Cars drive through a landmark roundabout in the Syrian city of Raqqa on October 18, 2018. (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

“Families should not be treated as victims, but rather as partners in the issue of enforced disappearance”: Q&A with Hiba al-Hamed

Hiba al-Hamed is an activist and member of the Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS, an organization that works to reveal the fates of those kidnapped by ISIS and to hold those responsible accountable. Her father Ismail was a political opponent to the Syrian regime, activist, and surgeon. He was one of the first people to mobilize against ISIS’s presence in Raqqa and was kidnapped by ISIS in November 2013. Hiba is currently studying medicine in Marseille to continue her father’s path and reopen his clinic in Raqqa. 

I spoke with Hiba about enforced disappearances in Syria and the ways in which families of the disappeared have mobilized to push for policy that centers their struggles. 

Veronica Bellintani: The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimates that at least 99,479 persons were forcibly disappeared in Syria between March 2011 and August 2020. These numbers indicate that enforced disappearances have affected and continue to affect a large percentage of Syrians. What impact do enforced disappearances have on the individual, the family, and society at large?

Hiba al-Hamed: When we are taking about the enforced disappearance, we are talking about the violation of the basic rights of the individual, essentially their right to freedom. It represents a combination of human rights violationsregarding the right to a fair trial and to a lawyer, and regarding how the forcibly disappeared are treated in detention centers, where many violations such as torture and in some cases killing can happen. Simply, enforced disappearance can ruin a life. It affects the disappeared at many levels: economically, socially, psychologically and physically, and these effects can persist even after the end of the enforced disappearance. 

However, this also concerns the families who are affected to a large extent. Their lives are also ruined and disrupted by unlawful acts that leave them in a long phase of uncertainty and very painful questions about the whereabouts of their loved ones and their situations. It is a pain which persist as long as the loved one is disappeared and does not come to end with time in any other way. Thus, we are taking about a very important psychological consequences.

Also, men are most often the ones who get disappeared, leaving the families without income. Thus, the economic situation is a central issue that the family has to deal with, especially amid worsening conditions from the war, a patriarchal society that makes life difficult for women in general, and a discriminatory legal system. Additionally, families become responsible of searching their loved ones and paying money if necessary to obtain the information. This increases their burdens and their struggle.

When the enforced disappearance affects a large part of the society, all the above-mentioned consequences can seen to a large extent. Therefore, we have a generation which is impacted by a very painful issue.

VB: You have personal experience with enforced disappearance. Can you tell us about it and how that has driven your own advocacy and engagement on the issue?

HH: My father is a surgeon and a political opponent who always waited for the revolution and change in Syria. He was very active even before 2011, through the Damascus Declaration. When the revolution started, he was in Saudi Arabia and he returned to Syria just to participate and to realize his dream of living in a country where the dignity and freedom of its citizens are guaranteed and respected. Once he returned, he became engaged in everything he could: humanitarian aid, medical treatment, taking care of the injured activists in the protests, and political activism. He really devoted his life for the revolution—he risked everything for it. When the Free Syrian Army took over Raqqa in March 2013, my father became more involved, as it became easier and safer to work in an area no longer under the control of the regime, and he became an important and influencing figure in the city among the younger generation, because of his extraordinary political wisdom and vision. Unfortunately, the rise of Islamists at the expense of the democrats and civil activists started to become clearer and clearer. My father was one of those who said no to the Islamists and participated in many protests rejecting them and their rule, which deprived the population of their rights, along with their policies of targeting and kidnapping activists. He tried until the last day before his kidnapping to resist these groups, including ISIS. Despite the risks and threats, despite the feeling that he could be the next activist to be kidnapped, he refused to leave the country. He would always say, “We cannot leave. We cannot leave this country to those foreigners—it is our country.”

My father was kidnapped by ISIS on November 2, 2013, and since then we do not know anything about his fate. He just disappearedthey took him away, leaving us with an unsupportable and persistent pain that does not come to an end, despite all the years that have passed since that day. At that moment, we found ourselves alone with my mum, four daughters, and an 11-year-old brother in a city controlled by ISIS, which makes life difficult for women. We had to deal with this tragedy, with the pain of knowing that my dad is not here, is not safe. At the same time, we had to stay strong to search for him, to protect ourselves in a very dangerous environment, and to think about our futures. After a year and half of staying in Raqqa City searching my dad, we had to leave the country and to come to France, as the city was bombarded by the International Coalition. 

