Maverick Citizen


Institution for Syria’s ‘disappeared’ could serve as model for African states

Institution for Syria’s ‘disappeared’ could serve as model for African states
Women demonstrate after the verdict against a former Syrian secret police officer at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, 13 January 2022. In the world’s first trial on Syrian state torture, Anwar Raslan was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, 27 counts of murder and other offences. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sascha Steinbach)

The practice of enforced disappearances is widespread, though hard to quantify, in Africa. A proposed new UN body could help countries on the continent build up their knowledge about the scourge, which has devastated families across the world.

A UN institution for Syria could be an answer not only for Syrian victims of enforced disappearance, but also for victims from all over the world, according to Eva Nudd, a Nairobi-based human rights lawyer who has worked for many years on the issue of enforced disappearance in Africa. 

I know firsthand the pain of enforced disappearance – the practice of abducting or imprisoning a person, typically committed by government forces or armed opposition groups.

Syrian disappeared

Mariam al-Hallack, whose son Ayham Ghazoul disappeared in Syria. (Photo: Supplied)

Victims of enforced disappearance are placed outside the protection of the law, subject to the cruelties of their captors, while families are trapped “in a situation of uncertainty and anguish”, according to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which adopted landmark guidelines a year ago to provide guidance and support to African Union member states on eradicating the scourge.

My son, Ayham Ghazoul, was a dentistry student who peacefully marched for freedom in the early days of the uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Arrested in February 2012, he endured 86 days of torture, returning home with severe bleeding in his kidneys.

But the regime came for him again on 5 November 2012. He was arrested with other students at Damascus University. Once again, he was severely beaten. Five days later, he was dead. I was many miles away, but I knew something terrible had happened to him. He was 25.

I didn’t learn of his death for three months. Once I received word, I spent 17 months pleading with Syrian government officials, going from office to office, demanding to know where he was buried. They shouted at me: ‘‘If you weren’t an old woman, we would arrest you too!’’

I fled the country without ever learning the answer.

syrian disappeared

Syrians who live in, or have fled to Jordan, carry a photo of alleged chemical attack victims during a protest in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, on 23 August 2013. The protesters condemned the alleged use of chemical weapons which, according to media reports, had been used by the Syrian government in areas surrounding the capital Damascus. (Photo: EPA / Jamal Nasrallah)

My experience is not unique in Syria. More than 100,000 Syrian men, women and children have gone missing or been forcibly disappeared at the hands of Syrian authorities, as well as opposition forces, since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011. The disappearances are ongoing today. 

Nor is my experience unique in Africa.

“On the African continent, the practice of enforced disappearances is widespread,” writes Idrissa Sow, chairperson of the ACHPR’s Working Group on Death Penalty, Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings and Enforced Disappearances in Africa, in his foreword to the guidelines.

Sow notes that the scale of the problem is hard to quantify in Africa, “as many cases are not reported or officially registered”. 

The ACHPR guidelines emphasise the right to know the truth about the disappeared person – an “absolute right, not subject to any limitation or derogation” – which has become not only the central focus of my advocacy, but also the cause of my life.

My son was one of the thousands of victims who were identified through the trove of 53,275 photographs leaked by the anonymous military photographer codenamed “Caesar”. I subsequently co-founded the Caesar Families Association, which is part of the Truth and Justice Charter of Syrian family organisations working to establish a new institution that will clarify the fate and whereabouts of Syria’s detained, abducted and missing persons.

syrian disappeared

Palestinian students burn a poster depicting Syrian President Bashar Assad during a demonstration against his regime at the Unknown Soldier Square in Gaza City on 21 February 2012. (Photo: EPA / Ali Ali)

The proposed UN institution – which is expected to be established by a majority vote in the UN General Assembly in late June – would consolidate existing data and claims from non-government, international, humanitarian and family organisations; examine underused information sources; advocate for access to detention sites; establish a coordination framework with other institutions; and provide comprehensive support to victims, survivors and their families, addressing their psychosocial, legal, administrative, economic and commemorative needs.

‘‘A UN institution for Syria could be an answer not only for Syrian victims but for victims from all over the world,’’ according to Eva Nudd, a Nairobi-based human rights lawyer who has worked for many years on the issue of enforced disappearance in Africa.

‘‘Many countries encounter similar difficulties when confronted by cases of enforced disappearances, lacking technical expertise and resources and even understanding of the crime and their legal obligations. The new institution could serve as a model for countries that need to build up their expertise.”

With my fellow Syrian family members, I have travelled to New York to meet UN representatives from countries from every corner of the world, urging them to support the creation of the new body. We have met with diplomats from the Arab world, Europe, the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America, but we have not been able to secure meetings with representatives of African member states. We are eager to tell diplomats from the continent how the Syrian institution could help them address enforced disappearance crises in their own regions.

My concerns are universal. But they are also personal.

I need to find my son. I need to know where he is, so I can bury him and sit next to his grave. This is what I have been waiting for. A place to bury him would allow me to ease my pain and tell him what I want to say. DM

Mariam al-Hallak, a former teacher and school principal from Syria, is co-founder of Caesar Families Association. She lives in Berlin. This article is also available in French in Jeune Afrique here.


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