Families of Syria’s war missing heed Lebanon, Bosnia lessons

Abu Mesto’s husband is among thousands of detainees and forcibly disappeared people who have been missing since the Syrian civil war.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Activists hold portraits of those detained or missing in Syria near a ‘Freedom Bus’ in Paris, last January. (AFP)
Looking for answers. Activists hold portraits of those detained or missing in Syria near a ‘Freedom Bus’ in Paris, last January. (AFP)

BEIRUT - On a September day in 2012, Tarek Abu Mesto, a farmer in the town of Zabadani outside Damascus, headed to work not knowing that he would never see his wife and five children again. During the seven years since, his wife, Ghada, has heard nothing about him. She doesn’t know his whereabouts or whether he is alive.

“He was picking apples along with other workers when soldiers stormed the town and took away many men,” said Ghada Abu Mesto, who had fled with her children to Lebanon.

“In 2014, I had information that he might be detained in Saydnaya prison. I tried hard to ask about him but I was told he was not there. Afterward, they told me he had died from kidney failure but they did not hand me his body. For me he is missing, not dead,” Abu Mesto said.

Abu Mesto’s husband is among thousands of detainees and forcibly disappeared people who have been missing since the Syrian civil war that began as a series of peaceful protests in 2011.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported in 2012 that enforced disappearance was used by the Syrian regime to eliminate opposition groups and to instil fear. Armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra Front, were also found to be responsible for abductions and the killing and torturing of government allies.

Abu Mesto said she is determined to know what happened to her husband. She has joined Families for Freedom, a women-led pressure movement established in 2017 to clarify the fate of the disappeared.

“We are a group of women committed to raising awareness about the issue of the missing, forcibly disappeared and

detainees, which should be a priority in peace talks. It is a humanitarian issue above all and leaving it unresolved would fuel violence and revenge acts as everyone would take justice in his own hands,” Abu Mesto said.

The group staged a sit-in outside international peace talks in Geneva in May 2017. The women, accompanied by supporters, held candles and framed photographs of their missing and detained loved ones.

They submitted demands to the negotiators, including the release of those arbitrarily arrested, clarifying the fate of the disappeared, medical care for prisoners and visitation rights by the families and international humanitarian organisations.

“We also asked for fair trials for the detainees and, if they have died, to know how and where they are buried,” Abu Mesto said.

Some opposition groups have accepted the demands but there has been no response from the regime or its allies, she added.

In a bid to get more organised, Families for Freedom sought guidance from movements with similar experiences in Lebanon and Bosnia.

“We got acquainted with the work of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon and had a look at the work of the Bosnians who succeeded to uncover the fate and whereabouts of their missing loved ones through opening mass graves and DNA identification,” Abu Mesto said.

“It was a very painful experience but we learnt a lot from it,” she said. “In Beirut, we learnt that it takes determination and lots of patience to achieve any progress and in Bosnia, we saw how much women can make an impact and how much efforts it takes to reach your goal… They were determined and did not settle for less than the truth.”

It took decades for Lebanon to pass a law empowering an independent national commission to inquire about the missing. The bill endorsed last November stipulates collection of DNA samples and exhuming mass graves from the 1975-90 civil war for identification.

Some estimates say there are 17,000 missing people in Lebanon but a more plausible figure is approximately 8,000, far below the tens of thousands believed to have disappeared in Syria. Amnesty International said the Syrian number is no fewer than 75,000 people.

While local committees have been documenting information about the missing in Syria, Families for Freedom is engaged in drawing international attention to the plight of the disappeared.

Using a red double-decker London bus dubbed “Freedom Bus,” plastered with dozens of photographs of missing relatives, the group toured London, Paris and Berlin, rallying public and diplomatic support for its cause

“We are seeking to raise awareness and engage the concerned parties. We have no problem talking to anyone — the opposition, the regime, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, et cetera. This issue should be brought to the attention of all parties who are in one way or another involved in the conflict,” Abu Mesto said.

“As a movement, we speak in the name of all the families without distinction. We are the voice of every missing person in Syria,” she added.