How one woman's missing father inspired her to fight for justice for Syria

Wafa Mustafa, the daughter of a detainee in a Syrian jail, on why she holds a protest vigil in front of a German courthouse with the photographs of 61 people who have disappeared

Syrian campaigner Wafa Mustafa sits between pictures of victims of the Syrian regime as she holds a picture of her father, during a protest outside the trial against two Syrian alleged former intelligence officers accused for crimes against humanity, in the first trial of its kind to emerge from the Syrian conflict, on June 4, 2020 in Koblenz, western Germany. Wafa was part of the resistance against the Syrian government and had to flee Syria once her dad was arrested. She came to Germany in 2016. / AFP / Thomas Lohnes
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For the Syrian activist and journalist Wafa Mustafa, it’s often the comparatively mundane things that can be hardest to talk about.

Ms Mustafa, 30, fled for her life from Syria as an outspoken critic of more than a decade and fervent supporter of the large-scale demonstrations against the regime of Bashar Al Assad that began in 2011.

She has not heard from her father, Ali, since he disappeared after what appears to have been his detention by regime loyalists in Damascus two years later.

But, despite being able to speak about all that she has endured, she struggles for words when trying to recall her earlier memories, those that came before she lost her father, her country and her home.

"We've been talking about things like detention, bombing and stuff for 10 years and then suddenly normal things, childhood and just life before the revolution - start to be weird to talk about," she said in an interview with The National.

Ms Mustafa, who has lived in Berlin for four years after spending time in Turkey, has risen to prominence because of her protest outside a German court where a former senior Syrian military intelligence official is on trial in a landmark case over alleged state-sponsored torture, murder and other abuses. Unimaginable numbers of people have disappeared or been killed in an array of brutal jails in the country.

On trial is Anwar Raslan, charged with overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others at a Damascus detention centre. His co-accused is Eyad Al Gharib, an alleged accomplice in the atrocities.

Mr Raslan himself escaped from Syria at the end of 2012 but was recognised by refugees in Germany. At the trial, which began in April, he has denied all charges of crimes against humanity that have been laid against him.

Known as the Al Khatib trial – a reference to the prison branch under the control of the accused – it’s hoped by campaigners to be a step towards seeking some form of justice for the abuses committed in Syria.

Mr Raslan and Mr Al Gharib are being tried in Germany under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity.

Ms Mustafa has held a striking vigil in front of the court, surrounded by the photographs of 61 people who have disappeared during the Syrian War – including one of her father.

She is under no illusion that the trial in Koblenz is but the first step in a long process. “This does not summarise everything we’ve dreamt of but it is a beginning, it is one step,” she said. “It is very important and it gives us a lot of hope.”

Ms Mustafa is adamant that the priority must be to ensure that detainees in Syria - whether held by the Assad regime or opposition groups - are released.

“I’ve always said that, now since the start of the court sessions, I don’t want to wait for my Dad to get killed and then go to a German court to ask for justice,” she said. “If we all agree that we don’t want this then we should do something for releasing these detainees.

“This is the main reason I decided to go to the court, to sit in front of the courthouse, because I felt that the whole world is looking at this place and this moment and maybe feeling satisfied at: ‘Yes, we’ve done something. Yes, we’ve been working on Syria and we’ve done something.’

“I think that the trial won’t make anything easier by itself but I think what will make things easier and what will maybe at least push us one step towards achieving freedom for these detainees, is us taking advantage of this trial to repeat our demands again and again and again, and to try again all possible ways to say that we want our missing ones free.”

One of the most overwhelming aspects of the role that she has undertaken has been the messages she receives from families of the detainees. Tens a day, she says. It is a great responsibility, but important, she says, to make people realise that they and their loved ones are not forgotten.

The eldest of three daughters, Ms Mustafa was born into a politically active, liberal family living in Masyaf, not far from the city of Hama. Education was important and discussing the Assad regime was not off limits at the dining table, even if anxieties over the Syrian security apparatus were ever-present.

Her father took the young Wafa from the age of 10 to demonstrations in Damascus in support of the Palestinian cause every week. When calls for change swept across Syria in 2011, there was never a question that the family would play an active role.

“This protesting culture wasn’t new for me I would say,” she said with a small smile.

In fact, Ms Mustafa’s own protest began in front of the Libyan embassy as a civil war quickly enveloped the North African country and its ruler Muammar Qaddafi opened fire on his own people.

