Syrian peace talks come and go with no mention of the 100,000 civilians being held prisoner, some for years
“My husband was detained nearly five years ago, in September 2012,” says Naseem Alshami. “It was at random – the Syrian Army wanted to set up a checkpoint next to our land, so they went into the fields and seized everyone who was there, just to get them out of the way.”
Since then Naseem, 39, has suffered extremes of hope and despair as she, like tens of thousands of other people with family members who have been arrested or simply disappeared in Syria, tries to find out what has happened to Mohammed Alshami, her 45-year-old husband. They have eight children, ranging in age from eight to 21.
“In 2014 a man who was released told me he had been with my husband, but two months later another ex-detainee said he had heard Mohammed had died,” says Naseem. “Then in 2016 another released man said he was still alive, but now I have again been told he is dead.” That was after she paid “a lot of money”, a $400 bribe, to someone described as close to the Assad regime.
According to the intermediary, there was a medical report which said Mohammed had died of kidney failure and a collapsed lung – often given as the cause of death when a prisoner has in fact been executed – but he refused to provide a copy. “That’s why I still have hope,” says Naseem. Her composure at last cracking, she cries: “How can I tell my eight-year-old daughter that her father is dead? Until I am sure, I don’t want to say it.” At this the interpreter also breaks down in tears, revealing that her mother was taken away by the Syrian authorities, and is feared dead.
We are talking in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, less than an hour’s drive from the border area of Syria where Naseem and her husband farmed extensive landholdings. “We were considered rich,” she says. After her husband’s arrest, she adds, “the first year was the hardest, but then I decided I had to stop grieving and crying, and help the wives and children of other detainees”.
The group she set up supported hundreds of families, but in 2015 Naseem had to leave Syria with nothing. “I wish I had something of Mohammed’s, to remember him by,” she says. “I can just look at his photo on my phone.”
Naseem works with refugee families in Lebanon. She is also a member of an international pressure group called Families for Freedom, which seeks to publicise the plight of up to 100,000 civilians detained in Syria by various armed factions. The vast majority are being held by the regime, which until now has refused to discuss the issue in peace negotiations – when individual cases are raised, Damascus routinely denies even that they have been arrested. Only military detainees have been the subject of talks, with exchanges occasionally agreed as part of local ceasefire deals.
The core of Families for Freedom is a small group of women, each of whom, like Naseem, has a family member in detention. Supported by three civil society organisations – Dawlaty, The Syria Campaign and Women Now for Development – they are spread across the Middle East and Europe, including one still in Syria. In desperation, the women decided that publicising the fate of their loved ones could not make their situation any worse, and attracted worldwide attention in 2017 by holding up poster-sized photographs of their missing family members outside peace talks in Geneva.
Naseem could not go to Switzerland, but watched on television as Mohammed’s picture – the one she carries on her mobile – was displayed. The United Nations special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, met the women and promised to raise the question of civilian detainees, but the Assad government remains obdurate.
Asmaa al-Sakka, one of two British members of Families for Freedom, thinks she knows why. “If they agree to talk about civilian detainees, the world would discover that thousands have been killed, and that Assad is a war criminal,” she says. “How could [the regime] have any credibility after that?” Her father, Abd al-Akram al-Sakka, an Islamic scholar, was arrested in July 2011. Nothing has been heard of him since, apart from one released detainee who says he saw him at a military court in September 2012.
Asmaa, who lives in Manchester, believes Assad will not face pressure from the Security Council powers. “Now they are talking about rehabilitating him,” she says. But Anne Street, humanitarian policy director for the British aid agency CAFOD, warns that the issue of civilian detainees cannot be postponed indefinitely.
Pointing out that Britain is a signatory to Security Council resolution 1325, which calls for women to play a central role in peace negotiations, she says: “Once a formal settlement is reached, peace has to be built at the community level, addressing all the issues of impunity, violation of human rights, and breaches of international law and humanitarian law. Otherwise there will never be a lasting peace.”
In Lebanon, Naseem says: “The families of detainees are in the worst position, because we don’t know if our loved ones are alive or dead. We need the international community to help us find out.”
Names have been changed in this article