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Cruelty, Torture, and Disappearance in Assad’s Syria: Thirteen Years and Counting

In an instant, my family—just like dozens of thousands of families in Syria—was shattered with my father's disappearance, marking the end of one life and the painful birth of another.


It has been 13 years since the Syrian revolution started in March 2011. In those 13 years, more than 350,000 civilians have been killed and more than 13.5 million—over 60 percent of the population—have been displaced. A staggering 155,000 individuals were detained or forcibly disappeared, 135,000 of which suffered this at the hands of the Assad regime. Still to this day, 112,000 people remain forcibly disappeared, leaving their loved ones without any answers. These figures likely represent a fraction of the true numbers, as the documentation of such cases proves challenging for various reasons. 

My father Ali Mustafa is one of those who have been forcibly disappeared. He was an outspoken critic of the Assad regime and a supporter of the Syrian revolution. He was taken from our house in Damascus in July 2013, and we haven’t spoken to him nor heard any news about him ever since. He was a loving father, husband, and comrade, and a very passionate fighter for freedom and dignity. He taught us how to love, live, and resist. It is thanks to my father that, even amidst the losses, horrors, and pain we have endured and still endure, I persist in the fight for his liberation and that of Syria.

In an instant, my family—just like dozens of thousands of families in Syria—was shattered, marking the end of one life and the painful birth of another. The agony of not knowing my father’s fate has been akin to a slow death, a perpetual state of uncertainty and powerlessness that comes with enforced disappearances, kidnappings, and detentions.

Grieving was a luxury we couldn’t afford, thrown into a new land with nothing but the weight of our loss

The ordeal became even more agonizing as we not only lost my father but were compelled to flee the country immediately. Grieving was a luxury we couldn’t afford, thrown into a new land with nothing but the weight of our loss. Building new lives in new countries from scratch while searching for our dad became my family’s reality, a shared experience with countless other families facing similar struggles.

For years, we dared not speak my father’s name among ourselves; not on his birthday, not on the anniversary of his disappearance. Each family member adopted unique coping mechanisms. Forced apart by visas and borders, we found ourselves scattered across Germany, Canada, the United States, and Syria. This physical separation denied us the chance to face our challenges together, intensifying the layers of loss, alienation, and ongoing strife.

Navigating the Syrian situation is a bewildering journey, where individuals thought to be dead return home after funerals held in their honor. In Syria, witnessing death with your own eyes becomes the only way to believe it, and to give up whatever hope you might be clinging to.

A well-known Syrian saying captures the essence of the struggle: “The mother of the martyr can sleep, but the mother of the detainee can’t.” The enforced disappearance of individuals not only devastates lives and families but also adds inexplicable layers of complexity to the struggle for survival.

A shared reality of living in limbo

Enforced disappearances are a key strategy employed by the regime and go beyond targeting those confined within detention centers. Families, loved ones, and entire communities are affected, as individuals are made to vanish in an attempt to erase their existence and stifle dissenting voices. Protestors, students, doctors, and humanitarian aid providers are among those detained, often based on unfounded rumors or simply due to their association with regions or even neighborhoods known for opposing the regime.

The horrors within detention centers are chilling, unfolding as tragic sequences that begin with the humiliation and deprivation of human dignity, progress through frequent torture, and often concludes with death. In 2014, the Caesar photographs showed more than 28,000 pictures of people who had been killed in government detention centers, laying bare the atrocious conditions inside the Assad regime’s cells. The images revealed bodies scarred by torture and starvation, meticulously documented by a state apparatus of terror designed to crush any form of dissent. 

These detention facilities are breeding grounds for disease posing additional threats to the already weakened detainees. The unimaginable suffering within these centers is a stark reminder of the urgent need for international attention and intervention to address the ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The Assad regime deliberately withholds information regarding the whereabouts, fate, and even death of detainees, denying families the basic right to mourn or hold funerals for their loved ones

Sexual harassment and abuse are rampant in detention, affecting both genders. For women, detainment carries an additional layer of suffering, as their communities sometimes assume they were raped while detained, resulting in stigmas that compound the pain and anguish after their release. These brutal tactics are strategically employed to exert pressure on families and communities, magnifying the cost of civil disobedience against the regime.

Families of detainees, including my own, bear a heavy burden of suffering. The Assad regime deliberately withholds information regarding the whereabouts, fate, and even death of detainees, denying families the basic right to mourn or hold funerals for their loved ones. Living in a state of limbo is a shared reality for all affected by the pervasive cruelty of the Assad regime.

The slap in the face of normalization

As a human rights advocate, the recent normalization push with the Assad regime has profoundly impacted my work and the pursuit of justice for the countless victims of the regime’s crimes. 

Over the past few years, Bashar Al-Assad participated in the Arab league summit in Jeddah and met with Arab leaders to discuss the war in Gaza. He was invited to the COP 28 in the UAE, and Abu Dhabi dispatched an ambassador to Damascus for the first time since 2011. Similarly, Saudi Arabia appointed a chargé d’affaires at its embassy, the first Saudi diplomat to Damascus since 2012. These diplomatic gestures and invitations imply a disregard for the crimes committed by the regime, including the numerous documented war crimes and crimes against humanity

The decision to reinstate Syria’s membership in the Arab League is particularly troubling, though not surprising. It happened despite the regime continuing to commit heinous crimes against its people in Idlib and western Aleppo. Since October, the Assad regime has strategically escalated its attacks on civilians with limited scrutiny, targeting more than 2,300 locations, killing at least 114 civilians and displacing over 120,000 people.

