Kholoud Helmi is a Syrian journalist and co-founder and board member of Enab Baladi, an independent Syrian media organization established in 2011 at the start of the revolution. She is originally from the Damascus neighborhood of Darayya, which became famous in the early stages of the 2011 revolution for its non-violent and peaceful protest movement and for the its youth’s activism in the face of the violence perpetrated by Assad’s regime, including shooting against peaceful protesters, massacres, siege, and arbitrary arrests. Helmi was the 2015 winner of the Anna Politkovskaya Award for reporting on Syrian and the 2017 winner of the International Association’s Courage Under Fire Award for the documentary Cries from Syria. She is a member of Families for Freedom, a women-led movement of wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers of individuals detained and disappeared by the Syrian regime and other parties. Her brother Ahmad was disappeared by the Syrian regime in 2012 and remains missing.
Around the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, I spoke with Kholoud about enforced disappearances in Syria, what family members like her have been mobilizing for, and the way forward.
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, indicating that enforced disappearances affect a large percentage of Syrians. What impact do enforced disappearances have on the individual, the family, and society at large?
Kholoud Helmi: At the individual level, my brother was detained by the Syrian regime in May 2012—since breaking into our house and arresting him in the middle of the night, we haven’t heard anything about him: if he is alive or dead; if he is healthy or not, if he is sick or not; if he is still in prison or if he has been killed. If he is dead, where is he now? Where is the body? If he is alive, where is he now? Since May 2012, my personal life has been completely changed, because it is the first time I lose someone close in the family. He is not only my brother, but also my mentor, and one of my closest friends in my whole life.
So, since then, we have never been spared a chance to ask where he is. We have checked everywhere and even paid money to find more information. I have reached the point of paying for any piece of news about him, but no one has ever returned with information. I once reached out to someone from the Red Crescent/Red Cross in Damascus writing to her and telling her my story. She answered with, “Apologies, we don’t have anything to offer to you,” despite the fact that the Red Cross can access prisons and ask about the detainees—but in Damascus they don’t, and they are not willing. Until now, we have never reached any news about him.
At the family level, we are devastated. At first, you see your mom crying every day. But then we start—not to forget of course—but to calm down a little bit. But every now and then, we smell his perfume, or we see something that he used to like, or see somebody who looks like him in the street. If by chance we cook a dish that he loves, we don’t eat it—it took my mom a very a long time to cook one of his favorite dishes again. And even now, I have realized that she doesn’t eat it, only pretending to do so. My mom and dad are growing older, as we all are, and I am really afraid that they are missing their chance to see him again. They just have hope. Whenever my dad prays, he says, “May he be released, and may he return in safety,” which means that he still has the faith that he is going to return one day. I never lost that faith either. But it is so painful.
On the community level, Ahmad was no ordinary person. He was studying his masters in macroeconomics, and he was one of the most thoughtful, insightful, and creative people I have ever met. I don’t just say that because he is my brother—but he has a million ideas, he was a critical thinker, and he had a million aspirations about how we can dream for a better Syria for everyone, collective and democratic that every one of us can enjoy. He was an intelligent young man.
Since he was disappeared, I personally lost something, as did my family, but our community—and Syria at large—has lost a lot. If he were safe and sound now, and if he had continued his studies, he could have become one of the greatest professors or experts that might bring a million solutions to Syria. I see that God has bestowed him the chance to live and to survive, and they deprived him of that chance—and he doesn’t deserve this.
Many other families face the same. My sister lost her husband as well. He was arrested by the regime in September 2013 when she was pregnant with her second child. Now her son is seven years old and doesn’t know what the word “father” means. But my father is his grandfather, so in his mind every father should be a grandfather by default because that is how life is for him. But his older brother is almost 10 years old now. He was almost two years old when his father disappeared and you can feel he is broken deep inside, but he doesn’t talk about it. My sister is still so young waiting for her husband and raising her two kids alone. We are there to support her, but she is a single mother, and we are refugees.
SNHR’s numbers are easy to mention. But individually speaking, those are 90.000+ stories, people, families, children, wives, mother, fathers—it is a nation. This is how we have lost at every single level.
