Portraits drawn between 2014 and 2016 by Syrian artist Azza Abu Rebieh of friends detained at Adra Prison and others who were abducted in Douma in 2013, on display at an exhibition by Amnesty International in Beirut. (ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

“We want this suffering to end…We act because we want other families to avoid the same situation”: Q&A with Ghufran Khulani 

Ghufran Khulani is a young woman from Darayya. During the Syrian revolution, her family participated in the “flowers’ demonstrations” and was subjected to severe repression by the regime, which arrested four of her brothers. At that point, Ghufran and her mother traveled every week to different houses, security branches, and government buildings to find the truth about their loved ones. In 2015, Ghufran found out that one of her brothers was killed under torture by the Syrian regime, after finding his picture in the Caesar photos. In the summer of 2018, the Assad regime started releasing thousands of death notices for detainees. Among the names were the other two members of Ghufrans family, who were killed in detention in March 2013. She is now a member of the Caesar Families Association, an organization of families whose loved ones were found among the pictures smuggled by Caesar out of Syria. The Caesar Families Association aims to reveal the full truth about their fates, their causes of death, and the whereabouts of their bodies to obtain dignified burials to grieve their loved ones.

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?

Ghufran Khulani: For our family the disappearance of my brothers has been very difficult from the beginning. Now, more than nine years since their arrests, we feel like we are in a limbo. We don’t know anything about them, if they are still alive or not, or where they are. We live our days waiting to receive any information, even the smallest detail, about them. We have already spent a lot of our lives waiting for them to come back to spend our lives together with them. 

Waiting for them has been such a suffocating experience that has affected even the way we do things that we considered normal before they were disappeared. For example at the beginning, just after their arrests, my mom refused to cook meals that my brothers liked because she was waiting for them to come back. At the beginning, for me it was almost impossible to sleep. I was used to see them in my dreams and, since I know what happens in detention in Syria, I always ended up having nightmares about them in detention. Sometimes, back in Syria, when walking around the streets of Damascus near the intelligence branches, I always thought they could be under me, under the groundwe always thought about them. They are always in our minds: where they are, what happened. And you cannot help but think about them when you hear about what occurs in detention centers.

This paralysis of waiting affects every detail of our life. We cannot give up our hope but at the same time we don’t have any information about them and their fate. It makes us feel like we are not settled, as if everything that happens to us is only temporary until they are back with us because you need them with you, to share this moment with them. This forces us to live in a limbo which has a very difficult psychological impact on every one of us in the family—especially on the children.

Three members of my family have been arrested and disappeared by the Syrian regime. Two of them were married—one had children before his arrests or and the other’s wife was pregnant at the time. It is every difficult in every way to deal with the disappearance of fathers. Some of the children were very young at the time of their father’s arrest and they have unfortunately started to forget him. The older ones instead ask us very difficult questions, such as “where are they?” They wonder why they cannot share important moments of their lives with their fathers, like other kids do. These are very difficult answers to give. How can you make a child understand that their father is missing? The disappearance of the fathers also add many other challenges to the daily worry about where they are or to always wait for them. We had to help their wives very frequently to deal with papers and documents for their children because of the absence of the father. 

My mom and I never lost hope, and we always tried to obtain information about my brothers. Every week, we were used to go to the intelligence branches and various governmental buildings, but we never found out anything. Every single time they denied that they had my brothers and that they were detained in their facilities—only after one year and after paying bribes, we succeeded in obtaining some information about them. My family refused for a long time to leave Syria. We only left after it became too dangerous for us to remain in the country. Leaving Syria was something that made my mom very sick, because we felt like we left our brothers there alone. Even if Syria was and it is still not safe for us, we always said we wanted to go back to be able to get some information about them.

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?

GK: My family—especially my brothers—has always participated in the revolution and in all peaceful activities aimed at building change for Syria. My brothers were involved in the peaceful movement even before the Syrian revolution started, to the point that one of my brothers, Muhammad, was actually detained for his peaceful activities in 2003 against corruption and for change in Syria. 

At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the first of my brothers to get arrested, Abdulsatar, was participating in the flower demonstrations our city of Darayya. One of his friends was apprehended by the mukhabarat (intelligence), and they started beating him in the streets. My brother intervened to protect him, but they took both of them. He was arrested in 2011. The second brother, Majed, was an activist for the Syrian revolution. He was wanted since the beginning of the protests, and they were looking for him from the start. The third brother, Muhammad, was arrested because we were already known as an important politically active family, so in one of the many raids to our house, they arrested him in April 2013 with another one of my brothers, Bilal, who was later released. Muhammad was married and at that time of his arrest. He had been waiting to have a child for more than three years, and his wife was pregnant at the time—but he never saw his son. 

