Syria: Families left alone to find answers about disappeared relatives

The families of tens of thousands of people who have been forcibly disappeared or abducted since the onset of the crisis in Syria in 2011 have suffered years of agony in the face of government denials and insufficient support from the international community, Amnesty International said today.

On International Day of the Disappeared, the organization called for unified international action to support the families who have spent years left alone to search for their loved ones, often at great risk, in addition to coping with the impact of the disappearance.

Eight years into the crisis, the Syrian government, armed opposition groups and the states with most influence over them - Russia, Turkey and Iran - have failed the relatives of the disappeared and missing who have been struggling for years to know whether their loved ones are alive or dead
Lynn Maalouf

According to the UN, around 100,000 people have been detained, abducted or gone missing in Syria since 2011. At least 90,000 of these are believed to have been arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared by government forces, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

The families of Syria’s disappeared have been left alone to search for their relatives and often at great personal risk
Lynn Maalouf

Amnesty International spoke to 24 relatives of disappeared persons, all of whom - except one man - are women, who sought refuge in Lebanon and Turkey or are displaced inside Syria. Each recounted the profound emotional and psychological consequences of living in enduring uncertainty, compounding the devastating economic impact.

“The families of Syria’s disappeared have been left alone to search for their relatives and often at great personal risk. Eight years into the crisis, the Syrian government, armed opposition groups and the states with most influence over them - Russia, Turkey and Iran - have failed the relatives of the disappeared and missing who have been struggling for years to know whether their loved ones are alive or dead,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.

Amnesty International considers that enforced disappearances in Syria since 2011 have been committed as part of a widespread as well as systematic attack against the civilian population and, therefore, amount to crimes against humanity.

“We are calling on them [Russia, Turkey and Iran] to use their influence in Syria to enable, at the bare minimum, the creation of a central Information Bureau tasked to search, investigate and identify the fate and location of the disappeared in Syria.”

Those forcibly disappeared include peaceful opponents of the government including demonstrators, human rights activists, journalists, doctors and humanitarian workers. Others were targeted because they were perceived to be disloyal to the government or because they had relatives wanted by the authorities. Armed opposition groups have also abducted civilians, including human rights defenders, many of whom are still missing.

We are calling on them [Russia, Turkey and Iran] to use their influence in Syria to enable, at the bare minimum, the creation of a central Information Bureau tasked to search, investigate and identify the fate and location of the disappeared in Syria
Lynn Maalouf

The Syrian government and armed opposition groups have a responsibility to take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of the armed conflict, and must provide families with any information they have as to the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.

Traumatized families

*Sawsan, a refugee and mother of four living in Lebanon, told Amnesty International that her husband from Daraya in Damascus Countryside was arbitrarily detained by the immigration and passport control security forces at the Syrian border with Lebanon for unknown reasons. He has been disappeared since June 2014.

They were planning to leave Syria and enter Lebanon after their daughter died from a chronic liver disease. “My daughter died three months before her father was detained. He was heartbroken for her. Now we are heartbroken for him,” she told Amnesty International.

“The UN suspended aid for us two years ago, just like that they stopped without asking a question. They know that I have three children who need medication [to treat the same disease her daughter died of]. … I want to go back to Syria where things are cheaper, and I can stay with relatives, but they [Syrian government] will take my sons from me even if they are sick and not fit for military service. They don’t care.”

*Fida, a mother of three sons and a daughter from Western Ghouta in Damascus Countryside, told Amnesty International that her son and husband were arrested in 2014 and have been missing since, and her second son went missing since 2018.

In early January 2014, the Syrian government announced it had reconciled with the armed groups in Western Ghouta, which had been besieged until then, and that civilians would be allowed to leave the area. But as they were attempting to leave, both Fida’s husband and son were detained by Syrian security forces at a checkpoint in Sayyeda Zaynab, east of Damascus. They weren’t the only ones. As families evacuated the area, government forces detained all the men and forced women and children to return to the besieged area.

Fida’s second son remained in the area which the Syrian government kept under siege until it recovered control over it in May 2018 following a so-called “reconciliation” agreement with the armed opposition groups. The young man obtained a security clearance; but he was nonetheless arrested and subsequently disappeared.

Fida and her family searched for all their relatives at several security branches, but all of these denied having them. She has not seen or heard anything about her two sons and husband since their disappearance. She told Amnesty International she is afraid that if she returns from Lebanon, where she sought refuge in 2014, the Syrian authorities would also take her [third] son.

*Fatma, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey, told Amnesty International that her husband, a dentist in Aleppo city, was detained on 1 December 2012 at a checkpoint manned by the military security branch, based on information from witnesses who were with her husband in the taxi. She searched for him at the military security branch in Aleppo city, but they denied having him. His family paid a hefty sum of money to several intermediaries, who turned out to be frauds, she added.