My brother was part of the peace movement in Darayya, and from the first day he participated in many of protests. He was a member of the Red Crescent helping IDPs coming from Homs in the earliest stages of the Syrian revolution when Homs was heavily bombarded by the regime. I think one of the accusations against him for him to be forcibly disappeared was because he was helping IDPs but on a larger scale, because they [her brother and the other young men from Darayya] were a think tank.
I think we have 5000+ people arrested in Darayya alone. Our loss is great, nothing can compensate for that—not even the accountability that everyone speaks about. Nothing on earth, to be honest, can compensate the loss we’ve suffered. We have lost the most brilliant young men and women in my city, either dead, killed by the regime, or disappeared now. And I am pretty sure that if those people had not been taken by the regime at the earliest stages of the Syrian revolution, we would have never reached the current level. The regime took people who had plans for the next stages of a better Syria, and it took all of them: for example Yahya Shurbaji, Nabil Shurbaji, Islam Dabbas, and many others. Each one of them has a footprint in the city and in the revolution. If they were only given some more time, we could have been in a much better place now. So if you speak about the loss of the society, yes, we lost. To which level, I can’t explain. Are we going to recover people like them? Maybe, but it is going to take a long time. Are we going to be fine if we are told, “Sorry, we killed them all,” this isn’t the accountability we are looking for? I think our pain would never ever fade away. So this is the level of the loss.
Yahya Shurbaji, for example, was the head of peaceful demonstrations. Whenever people, especially teenagers, were angry against the regime, he was the one who calmed everyone down. If he hadn’t been disappeared, I don’t think a lot of people would have taken arms against the regime. Nabil Shurbaji participated in the establishment of Enab Baladi, and he was the only professional journalist among us, so he had brilliant ideas and expertise to give to us. He shared a million brilliant dreams with us but then he was arrested by the regime in February 2012. He was killed under torture in 2015, and we only learned about this in 2018 by a mere coincidence. So imagine if Nabil was still alive. It suffocates me to remember that we lost them. Sometimes I imagine that if we go back to Darayya that I am going to see them all alive. Mohammed Qritem was killed by the regime, he was not detained, but he was killed in a missile when he was besieged in Darayya. He was a co-founder of Enab Baladi, and he created our structure, the organization’s charter, who we are, what are we going to do, our mission and vision—everything was set up by Mohammed Qritem. Enab Baladi would have never been able to survive if he was not there to set for us the fundamental foundations of our work. Ahmed Shehade was detained by the regime, and he was arrested before they took my brother—they were very close friends. He was studying a masters in economics as well, along with the Commission of the UN in Syria, and he was super brilliant. They released him after they arrested my brother so I thought there would be hope. We still have hope and some form of great support outside, but unfortunately, Ahmed was killed by one of the missiles, also in Darayya. He was one of the greatest persons who set up all the financial foundations for Enab Baladi—but not just for Enab Baladi, but also the Local Council.
You can see how great the loss is because of their great efforts and their great impact on us and on the Syrian institutions. My greatest loss is to imagining them still alive.
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?
KH: My personal experience started with documenting personal data of those who were arrested by the regime from the start of the arrest campaigns in Darayya in 2011. We were a small group of activists—my brother included. This was before the start of more formal institutional efforts—filing them, sorting them. Once the UN Commissioner visited a few cities in Darayya, we were going to give him the information, hoping he would read the names. We didn’t get anything from the United Nations. Despite the fact that we lost hope then, we felt the burden that we survived and that we have the burden to carry on, document their stories, talk about them, and knock each and every possible door. I have been telling the stories of my brother and of all detainees to anyone, whether it is the UN, the Foreign Office, in the U.S., in academia, and in the documentaries I participated in when I got my award of journalism in 2016. I never stop mentioning them. And I feel the urge to tell every single person their stories because I survived and they didn’t, and I can speak but they can’t. I feel we need to keep our memories alive when one day maybe accountability can happen, so that’s why I have joined every single effort to keep their memories alive.
Later on when advocacy campaigns started to articulate and take shape, like with Families for Freedom, we never spared a single moment, whether at the United Nations or in Geneva, we just knock every single door, and we tell politicians and policy makers that we have plea and to be heard. I never lost faith, but our voices do not echo unfortunately. We are screaming into an empty space, and no one can hear us—they only nods their heads, but when we leave the venue, nothing happens.