Here in France, and after years of the International Coalition’s and the de facto forces’ apathy and negligence, I understood that our effort as a family had to unify with that of other families, and that we have to find other tools in this struggle in order to oblige the International community to listen to our demands. 

After the defeat of ISIS, the International Coalition and the de facto forces arrested thousands of ISIS soldiers, confiscated thousands of administrative documents (including those related to the prisons), and took control of the detention centers used by ISIS. Neither the International Coalition nor the de facto forces investigated the crimes committed by ISIS soldiers or interrogated them about the fate of detainees. They also did not declassify documents or used them to find information that could reveal the fate of the detainees. They do not prioritize this issue, even if people detained by ISIS were the first local resistance against them. They put thousands of militants in detention without investigating them, and European countries refuse to take back their own citizens to be prosecuted through their legal systems. 

Therefore, I joined the Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS – Massar, starting to mobilize with them and advocating for this issue in a more organized and systematic way. We work at many levels. We are trying to lobby states, urging them to take on responsibility regarding this issue. We are also trying to reclaim the narrative, through our website and social media, about our loved ones who resisted ISIS and paid a high price from the very beginning—which is something many have forgotten. At the same time, we are working on documenting the crimes of enforced disappearance that were committed by ISIS.

So our objectives are mainly related to our rights to truth and justice. Our first objective is to disclose the fate of our beloved ones. We also work to hold accountable those who are responsible for their disappearance. At the same time, in general, we work with other Syrian victims associations to reach a transitional justice process that guarantees the end of the practice of enforced disappearance and puts an end to impunity. 

VB: The International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances was established as a result of the efforts of families and relatives of individuals detained and disappeared in Latin America, where families of disappeared became known for their struggle to achieve justice and truth in the 1980s. What role do you think families have played and should play in the Syrian context, particularly on the issue of disappearance?

HH: I feel that in the recent years, the mobilization of families has become more organized and more evident. Families have been accumulating very important experience in this issue especially in the fields of advocacy, media, the law, and politics. They know what they want, providing the international community with very precise demands and pressuring it even if it is not responding in the way they want.

 We saw how the Truth and Justice Charterin which Massar takes part—presented its demands and then proposed an international mechanism to reveal the fate of the disappeared. The Truth and Justice Charter is a document presenting a common vision on the question of enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention, launched by five victims and families associations. It reflects the voices and demands of the survivors, the victims, the detainees and the disappeared individuals, and their families. It presents their vision regarding long-term and short-term justice, ongoing and future peace negotiations, and so-called reconstruction or recovery attempts. Massar and the other victims groups came together and started to discuss this charter one year ago until they reached the conclusion that the Charter should reflect all our vision and demands—regardless of the party responsible for enforced disappearance. Indeed, as we know, it is not only the Syrian regime but also many non-state actors who are also responsible for this tragedy and, while the situations may differ, the Charter tried to consider and encompass all the different cases. 

With all these efforts, families are saying, in a very structured way, that we are the concerned ones, we are here, and you cannot find any solutions without considering our demands and needs. You cannot simply ignore us. So, families are readying themselves for any possible solution in the future in order to ensure that the issue of enforced disappearance is not be ignored by a political solution.

VB: In March 2021, a Human Rights Council resolution on Syria recognized the importance of meaningful participation of families and that their needs, demands, and experiences should play a central role in the international community’s efforts on Syria. How should this look like in practice? What should states, diplomats and other stakeholders do to concretely engage families and include them in their work?

HH: Firstly, they have to understand that they must listen to the families and their demands. We are not only stories to get published or a testimony to be listened to in a session at the UN. We are working seriously within our groups and our associations; we are active in this issue—not a more passive part of it. Therefore, families should not treat as victims but rather as partners in any work that can be done on the issue of enforced disappearance. Groups and associations of families and survivors need to be supported more by stakeholders, families’ voices need to be heard, and direct communication channels need to be established between families and the concerned parties. And most importantly, they need to seriously consider our demands. We are the concerned ones. We are those who suffer from this issue and therefore we are the best people to be heard.

In our case, we are dealing with a terrorist non-state group that left us with no answers after its defeat by the International Coalition in 2017. We do not know where ISIS took the detainees, and we do not even know if they are still alive. We have so many questions, but no answers. The moment ISIS was defeated, we could not locate any detainee—our beloved ones disappeared a second time. And the international community declared its victory against ISIS! They think that the issue is over, and they do not care about the rest. They think that their work is done, as ISIS is no longer carrying out attacks against their countries, but that is really different and more difficult for the locals who suffered the most from ISIS.