Meanwhile, the southwestern province of Sweida has been witnessing ongoing protests since mid-August 2023, with people demanding not only better living conditions but also political change and the implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. On March 5, the regime forces killed one protester and injured another during a protest in front of a state office building. It was the first reported casualty of the uprising in the city.

The assertion that the situation in Syria has stabilized and improved is a distortion of the reality on the ground

The assertion that the situation in Syria has stabilized and improved is a distortion of the reality on the ground. This normalization of the Assad regime emboldens it to commit more atrocities, helps it rewrite history at the expense of those who lost it all, and promotes the dangerous idea that the conflict can be resolved without real accountability and justice. It also relieves the pressure on the regime to release hundreds of thousands of detainees, including my father.

For those of us who have lost loved ones, witnessed the regime’s atrocities, and were pushed into exile, the possibility of a future where the disappeared are found and reunited with their families remains elusive. The normalization push intensifies the heartache and perpetuates a cycle of injustice that we, as advocates, strive to break.

Reflecting on whether I have truly survived Syria, I am haunted by the persistent uncertainty each day brings. The question of whether I will be alive tomorrow remains a constant companion, a stark reminder of the enduring challenges that define our existence.

Empathy without action

For the past decade, I have gone from one conference to another, shared my story, advocated and fought for justice in the face of the regime, and testified in every way possible. Over and over again, I was asked to relive my trauma. And over and over again, it was to no avail.

I find myself questioning whether there could be a different approach to seek justice, as it seems that the current methods drain victims—whether intentionally or not—rendering our struggles devoid of significance. The existing processes appear designed to transform our narratives, the Syrian people’s narrative, into repetitive tales meant to elicit sympathy and sadness without inspiring tangible action.

This process leaves victims feeling not only exhausted by their experiences but also disillusioned by an international system adept at diluting the profound meaning behind their struggles.

Countering false narratives

Sharing my family’s experience and advocating for my father’s release has been hard. The challenges my family and I face in countering false narratives about the atrocities committed by the Assad regime have been immense, particularly in the context of the coordinated misinformation campaigns orchestrated by the regime and Russia. These campaigns not only seek to distort the truth but also aim to create confusion, hinder accountability, and legitimize heinous actions against the people of Syria.

The regime, for example, insists on labeling detainees as terrorists, traitors, or extremists. This narrative is perpetuated to delegitimize the suffering of these detainees and to portray them as threats to society, including my father, who was an outspoken critic of the regime.

These campaigns not only seek to distort the truth but also aim to create confusion, hinder accountability, and legitimize heinous actions against the people of Syria

The psychological impact of these false narratives cannot be overstated. On a daily basis, families like mine feel compelled to prove that our loved ones are not terrorists, despite the absurdity of such claims and the fact that we do not deserve any of this. The burden of disproving baseless accusations adds an additional layer of anguish to the already devastating experience of losing a family member and not knowing their fate for years.

As efforts to normalize relations with the regime intensify, the propaganda denying victims their stories becomes more insidious. The Assad regime began disinformation campaigns as early as the first protests in 2011. Later, these campaigns have been mainly featured on Russian outlets in Arabic and English, such as RT and Sputnik, as well as social media platforms, giving voice to bloggers and conspiracy theorists denying the regime’s widespread use of torture, its indiscriminate bombing of civilians, and use of chemical weapons despite all the evidence in existence. 

The international media has also participated in obscuring the truth for us. The language used by many media outlets to discuss the situation in Syria is often dangerous because it minimizes the severity of the atrocities committed by the regime and undermines the experiences of the Syrian people who have suffered greatly as a result of the Assad regime’s actions. For instance, using terms like “civil war” to describe the conflict in Syria obscures the fact that this was not a conflict between two equal sides but rather an authoritarian regime using brutal force against its own people to maintain its grip on power.

My family, along with countless others, persistently harnesses the power of online platforms, media outlets, and any available opportunities. Through these channels, we aim not only to share our personal stories but also to present concrete evidence, offering a compelling counter-narrative to pro-regime propaganda. It is a collective effort to shine a light on the truths often obscured and to amplify the voices of those who have endured the brutalities of the Assad regime. In this ongoing battle for justice and awareness, leveraging these platforms becomes crucial to offer a glimpse into the harsh realities that Syrians endure, and foster a broader understanding among the global audience.

Holding onto hope, despite it all

Our current state in Syria is not a result of the international community’s inability to act or misguided actions but rather a consequence of the absence of political will to let people achieve their demands. My faith does not lie in states and political entities; instead, it lies in ordinary people. It is the individuals who, through learning and influencing the politics of these states and international bodies, hold the power to instigate real change.

People often ask me if I am optimistic about my father being alive. I don’t claim to be optimistic, but I am holding onto hope, grasping at it every day. Sometimes I am frustrated, I wake up to the same questions and the same disappointments. I am holding onto hope not because reality is pointing in its favor—it isn’t— but because it is the only option I have.

What I am certain of is that no occupation, dictatorship, or injustice has endured indefinitely throughout history

In his writings from prison, Egyptian activist and journalist Ahmed Douma emphasized on the idea that despair is a luxury we cannot afford. I resonate with this sentiment. There are times when I wish I could give in to fatigue, to the feeling that what I do isn’t working, and will never do, and just surrender.

Something within me, however, insists that my father is alive.

What I am certain of is that no occupation, dictatorship, or injustice has endured indefinitely throughout history. While the transformation of Syria might not unfold within my lifetime, I am driven by the belief that change is inevitable, destined for a future generation. This conviction serves as ample motivation for me to persist in my daily efforts.

Wafa Ali Mustafa is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on victim-centric justice in Syria.

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