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 Syrian families have played and should play in the Syrian context, particularly on the issue of disappearance?
KH: Families for Freedom, and all families of disappeared, have played a major role since they gathered together. They have so much in common: they go through the same difficulties, they are relentless, and they will never forget their loved ones. You know, these families are not like an organization that changes its mandate if the funding changes. These families they are the firsthand experiences, they are the witnesses, they will never forget, and they will never stop.
Families of victims who gathered together in Bosnia and in other countries in the past succeeded in having some kind of justice. If we are to articulate anything concerning accountability or laws regarding any kind of justice in the future, it is the families themselves that must have a say. I am fully aware that legal experts are needed, but the families should be consulted, because it is them who are involved on a very personal level. So that’s what they are and should be doing now. Families should be empowered more, they should know more about the justice, the legality of it, and they should be given every opportunity to speak with the UN, and other decision makers to put more pressure. Their voices should loud and clear in each and every venue, and this depends on how much they are connected, and this depends on the collective efforts by other legal organizations and human rights defenders.
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?
KH: Families should be involved in the brainstorming initiative from the very beginning. And then whatever is decided or suggested by them can be legally and politically articulated before seeing the light—rather than imposing something on them that has already been developed with the choice to endorse it or not. Currently, families are not involved. You see organizations and the international community conduct studies and research, and then they tell the families what they came up with. Just spend some time with the families and ask them! Families of the disappeared are still alive and have something to add to expertise. While we may not know anything about law or justice, I can speak from my own experience and then experts can put it into legal terms. If you can merge my story with the expertise, then we can come together with something feasible. But it is not happening unfortunately, based on my experience.
Families shouldn’t have to adapt to the needs of the international community, organizations, or states—it should be the other way around, with the international community adapting to what the families need and want. These families will always spare a moment to sit with these organizations and tell them about their experiences, their stories, and the suffering they have gone through.
States need to have political action—nothing is tackled within the Security Council because of the Russian veto. The UN has failed so far, but there is there a possible way outside of the UNSC. France has[employed this strategy] at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, but it is on a very small scale. Isn’t this a possibility for the U.S., the UK, and EU—aren’t they able to do something outside the walls of the UNSC? I think they can but there is no political will for this.
What is the Red Cross doing? Show me their mandate, where it says that they have the full right to go and investigate the prisons. Why are they not doing it? Who is not allowing them to do it while they operate in Damascus? There are a million questions in my head, but what the international community needs to take a political decision to be seriously—something they haven’t shown, not only when it comes to the case of enforced disappearances, but also chemical weapons attacks, massacres, the refugees crisis, the IDPs crisis—none of it is taken seriously. They bring food baskets and hygiene kits to camps, instead of sorting this issue from its deep roots: the head of the regime.
I lost faith in every single international attempt. After all the lies and “red lines,” I’ve felt that no one is interested, and no one is willing to take any action. The only solution is a political solution for all of them to gather together before it is too late.
We have demands that are loud and clear, but how we can implement them? Detainees should be released, and detention centers should be checked for every missing person, whether alive or dead. Every organization can do this, but none are not willing. This goes back to my example of emailing that woman at the Red Cross, and her telling me that she cannot do anything. Then why are you there? You are the Red Cross. You have done this in many other countries, so why not in Syria? Nothing has happened. I have no idea what the Red Cross has done for detainees other than producing research, papers, and webinars—but no action.
Why don’t we have a mechanism for the disappeared? We at least need to be able to check if they are alive. There is no way I am going to wait for another miracle or another coincidence before discovering that my brother had been killed under torture years ago, in the same way we discovered that Yahya and Nabil were killed. Nabil’s mom has passed away before she learned he died under torture. So why do we continue to deprive families of their fundamental basic right to know if loved ones are alive or dead? I am not asking for accountability; I am not asking for justice. I am only asking if my brother is alive or dead. My mom every once in a while says, “I don’t want anything. I only want to know in which way should I pray. Should I pray for Ahmad ‘May God release him and break his chains’ or should I pray, ‘May he rest in peace.’?” We have the right to say, “May their souls rest in peace.”
Veronica Bellintani is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on victim and survivor-centric justice in Syria.