Ahmed Hurani* sits distraught in a dusty tent in Jordan’s Al Zaatari refugee camp, just a few kilometres from the Syrian border, after learning that his father and two brothers have been arrested by Syrian security forces. His injured mother is in Dera’a. For all he knows, she has been taken too.
Hurani is by no means the only refugee in Jordan worried sick by the detention of, and lack of communication with, relatives in Syria.
According to the latest report by the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Commission of Inquiry, no exact numbers of detainees or “disappeared” are known. In June opposition groups put the number of those imprisoned at 26,000. The government says at least 3,267 people (including security officials) were kidnapped by armed groups between March 2011 and June 2012.
“We have completely lost hope, because we believe no one will help us,” said Nura*, a young woman. “Three months ago, [President Bashar al-] Assad’s forces came and arrested men at random. My brother was shot and carried away on a gurney [wheeled stretcher]… We begged for him in Assad’s name. They said he would be released, but we have still not heard anything.”
Nearby, two small boys - children of the missing man - play in the dirt. Every time a new bus comes into the camp, they run and look for their father, Nura told IRIN.
A crime against humanity?
A recent Human Rights Watch report on torture in 27 different Syrian detention centres says that in most cases families have no information on the fate of detainees. It says their cases are enforced disappearances, which if systematic or widespread represent crimes against humanity. Amnesty International says forced disappearances in Syria are not a recent phenomenon, but have been going on for over 40 years.
Another woman’s husband and brother have been missing since winter. “We have been here only four days. I have two young children. I tried to find my husband in hospitals and everywhere… My heart is so heavy… I don’t even have a photo of him. My brother was arrested twice… but he was not a fighter in the Free Syrian Army. They got his name mixed up… My father tried the prison and elsewhere but there was no information. We have lost hope. We don’t expect to get them back alive... [and] even if someone is killed, they do not give us back their bodies.”
The father and brother of another refugee at the same camp, Mohammed Al Kurani, are confirmed dead, killed in Dera’a. His other brother disappeared with a cousin on the fourth day of Ramadan. “He called from Damascus… the streets were empty except for the army. There were a lot of checkpoints. After that, we lost all contact. We don’t know anything about them. We are not sure if they were arrested; if they are dead or alive. We made inquiries with the police, army branches and hospitals, but no news. My mother is still hoping to find him alive. At first I had such hope, but now I have none. We are all in shock. My mother is always crying and is in bad health. I would rather not know if my brother is dead because my mother cannot take any more bad news. Better not to know.”
ICRC tracing efforts
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which traces people missing in armed conflict and visits the detained, is in the process of establishing an office in the camp to trace missing relatives.
|We don’t expect to get them back alive... [and] even if someone is killed, they do not give us back their bodies|
Once the tracing office opens in the camp, refugees will be able to give the names of the missing to the ICRC which then passes the information to its delegations in Syria and other countries. The delegation in Syria either contacts the government directly or in some cases asks the Syrian Red Crescent Society to take up the case.
Bertrand Lamon, deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Jordan, said the tracing process means refugees can search for relatives missing inside Syria, those in third countries or those who have found shelter at other locations inside Jordan.
However, many families are afraid to submit tracing requests for fear of retaliation. “Fear is a major obstacle that must be addressed by providing clearer information about tracing,” Betrand Lamon, deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Jordan, told IRIN, adding that if the ICRC decides a tracing request could endanger the missing person, it does not proceed with it.
In the meantime, more people are going missing, giving rise to further anguish.
Sabeen* who found shelter in the nearby Jordanian city of al-Mafraq, is eight months pregnant with her first child. Her 26-year-old husband went missing two months ago. “My sisters, my brothers are all in a bad situation in Syria. There is no way to contact them. We try calling all the day and all the night. `Mafi’ - nothing. We have no idea where they are. I don’t know what to do. Bashar (al-Assad) has destroyed us, he has destroyed us.”
*not a real name