Relatives hold up photos of the disappeared in Syria, in a rally outside UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland in 2017 (Dylan Collins/Al Jazeera)
Last Thursday a court in Cologne, Germany sentenced a former Assad regime officer, Col. Anwar Raslan, to life in prison over the torture of thousands of Syrians and murder of 50 in regime prisons. Fifty victims — 24 of them co-plaintiffs — testified about Raslan’s offenses. The final statement was by Hussein Gherir. Originally published by Luna Watfa of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, with an English translation by Diane Lockyer on her site:
Fifty victims — 24 of them co-plaintiffs — testified about Raslan’s offenses. The final statement was by Hussein Gherir.
Originally published by Luna Watfa of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, with an English translation by Diane Lockyer on her site:
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Distinguished Panel of Judges,
Since I left Syria, I don’t know if I am happy for having survived or angry for the tens of thousands of unfortunate people who are still forcibly disappeared.
The dream was simple and perhaps most German citizens do not think about it now because it is a given reality: to have a homeland that protects us and respects our humanity, and a state that treats all its citizens equally and according to the law. Despite the simplicity and obviousness of the dream by the standards of the twenty-first century, we knew that the cost of demanding it would be heavy. But neither in our worst nightmares did we expect the regime to be willing to go further in its crime than any normal human being could have imagined.
When the President of Tunisia fled and then the President of Egypt fell [in February 2011], we were convinced that the dream was not tempting us as individuals or small groups, but rather the dream of millions of people in our region. We believed that it could also be achieved in Syria with the power of the people, despite our knowledge of the regime’s history since the eighties.
We took to the streets demanding the restoration of our homeland; we had only our voices and our will. Security forces and officers responded with live bullets. Two bullets passed near me, one of which nearly hit my head. I was lucky once again or else I wouldn’t be with you now, but hundreds of thousands more weren’t that lucky.
Live bullets did not deter us, so the regime decided to confront us with armored vehicles and tanks, and imposed a siege on cities and towns, in order to implement the policy of “starve or kneel.” We did not believe the videos that were spreading about the bombing of residential areas with all kinds of weapons. I remember one of those videos: the photographer was documenting the tank bombing of a neighborhood in the city of Tel Kalakh. It seems that the soldiers noticed him so the tank cannon advanced towards him and he was stuck in his place and no longer knew what to do. The young man shouted that the tank wanted to bomb him and that was what happened. The young man fell never to get up but the phone survived. We got a clip a few days later.
The Fear of Detention
I will not list the details about the crimes committed by the regime and its followers, from bombing the civilian population to the destruction of Syria. The Public Prosecution has talked about them on more than one occasion in a way that astonished me in their knowledge of the details of the Syrian tragedy. And the pictures and videos scattered all over the place tell us what words can’t do.
But I want to talk about what the pictures do not usually convey: about the experience of detention and enforced disappearance.
It is frightening to face live bullets when one is unarmed, and it is even more frightening to be bombarded with all kinds of weapons, including planes, but I can’t find the words that can describe the horror that can befall a person from the prospect of arrest.
In the first months of the revolution, a force of hundreds of members and security officers launched a raid on the city of Harasta [near Damascus], where I lived. The city of Harasta was under the responsibility of the Al-Khatib branch. I was visiting my family’s house, which is 200 meters from my house, and my wife and two children were at home. We felt a strange movement outside, opened the door to see what was happening and the officers shouted at us. We learned it was a raid. I immediately tried to contact my wife but all communications were cut off from the city at the time. I decided to go out to check on my wife and two children but my mother forbade me from that and she was right.
Perhaps if I go out, I will not return as some of those who were arrested did not return that day. I don’t know how long it took, not metaphorically, but really I don’t know but it felt like it took many years. I was overwhelmed with fear of being wanted so they might enter my house and not find me and might do anything to my wife and child. Or they might enter my family’s house and take me with them, so I hid behind the sun and not even the blue flies knew where I was.
— Omar Alshogre (@omarAlshogre) January 15, 2022
“Disappearing Behind the Sun”
Ladies and gentlemen, judges, I respect your decision not to include the crime of enforced disappearance with the crimes for which the accused is being tried, and perhaps I do not have the evidence acceptable to the law to prove that enforced disappearance is a systematic process pursued by the regime and implemented with full awareness of its consequences, all its officers and members with the aim of terrorizing Syrian society. But I will tell you about this crime from the reality of a live experience, because what we are saying here constitutes historical documents of interest to Syrians and of all human rights defenders.
When the interests of a security element or a security officer conflict with any citizen in Syria, the first thing we can hear from this element or officers is the following statement:
“I will hide you behind the sun where the blue flies dare not stray.”
Then the other party is forced to give up his right because he knows exactly what that means, and knows perfectly well that carrying out the threat is as easy as drinking water.
The purpose of the threat is to intimidate the other party, which is a proven recipe for the regime and its elements. In fact, enforced disappearance should be considered not only as a crime against humanity, but also as a form of terrorist act, because it aims to terrorize society and force it to submit to power. And the smallest rank element in security is aware of the impact of this act on society, and that is precisely why it is practiced.
Disappearing behind the sun is to be hidden in darkness banished from life without actually dying.