From the first day of their detentions, my mother and I went everywhere to find people who had just been released from detention centers. We brought with us pictures of my brothers to ask anyone if they had seen them while in the detention, if they heard their names inside, or if they knew anything about them. We also continued to go to any government buildings, different intelligence branches, military intelligence, the counter-terrorism court in Mezze, and civilian courts, even if we knew they were not there. We even went to Qaboun and to Sednaya prisons to ask about them. Sometimes the mukhabarat official would tell us in the morning that they didn’t know anything about them and that they didn’t have them. Then in the evening, they asked for money so that we could supposedly see them for five minutes, which never happened. We didn’t spare any opportunity to know about them. Sometimes we succeeded. For Abdulsatar, we found some people that had heard his name and met him in detention, and that’s how we found out that he was in Sednaya Prison. Searching for the truth about them is a very difficult way to live: we wanted to know if they were still alive or not, so we paid a lot of money because this kind of feeling is not easy at all to deal with. Sometimes someone says they are dead; others say they are still alive. 

Since I was very young, my mom didn’t allow me to go alone to look for them because she was worried for me. And at the same time I didn’t want to leave her alone and I wanted to help her—so we always went together. It was also very dangerous for any man to go to visit the detention centers because they could be arrested, so it was just me and my mother. But it was very difficult to deal with that situation: the soldiers were very harsh, they were never respectful of the mothers and their feelings. They always dealt with visitors as if we were all terrorists. We were always afraid to receive some bad information from them, and other times were directly threatened to be arrested ourselves if we were to return. But we never stopped going. And whenever we went, there was always a huge number of mothers and wives also waiting for their loved ones and requesting information. We went there from very early in the morning and we always found the place full, with so many women who stayed the night in front of the branches, because they were coming from outside Damascus.

This experience made us stronger. We wanted to be their voices, because we knew that they had no voice inside—we had to be theirs on the outside, looking for them, talking about them, asking questions about them. And even before I joined the Caesar Families Association, we weren’t just doing this for my brothers. There are a lot of people still detained and none knows what happened to them or where they are. So at the end, it was never only for my brothers, but for everyone else.  

After we left Syria, we continued to look for information online. We always read news, and we also checked some of the published lists of detainees. We later found pictures of Muhammed among the Caesar photos—but not for Majed and Abdulsatar—and that’s when I joined Caesar Families Association.

We don’t know where his body is or what happened to him. Because it is too dangerous to talk openly about detainees in Syria, we never really managed to grieve when we were there. Our demands now are for their rights to be restored and to know where his body is, to return it to us so that we can bury it and grieve. At the same, we also ask for the release of other detainees because we don’t want them to have the same fate as my brother. We don’t want another family to have the same experience, to suffer like us. We want other Syrian families to know where their loved ones are, why are they detained, and to see them released.

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?

GK: Families have played a very important role until now because they raise their voices at all time and everywhere. Despite the fact that detainees and the disappeared issue has not been on the table, we have managed to put it back on the agenda. We have raised our voices to remind the international community that this issue cannot be forgotten. The detainees issue affects every family in Syria—the number of detainees is huge. So that’s why are always asking for truth and justice for them.

We want this suffering to end. Families have been playing a leading role, because we can’t accept the same experience we went through for other detainees and their families. We act because we want to help other families to avoid the same situation.  

We also think that families should have a political role because we want to obtain our rights and the rights of our disappeared loved ones. Also, families themselves are victims of this suffering and that’s why they should be heard more. We must always fight to keep this issue and our loved ones on the negotiations table and that’s how we can help a lot of detainees because otherwise it will continue to be neglected. If families raise their voices, talk about their loved ones, the international community will understand this issue cannot be forgotten any longer.

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 communitys 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?

What states and the international community should do, at the very least, is to put pressure on the regime and other parties to provide lists of names of detainees and transparent information about whether they are alive or dead and where they are so that at least the families know if they are alive or not. Having truth and justice will provide a sense of peace to the families and society at large. We can’t reach the perfect justice that we dream for, but we should try to achieve a justice as good as possible for the best of the country and families. 

But the idea behind truth and justice is that the families who have lived this experience, facing all sorts of challenges and needs and pain, are the most powerful actors in voicing their demands for truth and justice in a realistic way. During any kind of discussion, there must be always a space to hear the voice of families. But this space should not be simply a show for some organizations to demonstrate that they include families—it should be genuine. Many institutions want to show off during conferences, but in the end and in practice, they don’t really listen to the families, which is very bad. Of course, we need organizations for their work, but families should be leading every effort on detainees and the disappeared. Families are the ones experiencing this pain on a daily basis. They are the ones that know every single detail of this experience that no one else can know about. Maybe families don’t have the same technical expertise of some organizations, but that doesn’t mean that others can dismiss our efforts and prevent us from playing a central role in any greater effort.  

The issue of detainees and disappeared has been sidelined for too long. In many cases, we have heard from many who say that this is the case because it is a difficult issue. Yes, we know firsthand that it is a difficult issue to address and solve but that’s exactly why it should be central. As Syrian families, we don’t have any more faith in the international community, and that’s why we must always talk and raise our demands.