffer the unbearable agony of not knowing what has become of their disappeared relatives.
In 2016, a few Syrian women got together and created “Families for Freedom,” a group seeking solidarity (and solace) to pressure the Syrian government and armed groups to reveal the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones – and to have them returned safely. Fadwa Mahmoud is one of these women. In 2012, her son Maher and her husband Abdulaziz both disappeared in Syria. “I am a mother,” she says, “and my son is not merely a son to me. He was my friend, my companion. But I have faith that one day Maher, and all those disappeared will return to Syria.”
Systematic and Deliberate
In Egypt, the government has been using enforced disappearances as part of a systematic strategy to suppress the opposition and is now even targeting the families of the forcibly disappeared. Hanan Badr el-Din last saw her husband Khalid on the news, injured after attending a protest in in 2013 and could get no news of him after that. Determined to discover the truth, she visited police stations, prisons, hospitals, and morgues and never stopped searching. Hanan co-founded a group of families searching for their loved ones. Four years into her search, during a prison visit Hanan was arrested by guards and later charged with being part of a ‘banned group’ which carries a heavy prison sentence. The other co-founder of the families of the disappeared coalition, Ibrahim Metwaly who had been searching for his disappeared son Amr, was arrested on 10 September 2017 at the airport, while on his way to Geneva to talk about enforced disappearances at the UN.
In 2016, Amnesty International documented how the National Security Agency (NSA) has been abducting, torturing, and forcibly disappearing hundreds in an effort to intimidate and silence peaceful dissent. The practice is still ongoing, as security forces continue to forcibly disappear critics. In some cases, families find their disappeared relatives in the morgue, while the authorities claim that they were killed in gunfights.
Destroying Mass Graves
In Iran, the authorities have never taken responsibility for the massacre in which thousands of political dissidents were forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed in 1988. Prisoners from across the country were detained incommunicado and no news of them was heard for months. Reports circulated among relatives that prisoners were being executed in groups and buried in unmarked mass graves. Distraught family members searched the cemeteries for signs of freshly dug trenches. From late 1988 onwards, families were verbally informed by authorities that their relatives had been executed. However, their bodies were not returned and their burial locations were not disclosed. Today, the number of victims from the mass killings of 1988 is still unknown, although minimum estimates are between 4,000 and 5,000. For nearly three decades, the Iranian authorities have persistently concealed the fate and whereabouts of these victims. No Iranian official has been investigated or brought to justice, and some of the alleged perpetrators continue to hold political office or influential positions in the judiciary.
Families in Iran have been threatened, harassed, and jailed for seeking truth and justice for their loved ones. In recent years, authorities have embarked on a deliberate effort to destroy vital forensic evidence that could hamper the rights to truth, justice and reparations. They are destroying suspected or confirmed mass grave sites that will make it impossible to establish the truth about the scale of the crimes and obtain justice and reparations for the victims and their families. In one shocking example from the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan province, the authorities have bulldozed over a mass grave site in order to build a boulevard and create a park directly on top.
In Palestine, enforced disappearances are not systematic or widespread. However, there are cases that remind us that the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Hamas de facto administration in the Gaza Strip have a blemished track record. On 12 March 2002, six Palestinian men, Ali al-Kadir, Taiseer Ramadhan, Nazem Abu ‘Ali, Shaker Saleh, Ismail Ayash and Mohammad Alqrum all "disappeared" while in custody in a Palestinian Authority (PA) detention centre in Salfit (central Palestinian West Bank). In Gaza, Hamas forces abducted a man and subjected him to enforced disappearance in the first week of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza in the summer of 2014.
To date, the Palestinian authorities have failed to investigate the allegations of torture against these men and no one has been brought to justice for their enforced disappearance.
The Gulf states tell another story and the authorities employ a different – though just as painful – strategy: incommunicado detention. Individuals are arrested without explanation, held sometimes for months, without their family knowing much about their whereabouts, or what charges are they are facing, or if they’ll ever see their loved ones again.
In the United Arab Emirates, prominent human rights defender, Ahmed Mansoor, is one example of the practice. Over a year since his arrest, his family still does not know where he is imprisoned even though he has been brought to trial and sentenced to 10 years. In Bahrain, Sayed Alawi was held almost completely incommunicado for 385 days – his family did not see him and were not informed of his whereabouts, though he was granted a handful of extremely brief phone calls in which he couldn’t disclose his location. When he finally went to court, it was as one of the first civilians tried under Bahrain’s then-new system of military jurisdiction. Alawi’s co-defendant Fadhel Sayed Abbas was in the same incommunicado situation for 400 days.
Today, We Remember
It is one pain that is felt across the MENA region today as we remember and re-iterate our calls to reveal the fate of those disappeared and to ensure their safe return. The numbers add up to hundreds of thousands and the years add up to decades. And those who campaign tirelessly deserve our support and our solidarity, as if they were our own mothers, as if their loved ones were our children. So long as we remember, all hope is not lost that one day they will return.
I keep the faith that one day Maher, and all those disappeared, will return...