Cautious optimism from families as UN proposes body to determine fate of Syria’s missing

More than 110,000 people are missing in the country

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The families of missing and forcibly disappeared people in Syria have met a recent UN proposal to create an independent body to establish the fate of their loved ones with mixed emotions.

The UN Secretary General released a report last week recommending the creation of an independent institution dedicated to determining the fate and whereabouts of more than 110,000 missing and forcibly disappeared people in Syria.

The Syrian Network of Human Rights reported that more than 85 per cent of these people were forcibly disappeared at the hands of the Al Assad regime.

Syrian families have been calling for the creation of this body for more than a decade, while organisations for the forcibly disappeared have doggedly worked with limited resources to collect information on the missing.

Hala, 32, who asked for her last name to be withheld due to concern for her family still living in Syria, is happy but sceptical about what the result will be.

“In the very specific Syrian context, you cannot be very happy with anything, because I know deep down that the Syrian regime would not be very co-operative,” she told The National.

The last person to see Hala's “clever and kind” 21-year-old brother in 2013 said he had been in an area with Syrian regime security.

Her family have been searching for him ever since, remaining in Aleppo awaiting his return while Hala and another of her brothers fled the country.

“They’re hoping that one day, they will receive a call from him saying, ‘Hey, I’m here,’” Hala said.

“It’s been nine years and it’s highly unlikely he’s still alive, but we have nothing but hope.”

Kholoud Helmi, 37, also has no information about her brother, Ahmad, who was 22 when he was arrested by regime security forces during a raid on their home in Daraya.

Ms Helmi told The National she first felt “finally something has come into light” but is reluctant to be happy about the UN proposal.

“After 12 years of persistence and lobbying … is the international community going to take action?” Ms Helmi asked.

“Are they going to help us know where our beloved ones are? Am I going to know the fate of my brother, whether he is alive or dead?”

A vote is expected to be held by member states in the UN General Assembly this month on the establishment of the body, bypassing any possibility of a veto in the Security Council. But the practicality of putting this vision into practice remains difficult.

“Just giving information of the whereabouts and the fate of these missing people … not even saying that [the regime] killed these people, just saying, ‘we have them in detention without letting the families know’ … is great evidence that this regime has committed crimes against humanity,” Hala said.

A member of the Families for Freedom campaign group, Ms Helmi said if Syrian President Bashar Al Assad were to disclose the fate of detainees, he would be “waging war against himself”.

While the families have pushed for this body to be solely humanitarian to separate it from the political “mess” surrounding Syria, some believe there will need to be a deal or concessions made with the regime’s allies for there to be tangible outcomes.

Kholoud Helmi's brother Ahmad, who disappeared in Syria. Courtesy Kholoud Helmi

As Association of Missing and Disappeared at Saidnaya prison co-founder Diab Serrih told The National, the US and the EU will need to put pressure on Russia to push its ally Syria into giving up information.

“The state of division, particularly following the war in Ukraine, will negatively affect this new body,” Mr Serrih said.

“The main challenge on revealing the fate of the missing is not having enough data on these people … and Russia not caring about this issue.”

He believes it will take a very long time for the independent body to be fully established and operational.

Ms Helmi — who now resides in the UK after fleeing Syria after the regime carried out a massacre in her home town in August 2012, killing 700 people over five days — said the lack of international political will continues to hinder any concrete action.

“The thing is we’ve seen things in the last 10 years and we see people are not serious, in any action they take against the Syrian government … unless it really helps their own interests” she said.

“We’ve seen massive crimes against humanity … like chemical attacks … and nothing has happened. No one is interested. If you are in pain, no one cares.”

Updated: September 09, 2022, 12:11 PM
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