From Darkness to Light - Hope for Syria's Disappeared

A bus displays photographs of missing Syrians as it arrives for a demonstration by 'Families for Freedom' in Parliament Square on October 11, 2017 in London, England. text reads "hope for Syria's disappeared"
For over a decade survivors and families of Syria's disappeared have been unstoppable in seeking truth and justice © Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

This blog is written by Ahmad Helmi. Ahmad is a Syrian human rights defender, survivor and the manager of Ta’afi Initiative (pictured below).

Learn about Ahmad's story and the monumental achievement of Syrian survivors at the United Nations

The jailor dragged me out of the darkness and into the light on 11 February 2013 from the political intelligence prison in Damascus. The jailor was my tormentor and my liberator. My cellmates, who remained in the dark, frantically whispered their names and home numbers for one last time, hoping I would remember them and pass on a message to their families that their loved ones were still alive. I still remember you, Malek, Juan, and Diaa.

Burnt into my memory is that moment of liberation. Those whisperers in the darkness became a massive weight on my shoulders since I was released after 34 months in nine horrific detention facilities.

A ray of hope shines

Ten years later, and for the first time, I feel the weight on my shoulders is starting to lift. We are now significantly closer to finding answers for the families of Malek, Juan, Diaa and all the disappeared and maybe even seeing some of them liberated.

On 29 June this year, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted to establish an independent, international institution to clarify the fate and whereabouts of tens of thousands of missing and forcibly disappeared people in Syria since 2011.

This positive vote was a monumental achievement led by Syrian survivors and families of the disappeared. I'm proud my organization, Ta'afi, was part of this initiative. This new institution will do something we have long worked for - creating a meaningful way to fulfil the families' right to the truth by establishing a victim-centred institution dedicated to providing long-awaited answers about what happened to their loved ones.

Working for truth and justice

The regime couldn't kill my belief in human rights when they tortured me - it only made me stronger and more determined. When I got out of prison, I got back to my activism. I'm glad I met Amnesty along the way and learned many skills in advocacy and campaigning from them. I used many of these new skills with my fellow Syrian survivors when we started planning to create this new UN body in 2019.

In 2021, we drafted our priorities to address Syria's enforced disappearance and torture issue. We released an options paper stating that we need the United Nations General Assembly to establish the institution and campaigned night and day to bring the matter to the international community's attention. Meanwhile, we worked on gradually introducing new language into Human Rights Council resolutions regarding victims' rights of active participation. Through countless advocacy meetings, we reached a point where the UN Secretary-General finally endorsed our ideas, and a cross-regional core group of UN member states tabled the resolution, eventually establishing the historic institution.

We took a moment to celebrate that night, but we will not stop there.

What's happening right now?

At least 100,000 people are still missing or have been forcibly disappeared in Syria since 2011, primarily at the hands of the Syrian government's horrendous security apparatus. The actual number of people missing or disappeared is likely greater. This institution offers a single avenue to register cases, consolidate existing information, and coordinate with other mechanisms to tackle this issue.

Implementation is now crucial because families of the missing and forcibly disappeared still face immense challenges in obtaining any information about the fate of their loved ones. Relatives continue to be in a state of perpetual agony and uncertainty.

The institution will be formally established in a few weeks and should start operating. It doesn't currently have access to Syria since the Syrian authorities refuse to cooperate with it. However, our goal is to reveal the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared. Therefore, we will keep pressuring the Syrian regime and its allies to collaborate with the institution and keep a close eye on the institution itself to ensure that it will operate in the best ways possible, with victims and survivors at the centre of their thinking.

Tens of thousands of whisperers in the dark are trying to get into the light, hoping their families can get some relief. Millions of Syrians are waiting for a faint sound of hope. The favourable vote at the UN took some weight off my shoulders, but I will not rest until Syria is free of its rancid prison cells and cruel, medieval punishments.

More about Ta'afi Initiative: Ta'afi is a Syrian survivors' led, survivors' centred initiative that aims to support and protect victims of detention, torture, and enforced disappearance upon their release and settlement at a secure location so that they may continue to peacefully support human rights change in Syria and pursue justice and accountability.

AMNESTY'S WORK ON SYRIA

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