Salam Othman, a lawyer and human rights activist from Aleppo, was arrested by Syrian military intelligence in 2011. For nearly three years, he was shuttled between various detention centers and prisons, his whereabouts unknown to his family.
“People would die and then be replaced,” Othman told Amnesty International about his experience in detention. “I did not leave the cell for the whole three years, not once … Many people became hysterical and lost their minds.”
Othman is one of at least 65,116 individuals who have been “forcibly disappeared” by the Syrian government in the aftermath of mass demonstrations in 2011 that devolved into a brutal civil war, according a new Amnesty report released Thursday citing figures from the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).
“Enforced disappearances” are individuals who have been arbitrarily arrested and held by government forces or allied militias, but whose whereabouts officials deny knowing. This lack of acknowledgement has left thousands of detainees outside the protection of the law.
In the absence of any such protection, detainees have been systematically subjected to mistreatment, violence, and sometimes torture, rape and death, according to Amnesty.
“Since the beginning of the crisis in 2011, a largely unseen but egregious human rights violation has been committed on a systematic and near-daily basis in Syria,” the report’s authors write. “Tens of thousands of people have been taken – snatched from their homes, offices, cars, and neighborhood markets.”
Of the more than 65,000 who have disappeared, 58,148 are civilians, according to figures cited in the Amnesty report. More than half of all the disappeared have been missing for two years or longer.
The earliest targets of forced disappearance were peaceful protesters and political activists, according to Amnesty. Then came human rights defenders, government monitors, journalists, and humanitarian aid workers and doctors seen as helping the opposition. Those considered disloyal to the Syrian government, or those who were related to wanted individuals were also targeted for forced disappearances.
Othman, the human rights activist, told Amnesty he was tortured during his stay at one detention center, but his stay at Saydnaya prison was worse:
“We were tortured on a daily basis … The torture was random: they would pick people and beat them in front of everyone. I was with around 30 people in one cell. People would die and then be replaced. We would be punished every time the opposition hurt government forces outside. They beat us with the most painful instruments: they used metal pipes instead of sticks, and they would aim at sensitive points on the body, like the spine and the head. I was subjected to this three times, and each time I would not be able to walk or do anything for a few months afterward.”
Another survivor, Omar, described prison conditions where detainees had to drink from the toilet. Diarrhea, dehydration, scabies and other diseases spread, he said.
Raneem Ma’touq, a fine arts student whose father was a human rights lawyer, was forcibly disappeared for months in 2014. She described some of what she saw to Amnesty:
“One of the worst methods of torture I saw was the ‘German chair.’ The person is tied to the chair and then the back is pushed backwards. Some people just broke into two. Their spines couldn’t take the pressure.”
After her release, Ma’touq learned that she had been charged with inciting terrorism.
Organizations monitoring the disappearances estimate that the actual number of missing might be higher, because relatives of those who’ve disappeared might be afraid to speak publicly lest it endanger their missing relative or lead to their own arrests.
Those who do take the risk and inquire about their relatives might find they have to pay hefty bribes to “middlemen,” “brokers,” or “mediators” for information on the whereabouts and health of the disappeared, according to Amnesty. The “middlemen” are usually people with ties to the Syrian authorities, possibly prison guards, lawyers or former detainees. The sums family members paid for information ranged from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands.
Compounding the financial strain for relatives of the missing is the mental and physical distress of a missing family member. Having someone from their family disappeared isolates the family, making neighbors and relatives fearful that they might also get in trouble. A woman whose son was forcibly disappeared in 2012 told Amnesty, “All of my relatives cut relations with me. We are a complete, tight family… But they cut ties because they think our family brings risk to them.”
The Amnesty report concluded that due to the systematic and widespread nature of the enforced disappearances, and their targeting of civilians, they amount to crimes against humanity.
The disappearances are just one aspect of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria. The conflict has displaced 11 million people — half the country’s population — with more than 4 million seeking refuge outside Syria’s borders. The nature of the conflict has made it hard to track the number of people killed, but most estimates put the death toll above 200,000.
The United Nations estimates 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance, 4.5 million of them in hard-to-reach areas, and 393,700 in besieged locations. Syrians have also had to contend with barrel bomb attacks — indiscriminate aerial attacks launched from helicopters by the Syrian government, and mortar or rocket attacks and car bombs launched by armed opposition groups.