June 23, 2020

Why refugees can't return to Syria

Wafa Mustafa says the risks of detention mean "There is no security in Syria for anyone"

It is now 2542 days since my Dad was taken from us. I haven’t seen him since he was detained by the Syrian regime and I have never been told why he was taken into detention or what he was charged with. However, what I do know is that my father is a humanitarian who believed in the power of people. He taught us to be free and to work for our communities.

There are more than 130,000 others who are denied precious time with their families and the number of people detained in Syria continues to rise. Just this month activists have been arrested for peacefully protesting for freedom and democracy. Some return to Syria only to be arrested and disappeared. Some feel they have no choice but to “reconcile” with the regime and still they are detained. There are no guarantees and no one is safe in Syria.

In March 2011, a group of children was arrested and tortured for writing anti-government graffiti that was inspired by the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. Peaceful protests, in which my Dad and I participated, broke out in Syria and became widespread. Assad and the Syrian government responded by arresting and killing hundreds of protestors and their family members.

I was myself detained in September 2011 in branch 215 at the Military Intelligence Directorate in Damascus. At the same time, my father was arrested by the state security branch in Hama. A month later, he was released. Again, in July 2013, he was forcibly disappeared by the regime in Damascus.

On the 27th of last month, I stood outside the courthouse in the German town of Koblenz to witness the world’s first trial of Syrian state torture. Two members of Assad’s regime are on trial for murdering and torturing thousands of detainees and it was the first week that survivors were finally speaking out against their oppressors in court.

The day the trial kicked off in Germany was an emotional day for all families of detainees knowing that we are witnessing one step towards justice and accountability in Syria. It will be a long journey and this is only the start but it has started and I want it to end in Syria.

It’s a crucial first step towards accountability in Syria, that might eventually expose a chain of command that goes all the way up to Assad. But at the same time, people are still suffering in inhumane cells to this day. We must not wait until they are killed by COVID or tortured to death to start seeking justice. We can’t have any political solution in Syria without justice being taken seriously.

Six years ago, after the disappearance of my father, my mother, my sister and I found ourselves alone in the world. My sister was 13 years old. It was too dangerous for us to stay in Syria and I had to take responsibility for what we should do. We were all hesitant. We wanted to wait for my father at home but we knew he would want us to be safe. We had to flee the country illegally because in Syria, mothers cannot travel with children without the father’s consent. This is still happening today. Because of this law, many women have had to flee illegally for their safety and that of their children.

Now my family is scattered around the world. As we have connected to other Syrians who have fled, I have realized that I am not the only woman counting the days until her father comes back. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls from Syria are also looking for a loved one. When you lose a loved one, one of your relatives, when they are detained or when they disappear, it’s like waking up one day and realizing that you have lost a limb. It’s as difficult and critical as that.

In order to understand, accept and deal with this reality and move forward, it requires a lot of time and hope. It’s a growing pain, and it’s a pain bigger than any other. Even though there is nothing to hold on to, the one thing that keeps me going is to live by what my father has taught me and the hope that one day he can be free and reunited with us.

I joined Families for Freedom more than a year ago. We are all women who have missing family members who have been disappeared by Assad, ISIS or other actors who continue to use detention as a weapon to terrorise young people, activists and ordinary civilians. We are pushing the international community to do more to free all detainees and missing persons and to hold those responsible to account.

I went alone to the court in Koblenz with 61 photos of fathers, sisters, brothers and daughters in the hope that our calls for freedom will be heard. These photos of our loved ones, snatched from us and missing from every birthday meal and family moment, are the closest we can get to representing them at the trial.

Wafa Mustafa sits between pictures of victims of the Syrian regime as she holds a picture of her father, during a protest outside the trial against two Syrian former intelligence officers accused of crimes against humanity in detention centres, in the first trial of its kind to emerge from the Syrian conflict, in Koblenz, western Germany. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes / AFP)

The trial proves our concerns regarding refugee deportations — that Syria is a torture state under the Assad regime. The investigation of the Assad government’s crimes conducted in Germany will prove that torture in Assad’s Syria is systematic and widespread. Detention is used as a means to oppress those who oppose the regime and to maintain Assad’s power — at any price. Sending or deporting people back to Syria means exposing them to likely detention and torture.

People are still being detained in Syria. Just in 2019, around 5000 cases of arbitrary arrests were documented by Syrian Network for Human Rights. By now, we are all aware of the horror inside detention centres, starting with the humiliation and removal of human dignity, and ending with killing under torture.

It is not too late to save detainees, those who are still in detention centres living under horrific conditions. Imagine if COVID 19 spreads in these underground basements. If not already. This trial emphasizes, now more than ever, that the international community must take action, as they can still save lives and bring some amount of justice and answers for families like mine.

My father is a human rights defender and I have learnt from him and I will never stop demanding freedom for those detained. I will never tire of explaining the risks that face any Syrian who dares stand up for human rights. I will continue to campaign until my Dad is standing by my side and able to speak up for justice using his own voice. I want my Dad free.

This article was originally published in German in BILD on 19th June 2020