My biggest pain is not knowing anything about my husband. If I knew he were dead, it would be better than the misery of not knowing anything. My four children are suffering as well.
*Fatma, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey

“My biggest pain is not knowing anything about my husband. If I knew he were dead, it would be better than the misery of not knowing anything. My four children are suffering as well. They keep asking me if their father will ever come back and I do not know what to tell them. I am carrying the burden of the war, the burden of my husband’s disappearance, and the burden of my children, all alone.”

Like Fida, *Laila, a Syrian refugee from Damascus now living in Lebanon, described how her husband also disappeared at a checkpoint in 2014, while attempting to leave the besieged area in Western Ghouta.

Before fleeing to Lebanon, Laila tried desperately to find her husband, but then stopped, fearing reprisals from security services.

“My family don’t have any money to help me. I rely on the UNHCR card for some humanitarian assistance. My house in Boueida [in Damascus Countryside] was destroyed so I don’t have a house to go back to. I am strong, but every day is a battle to survive. I hear people talking and saying things like; she is alone, she doesn’t have her husband with her,” Laila told Amnesty International.

She also described the negative effect on her children: “Children need care and money. It is difficult for me to be their mother and father. It is not possible to be both because you can’t fill all gaps. I sacrificed a lot.”

An undignified way of disclosing the fate of the disappeared

Until today, the Syrian government has failed to disclose the fate, names and location of people arbitrarily detained and disappeared by Syrian security forces. Some families were notified about the death of their relatives in detention, or were eventually able to find out that their loved one died in custody. Those who receive a death certificate – the only piece of “evidence” provided - are legally bound to then register the person’s death in civil records, in order to obtain an official death certificate.

The Syrian government continues to fail in its obligations to ensure the right to know of the families – and this, even in cases where families eventually learned that their relatives died.
Lynn Maalouf

Amnesty International reviewed copies of two death certificates which include the name of the deceased, information about two witnesses confirming the death, and the cause of death, which usually is recorded as either “heart attack” or “brain stroke”. The certificate is stamped by the hospital and signed by one or more official.

In May 2018, the Syrian government issued official death notices of hundreds of people who had been subjected to enforced disappearance, without notifying their families or providing death certificates issued by a hospital or medical examiner. Amnesty International reviewed copies of two official death notices issued by the civil registry in Damascus which show the name and national number of the deceased, name of father and mother and their respective national numbers, date of birth, place of death and date of death.

The Syrian government is actively and knowingly obstructing the families’ right to know the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, and in doing so, is sustaining the unbearable agony of uncertainty that befalls the relatives left behind, most often women and children
Lynn Maalouf

Amnesty International interviewed four families who received written confirmation of the death of their disappeared relatives. *Samar told Amnesty International that her nephew, who worked in a government institution in Damascus, was arbitrarily detained in a raid by military intelligence security forces in mid-2015 and subsequently disappeared. “He has two daughters. My sister and his wife searched for him everywhere but they all denied having him. She went several times to the military court and military police, but his name was not in the system [of people who died],” Samar told Amnesty.

“Last year, she [his mother] went to the civil registry to get a family certificate to register his children in school. Just like that, she saw that his status was changed to “deceased”. The certificate said that he died in June 2016 [exact date withheld for security reasons].”

“The Syrian government continues to fail in its obligations to ensure the right to know of the families – and this, even in cases where families eventually learned that their relatives died. It never discloses the circumstances or the manner of death in any credible way, if at all. The authorities have never handed over the remains of deceased persons for their proper burial, or even provided the location of where they were buried. The Syrian government is actively and knowingly obstructing the families’ right to know the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, and in doing so, is sustaining the unbearable agony of uncertainty that befalls the relatives left behind, most often women and children,” said Lynn Maalouf.

Uncertainty for families

The lack of credible information means that even families who did obtain a death certificate from a hospital or from public records often have found it difficult to believe or accept the death of their loved one, without any further evidence, including seeing the body. The obligation to then register their relatives as dead, without having this conviction or evidence, is an added layer of cruelty on the families, and only drives the notion further that disclosing information can only be done in a credible and dignified manner.

We couldn’t believe that he was killed. Many of our friends and relatives received a death certificate and then their relatives in detention turned out to be alive. I want the body. This is the only way I can believe he died
*Sana, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey

*Wafa, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, told Amnesty International that her husband and son had disappeared in May 2012 and July 2012 respectively. The military police told her that both her son and husband had been killed, when she sought answers, but no other information was provided - and Wafa remains hopeful they are still alive.

*Sana, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey, told Amnesty International that her husband went missing in October 2012 after he went to a police station in Damascus to report his stolen wallet. “My mother-in-law died last year. All this time she didn’t stop looking for him. She filed a missing application several times even after receiving his death certificate from Tishreen Hospital which stated he died on 13 October 2013,” she told Amnesty International.

“We couldn’t believe that he was killed. Many of our friends and relatives received a death certificate and then their relatives in detention turned out to be alive. I want the body. This is the only way I can believe he died.”

*Names have been changed to protect the women’s identity.