After painful search, Syrians learn detained relatives are long dead

An estimated 80,000 Syrians have been 'forcibly disappeared' by the government, many are believed to have been killed

A picture taken on July 17, 2018, shows damage in a street caused by regime airstrikes, in the rebel-held town of Nawa, about 30 kilometres north of Daraa in southern Syria.  / AFP / Ahmad al-Msalam
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"That's it? You're sure he's dead?" Seven years had passed with no news, but Salwa could hardly believe her nephew, a Syrian activist arrested in 2011, had been dead the last five.

That's what the civil records employee in Salwa's native Hama, a central government-held city, declared last month after shuffling through papers at her desk.

"She told me, 'Yes, we received the names of everyone who died inside'" prison, Salwa told AFP, using a pseudonym because she fears reprisals in government-controlled territory.

Tens of thousands of people are estimated to be held in government jails across Syria, with relatives and advocates saying they are often tortured, denied fair trial, and deprived contact with families.

Their relatives are left in limbo, spending years and precious savings shuttling between security services to know where loved ones are held or if they're even alive.

Now, activists and families of imprisoned Syrians say authorities have quietly updated civil records to mark detainees as "deceased", backdating deaths to as long ago as 2013.

Hearing of this through word of mouth, families of detained Syrians are flooding registries to ask: "Are they alive?"

For around 400 detainees in recent months, the answer has been "no", said Fadel Abdul Ghany, head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

The SNHR estimates 80,000 Syrians remain forcibly disappeared by the government.

"Before, the regime was giving no details on the detained. It wouldn't declare them dead," Abdul Ghany told AFP.

"Now it is, but in a barbaric way."

'Scorched our hearts'

Hama's records were updated first, followed by Homs, the capital Damascus, Latakia and Hasakeh, and new names are still arriving at registries, the SNHR said.

In seven years of documenting Syria's uprising-turned-war, Abdul Ghany said he had never before seen families learn of the fate of the detainees in this way.

"Usually, you take a death certificate to the registry and inform them your relative is dead, not the other way around," he said.

On that June morning, Salwa and her sister-in-law worried they'd be the only people at the registry asking about imprisoned relatives.

"But when we got there, we saw a line out the door," she said.

"Most were women, mothers and sisters of detainees. Security forces stood among them, and every single woman was wiping her tears and covering her face with her scarf."

Weeping, Salwa went home to hold a single day of hushed condolences for two nephews: Saad, arrested in 2011 and marked deceased in 2013, and Saeed, detained since 2012 and recorded to have died last year.

The family had no bodies to bury and was afraid of grieving publicly in a regime-held city.

"They scorched our hearts – those two boys were like roses. Even in mourning, we're afraid and hide our grief," Salwa said.


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'No going back'

The last time Islam Dabbas's family saw him was late 2012, behind bars at a regime prison near Damascus.

"He wore a sweater that read 'Just Freedom'. We stopped hearing anything a while after that," recalled his brother Abdulrahman, who has since moved to Egypt.

This month, a relative still in Syria learned of the updated files and checked Islam's.

"It said he died January 15, 2013 in Saydnaya," Abdulrahman said.

Amnesty International has dubbed the infamous prison "the human slaughterhouse", after reports of mass executions there.

"Honestly, it's a relief. My mother told me, 'He's lucky. He's at peace,'" Abdulrahman said.

They held condolences for Islam last week in Egypt, hundreds of kilometres from home and without a body.

Abdulrahman and his mother then broke the news by phone to his father, still in Syria serving out his own prison sentence.

But confirming what many long suspected is not enough, said Noura Ghazi, a Syrian lawyer and member of the detainee advocacy group Families for Freedom.

"OK, you've told us they're dead, but we want to know where the bodies are. We want to know the real way they died," Ghazi said.

Others are hesitating.

"People are so tired. Of course there's denial. Others are suspicious, saying 'Why would we believe this document is real? Or this date to be true?'" said Ghazi, who lives in Beirut.

Her husband, activist Bassel Khartabil, vanished after his October 3, 2015 arrest. In 2017, through her networks, Ghazi confirmed he died in detention.

"I held condolences for him, I wore black. I thought I had processed the truth," she said.

That changed when a relative of Khartabil visited a Damascus registry in early July and saw the government's freshly-recorded date of death: October 5, 2015.

"When we saw that, it's like he died all over again," said Ghazi.

"There's no going back. For more than two years I fought to know his fate. Now I'll be fighting my whole life to get his body."