‘Please don’t forget us’: the hellish search for Syria’s lost prisoners

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A new documentary hears from the individuals who built it out of Assads prisons and their gruesome quest to recognize others who have died in custody

I still remember their last word to me: Please dont forget us. This rings in my ears every day like faith bells, like a daily call for prayer.

Mansour al-Omari, a Syrian human rights activist, recalls the moment his name was called by the jailer after expending nine months in detention. He was lucky to be released, but is haunted by those he left behind.

Conditions in the Syrian regimes detention centres are hellish. Detainees describe being held in overcrowded cells, suffering from malnutrition and regular physical and psychological abuse. Thousands have died under torment, or due to the hostile situations and forget. And many former detainees, ones I have interviewed for the film Syrias Faded: The Case Against Assad, harbour survivors guilt.

Mazen Alhummada, a leftwing activist and employee of an oil company who was detained for 18 months, told us: When we were incarcerated, we promised one another that if one of us got out we would tell the world what was happening inside. I am had decided to disclose this government, just as we agreed. Its my duty to the people who are still there. Mansour echoed this: It is always a cure to my spirits soreness to assist those who are still underground.

Mansour
Mansour al-Omari: It is our duty to act. Photograph: Channel 4

Tens of thousands of Syrians are currently missing in detention, a hidden horror of the six-year-old Syrian civil war. Detention has long been a tool of repression for the government to silence and punish its critics, but it has never before been meted out as penalty on such a vast scale.

From the outbreak of the peaceful protests in 2011 in the wake of the Arab spring, President Bashar al-Assads government cracked down heavily on any and all opposition. Requirements for reform were met by gunfire and the security forces built mass arrests. With the two countries since descended into a brutal civil war, the arrests and detentions have continued to the present day.

The Syrian government were unwilling to disclose the names of those detained or recognise how many people are being held in its clandestine prisons. For families and friends of those detained, this is another form of torture. They search for news about their disappeared loved ones , not knowing whether they are dead or alive.

Mazen has several close family members currently disappeared in detention. I miss them so much. They dont leave my brain. I look at their photos every day and they give me strength to keep going.

Documentation created by the Syrian government attests to their brutality. Photographs taken by the military police catalogue the dead; thousands of these photographs were smuggled out of the country in 2013 by a defector codenamed Caesar. They present more than 6,700 corpses of those who died in the custody of the regime. Many of the bodies are emaciated and present clear signs of torture, with bruises, ignites and eyes gouged out. The corpses are numbered and pictured with a card recording their detention facility.

The Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees has published headshots of these corpses online to enable identification. Families trawl through the Caesar kills looking for missing loved ones. This grim search is plagued with uncertainty; some faces are mutilated or altered by dramatic weight loss. Relatives look again and again at lifeless torsoes trying to recognise people they once knew.

Despite the difficulties, hundreds of individuals have been identified from the Caesar photos. For Mariam Hallak, determining the image of her son Ayham brought some relief. There was a sticker on his forehead saying he was corpse 320 belonging to detention facility 215. For Mariam, he was her youngest son, 25 years old, a popular young man who had been studying for a masters in dentistry.

Seeing Ayhams photograph provided some closure for Mariam, but she still has no clue where his torso is. She “daydreams” of having a tomb for her son. She also wants President Assad and the heads of the security branches to be prosecuted.

The UN has accused the Syrian government of the assassination, rape, torment and extermination of detainees, yet act on accountability for these crimes against humanity has been impeded. A security council resolution to refer Syria to the international criminal tribunal was vetoed by Russia and China.

The Syrian government has repeatedly refused access to independent international monitors to inspect its detention facilities. Amnesty and other groups have been calling for act on this, and for the regime to publish their lists of detainees, their whereabouts and what has happened to the bodies of those who have died.

We have the evidence presented, Mansour pleads. And there is an urgent need to save those who are still alive. It is our duty to act.

Syrias Disappeared: The Case Against Assad is on Channel 4, Thursday 23 March, 10 pm .

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