Syria cannot be rebuilt on the mass secret graves of our loved ones

Geir Pedersen inherits many issues that need resolving, chief among them how to ensure justice for more than 100,000 Syrians who were forcibly detained by the Assad regime

 Amina Kholani, second from right, whose three brothers died in detention in Syrian prisons / The Syria Campaign
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I had high hopes when I first met the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, outside the gates of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, where the peace talks were taking place. That day in February last year, I carried portraits of my three brothers who had disappeared, and marched in silent protest outside the UN office where the talks were being held. Mr De Mistura agreed to see our group, Families for Freedom, which was set up to campaign for those detained by the Syrian regime. He took our list of demands and agreed to share them with the parties at the talks, including the regime and the opposition.

I was afraid of speaking out, terrified that carrying my brothers’ framed portraits in front of so many cameras would cost them additional torture treatment if they were still alive in Bashar Al Assad’s prisons. But we were determined that day to be heard and Mr De Mistura was the very first person we entrusted with our list of demands. We were calling for freedom and justice for our loved ones and for more than 100,000 people estimated to have been detained and forcibly disappeared in Syria.

After the Geneva talks, I met him several more times, most recently at the United Nations General Assembly on a panel about accountability in Syria. He always expressed sympathy for the plight of Syria's detained. However, his words of comfort never translated into any practical action. There were many moments when he could have issued statements and demands on the release of Syrian detainees and the right of their families to know where their loved ones are, but he did not.

I appreciate his job is not easy. But when the news of his resignation broke, I couldn't help but be angry at the lack of progress on the detention issue under his tenure. I can only hope his replacement, the Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen, will do more to meet our demands when he takes over the role at the end of the month.

Elevating our file would not have affected Mr De Mistura’s neutrality – on the contrary, as a peace envoy, this was part of his job.

As families, our demands have always been humanitarian. We called for medical organisations to be allowed to enter Syrian prisons and examine the health situations of detainees; for families to be allowed to visit their loved ones, and to know the burial sites of detainees who died under torture; and we have campaigned for freedom and justice for all Syrians, no matter who was behind their detention.

It is, tragically, too late for three of my four brothers. My husband and I, together with my brothers Majd and Abdulsatar, had organised non-violent protests when the uprisings began in March 2011.

In July that year, Abdulsatar was taken in by the regime’s air force intelligence. Two weeks later, they came back for my youngest brother Majd and took them both to the notorious Sednaya prison.

That December, after paying bribes, I was finally able to visit them but they were unrecognisable because they had been so badly tortured. That was the last time I saw them but I had no idea if they were alive or dead – for years afterwards.

In autumn 2012, they came back for my other two brothers, Bilal and Mouhamed. Bilal was held for seven months, then released, but he looked skeletal. He told us that Mouhamed had died as a result of being tortured. In 2014, when a military photographer defected and leaked thousands of pictures of detainees who had died in Syrian prisons, there was a photo of Mouhamed among the victims.

I myself was arrested by air force intelligence in October 2013, together with my husband, after a raid on our home in Damascus. We were tortured and my husband was beaten in front of me until I confessed to the crimes they had accused me of.

We were sentenced to four years in prison but released after about six months. I never found out why, but I left Damascus soon after. I had no choice.

Last summer, the Assad regime finally began releasing the names of detainees who had died in its prisons, claiming they had died of heart attacks or viruses. I received official notification of the deaths of Majd and Abdulsatar in prison. The regime never admitted that Mouhamed had been tortured to death. My friends in the Families for Freedom also learned of the deaths of their own siblings and partners. It was the worst day of our lives.

Nothing could have brought my brother back but when hundreds of families received these death notices, Mr De Mistura did not even comment on this grave violation.

We know the world has forgotten our loved ones but we did not. I believe our envoy should have been more vocal in demanding justice for detainees and peace of mind for their loved ones.

Across the world these death notices were condemned by governments and human rights organisations but Mr De Mistura was to all intents and purposes invisible, despite having the power to ask for a special committee to go into prisons and examine the real reasons behind the deaths of thousands of detainees.

Time and again, he seemed to stand by and avoid the vital issue of detention – a failure that particularly hurt, given he knew the deep pain it had caused all the members of Families for Freedom.

Instead, in an attempt to build compromise, he chose to focus on a process to draft a new constitution, something many Syrians see as an exercise in futility. Ironically, the current constitution protects Syrian citizens from forced disappearance. With a dictator in charge, no constitution will be worth the paper it's written on.

What Mr De Mistura never fully understood is that long-lasting peace in Syria will not be achieved unless the crime of forced detention is addressed. Around the world, Syrian families mourn the loss of missing loved ones, whose fates are unknown. They cannot be expected to go their whole lives without answers, nor should Syria be rebuilt over the mass and secret graves of detainees.

Mr Pedersen inherits many issues that need resolving, chief among them how to ensure justice for more than 100,000 Syrians who were forcibly detained by the Assad regime and, in lesser numbers, by various armed groups. Myself, my husband and my four brothers were all victims of this brutality because we peacefully opposed it the Assad regime. The suffering my family endured has been experienced by countless other families throughout Syria.

As long as the regime and its representatives remain in power, the threat of detention also prevents Syrian refugees from returning to help rebuild our broken country.

In recent weeks, we have seen Syrians return home, lured by promises of safety by the regime, only for some to be arrested and disappeared. UN-delivered justice is urgently needed for all the missing -both those in detention centres and those living in exile elsewhere.

This is what we’re hoping the new envoy will deliver. A seasoned diplomat and a former Norwegian ambassador to China, Mr Pedersen has experience working with autocratic and secretive governments.

A UN resolution is urgently needed that calls for the release of detainees and information on the burial sites for those who have died. The UN must also push the regime to allow humanitarian organisations to visit its prisons while also ensuring those responsible for forced detention are held to account.

After all these years, it is hard to be hopeful that change will come. Can Mr Pedersen do what three envoys before him failed to achieve? For the sake of my country’s future, he must.

Amina Kholani is a survivor of Assad’s prisons and a member of Families for Freedom, a women-led campaign movement for the families of Syria’s disappeared