People become like Schrödinger’s cat, outsiders don’t know if it is dead or alive. The two possibilities become completely equal even for the detainee himself, and for the jailer and the officer. The officer or the jailer himself does not know if he will kill one of them at the next moment. He may suddenly become angry at something his son has done and kill a detainee who happened to be in front of him at that moment. Yes it is that simple for them! More importantly, the detainee himself does not know his fate in the next moment. Of course, no one knows that, but the difference is essential between the two cases: in the case of the detainee, he does not die naturally, but is killed by someone, most likely in the most horrific way: in the case of the detainee there is no possibility of resisting fate.
For a person to hide behind the sun in the dark means he loses his sense of time. I invite you to devote five minutes of your time to imagine that you are in a dark and enclosed place where the light never crosses, even the flies find no way to enter, and you do not have the opportunity to tell the time. After a few days, you won’t know if it’s day or night, as if they don’t exist for you at all. The light and the dark will no longer make any sense; you will forget the shape of the leaf and the scent of the rose. And what is life other than those little details?
Einstein threw all scientific evidence aside when he said: I want to know that the moon exists whether I see it or not! He could have gone mad at the idea. In detention, we go crazy because we are no longer sure of anything. I cried once because I heard the call to prayer, even though I am not religious! I cried because I heard a voice other than the screams of the jailers, I cried because I remembered for a moment that life is more than this darkness in which I live. I cried at that moment even though I did not cry during the daily torture sessions at the time.
Fleeing “Out of Fear of Disappearing”
Do you know why I fled from Syria? Not out of fear of dying by a bullet or under bombardment, but precisely out of fear of disappearing again. Yes, the officers of the regime, of whom the accused was one, succeeded in intimidating me and forcing me to flee. Enforced disappearance is one of the most important elements of the regime’s systematic policy to silence us or get rid of us, and this methodology is well understood and applied by every member of this regime and the accused is an effective and rank member of this regime.
I ran away because I didn’t want my family to live the nightmare a third time, the nightmare of the questions that keep messing with their lives: Did they kill him? Is he still alive? Is he hanging at the moment? Did they break his back? Are they torturing him now while we eat? Is it and is it?
Despite the bitterness of the death of loved ones, the families of the detainees find a conclusion, albeit painful, when the death of their loved ones is confirmed. The distant hope is exhausting and severe torture.
When the al-Khatib branch arrested me, I was out on a work appointment. After I was released, my three-and-a-half-year-old son would cry every time I left the house. He was telling me don’t go, if you go out you won’t come back. I never dared to promise him to come back in the evening because I was going to break my promise to him, for I went out again and did not return until after four years.
Perhaps what hurts more than killing and torture is the enthusiasm of these elements and officers to inflict the most harm on us. I am convinced that they were not only carrying out orders, but were retaliating against us because we tried to remove from their hands the absolute power, that power given to them as part of the system’s machine of control, that power beyond any law and any morals which they can use as and when they want to advance their interests.
I was 10 years old when I began to understand the people’s fear of the Syrian intelligence and when I began to realize the warnings I was receiving from my surroundings so as not to speak in a way that did not satisfy the intelligence. Parents were warning their children that any word could lead to the disappearance of the entire family.
At the age of 10, I began to feel disgust with all those who worked in the intelligence and every member of their family who prided themselves on being in a position of power to intimidate those around him.
My uncle was arrested in the 1980s and tortured for six years for his affiliation with the Communist Party. Three of my friend’s family, his father, uncle and brother, have disappeared, and until now they do not know their fate, just because he was suspected of opposing the regime.
There is never a single Syrian, whether an adult or a child, who does not know what crimes were and are being committed by the Syrian intelligence. And everyone who volunteered to work with them has consciously chosen to be a tool for committing crimes against humanity.
In this case, no member of the intelligence, regardless of his position, can say that he was following orders, that he was forced, or that his role was marginal. Each member is an active member of this system and is responsible for his actions. It is obvious that the higher his position, the greater the number and severity of the crimes for which he is responsible. Even more importantly, the higher his position, the more aware he was when he joined the security services that he was willing to commit crimes.
I could have forgiven the accused for his responsibility for the crime committed against me, but in his statement at the beginning of the trial he did not show any remorse or sense of responsibility for the crimes he committed or contributed to, and he still claims that there was no systematic torture committed in a branch Khatib. I could have forgiven because I am not looking for personal revenge, but rather for justice in the broadest sense so that there will be no place in the future for the perpetrators of crimes in Syria or anywhere in the world.
For the Sake of Justice
Therefore, and for the sake of justice: I demand accountability for those who committed these crimes in Syria, and the accused is one of them.
Whatever the length of his imprisonment, I will have an hour with him, and he will see the sun and know when it rises and when it sets, and he will receive medical care when he needs it, and people will visit him and get his news and get their news all the time.
I survived, but luck was not on Mustafa Qurman, Ayham Ghazoul, Ali Mustafa, Khalil Maatouk, Ali Shehabi, Rania Abbasi, her husband and her six children, Nabil al-Sharbaji, Yahya al-Sharbaji, Basil Khartabil, Islam al-Dabbas, Muhammad Arab, and tens of thousands who deserve to be named one by one, and to tell their stories and the pain of their loved ones here.