Even then, however, the Syrian authorities were attacking protesters despite their chants being about Qaddafi and not critical of the Assad regime.

“The protest in front of the Libyan embassy was important, at least on a personal level,” she said.

“When the revolution started in Syria, it wasn’t a question for me. It’s not that I sat down and then I thought: ‘Shall I participate in this? These are the advantages and these are the disadvantages.’ No. it wasn’t like that. Not only for me, obviously, [but] for, I guess, most of the people, it was just this sense that it’s started, so we should be there.”

Her family was detained briefly, and a devastating surge of violence that continues to this day began. Despite the inherent dangers, she says that her father, who was arrested numerous times before and after the revolution, always “left the decision” to Ms Mustafa as to whether she would become involved or not. This support and lack of judgement meant a great deal to her.

“It was really for me to decide if this is what I want,” she said. “So, now, if I get arrested and get killed, is this my decision, is this my choice? And it was actually.”

The last time she heard from her father was on July 2, 2013. He had been staying with her in Damascus but she had returned to her family home near Hama to visit a doctor after becoming seriously ill, partly as a result of the death of a very close friend in a rocket attack. The two months they spent together, as he tried to nurse her back to health at what was then the hardest time of her life, added another, deeper layer to their relationship, Ms Mustafa says: “I was at my worst and weakest stages and he was there for me.”

Her mother had planned to go visit her father, the two having not seen each other in months. She had made his favourite food and called him 15 minutes before her arrival to say she was nearly there.

Syaian defendant Anwar Raslan, 57, arrives at court for an unprecedented trial on state-sponsored torture in Syria, on April 23, 2020 at court in Koblenz, western Germany.  Two alleged former Syrian intelligence officers go on trial in Germany on April 23, 2020 accused of crimes against humanity in the first court case worldwide over state-sponsored torture by Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Prime suspect Anwar Raslan, an alleged former colonel in Syrian state security, stands accused of carrying out crimes against humanity while in charge of the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus between April 29, 2011 and September 7, 2012.  / AFP / POOL / Thomas Lohnes
Anwar Raslan is being tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity. AFP

“He told her that he had cleaned the house and everything is fine and he’s waiting for her,” Ms Mustafa said. “And 15 minutes later she called him… he never responded after that.

“When my mum arrived, she felt that something had happened. She didn’t even go upstairs to knock on the door or anything, she stayed downstairs.

“One of the neighbours saw and she was like: ‘Are you looking for your husband?’. My mum said ‘yes’, and then she told her: ‘Well, a group of men attacked your place and I just heard noises. I guess they were beating him. They were breaking stuff and then they went down[stairs] with him.’ This is the only information we have.”

The family are sure he was taken by the Assad regime, but it has been harder to work out where he is now. The task has been made more complicated by the extreme level of disinformation prevalent in Syria. Contacts have been made with everyone, from local authorities to rebel groups, including extremists, but nothing concrete has been uncovered.

Ms Mustafa graduated from university in Germany last month with a degree in humanities and arts. It was an emotional and difficult moment given that her father, who had impressed upon her from a young age the importance of education, wasn’t there. She will now renew her focus on a variety of Syrian-related causes, including working towards helping governments realise that the country of her birth is not safe for refugees to return to and stopping attempts to normalise relations with the Assad regime. As she puts it, keeping the revolution going is her priority.

While the trial is what she describes as “a crucial moment in her life”, this daughter of a Syrian prison detainee is determined to go back to her home in spite of everything that has happened.

“I always say, and my friends say this is crazy, that the moment Assad is not there, I’ll definitely go back,” she tells me. “I mean, I studied here, I live here, I do a lot of stuff - but, for me, this is all temporary. I do not see myself elsewhere except for Syria. To be honest, it also keeps me going, doing what I’m doing. If I stop believing that this country [Syria] could be my home again one time, then I believe I wouldn’t be as motivated as I am.”

For a long time, Ms Mustafa has feared that her activism may have put - indeed, may still be putting - her father in danger. None the less, she has pushed on.

“I’ve been thinking about this for years now,” she said. “Might this hurt my Dad or not? But I have no other option. I know that my Dad wouldn’t want me to just not talk about it. I know my Dad, and I’m definitely 100 per cent sure that if I just stay home and do nothing that one day, if he is released, he will ask me why.

“I am what my Dad raised. Part of me is also what my Dad thinks. I’m doing this because this is what I want to do - but I’m sure that this is also what he wants me to do, too.”