A new generation of ‘war missing’ in Syria
Damascus - While in Lebanon people are struggling to learn the truth about what happened to those who vanished 30 years ago, the civil war in Syria is creating a new generation of “the missing”.
Thousands of families across Syria have had no news about relatives for months, amid conflicting reports about the number of missing since the fighting began in 2011.
A report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, to mark the International Day of the Disappeared on August 30th, said as many as 67,651 “victims of forced disappearance” have been recorded in Syria during the past four years.
The report said regime forces are responsible for about 96% of the documented disappearances and other armed groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS), Kurdish forces and al-Nusra Front, are responsible for approximately 2,400.
According to the report, individuals detained by regime forces include 58,148 civilians, with 3,879 children and 2,145 women among them. The largest number of abductions, 25,276, occurred in 2012.
But Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, stressed it was difficult to determine an accurate figure of the missing “in view of the file’s complexity and the fact that it is entangled with the issue of prisoners and detainees”.
Merhi noted, for example, that Jaysh al-Islam in Douma, in the eastern part of rural Damascus, has three detention centres where thousands of people are believed to be held.
“According to our information, there are some 4,000 detainees and these figure among the missing, including 700 men, women and children who disappeared when the group seized control of Adra, near Damascus, a year ago,” Merhi said.
The number of missing includes hundreds of unidentified bodies found on so-called death roads in the outskirts of Damascus, Merhi contended.
The dead were unknown people whom families and human rights groups consider missing.
“Activists took photos of the dead and posted them on social media platforms with the hope that they could be identified. A missing youth from the town of Kfeir Yabous was identified in that way but tens of corpses have been buried in an improvised cemetery, dubbed the ‘cemetery of strangers’ in Moadamiya, without being identified,” Merhi added.
The government set up a Ministry of National Reconciliation, while civil society groups and local reconciliation committees engaged in tracing the missing.
Many disappeared in the intimidating interior of the regime’s “security branches”, where interrogation and torture are carried out, and their families are afraid to inquire about them, notifying instead the local “national reconciliation committees”.
Sheikh Jaber Issa, head of the Popular Reconciliation committees in Syria, said local committees have registered 4,200 as “kidnapped”, including civilians and military personnel, in addition to another 3,400 whose families have no news about them.
“Through our contacts with the various parties active on the ground, we have succeeded in clarifying the fate of some 2,800 people who were detained by both, the authorities and rebel groups,” Issa said.
Tracing the missing in areas outside state control, especially in ISIS-held territory, is an even more complex endeavour. The jihadist group is believed to be holding thousands of military personnel and civilians, including Italian Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’oglio, who disappeared in July 2013.
In Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor, in eastern Syria, scores of people have disappeared at the hands of ISIS and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
According to tribal leader Sheikh Ali Alawa, who heads the al-Shaitat tribe in rural Deir ez-Zor, ISIS committed summary executions of members of the group after they resisted the group’s expansion.
“They slaughtered more than 1,700 people during the invasion of our villages in June 2014. Some 1,200 bodies, including 150 children, were later discovered in five mass graves and, until this moment, the fate of 1,000 other members of the tribe is still unknown,” Alawa said.
Activists of the social media campaign “Deir ez-Zor is being slaughtered silently” have been documenting the names of the missing in the city.
“We have registered 425, including 400 held by ISIS and 25 who had disappeared in the government-controlled part of Deir ez-Zor,” said activist Jad al-Shami, stressing that many are believed to be dead.
“For instance, a list of 500 people killed by ISIS was leaked to us last April by a member of the group. The names on that list figured among the missing,” Shami said. The Turkey-based “Syrian government in exile” has set up a special apparatus within one of its ministries to keep track of the number of missing. A recent statement said “those who have been reported missing until the middle of this year exceeded 30,000,” some of whom were later found to have been killed in the fighting.
It will be almost impossible to have an accurate figure of the people unaccounted for in the Syrian war, where hundreds of armed groups and gangs have indulged in kidnappings and killings for different reasons — political, social and to extract ransom.
With a living example in Lebanon, Syria will probably be struggling to clarify the fate of its “missing of war” for decades.