Review: Syria’s Disappeared – chilling but crucial viewing
Harrowing. Powerful. Important.
Three words that you would be hard pressed not to use to describe Syria’s Disappeared, a film exposing the brutality of President Assad’s regime and the cruelty faced by those who dare stand up to it.
The film follows the experiences of three protagonists during and after the mass uprisings in Syria. In that time, government forces systematically cracked down on dissent and countless people were arrested, detained, tortured and killed. Tens of thousands remain missing.
One by one, our three leads deliver unflinching accounts of the horrors they have faced, straight down the barrel of the lens, while you, the viewer, dare not break their gaze.
No place of safety
Mazen Hamada, a young man whose face is etched with sorrow, describes in chilling detail the torture he suffered; guards jumping on his ribs until one by one they crack; being suspended from the ceiling by his wrists; having his genitals agonisingly clamped. He goes on to say that even the hospitals are no places of safety – in fact the military hospital 'is a slaughterhouse, not a hospital.' Mazen was also told he no longer had a name, and would be known by a number from now on. Perhaps it’s easier to treat someone so ferociously inhumanely once you’ve taken away their identity.
Mariam Hallaq, a mother whose son was imprisoned twice, and who died just days into his second detention of an apparent heart attack (a common lie told by the regime to families of those they’ve executed), fights for the truth of what really happened to her boy. She couldn’t see him one last time or hold a funeral as she has no idea where his body is. No one will tell her. She carries a photo of his corpse on her phone as that is all she has left of him.
Mansour Omari, another young man who, even from the inside of a prison, wouldn’t stop fighting for justice for himself and those suffering alongside him. Along with others, he secretly wrote the names of prisoners on scraps of cloth using their own blood as ink. He smuggled the identity of those trapped and dying – or already dead – out into the world when he was finally freed, to expose the truth and preserve their souls and memories forever.
Key evidence rejected by Assad
The film pulls no punches. None of the participants are granted anonymity while they speak straight into the camera so no viewer can escape the horror of what is being described.
At one point we are presented with gruesome photos showing exactly what has happened to scores of men, and even boys. Their eyes gouged, their bodies emaciated and contorted, their faces frozen in pain.
These photos should serve as a key piece of evidence of war crimes, however, amongst the film’s most shocking scenes (of which there are many) is the manner in which Assad coldly and totally rejects this proof he is presented with during an interview. He barely takes a moment to look at the terrifying scenes of rotting corpses before claiming they had probably been photoshopped. When asked if he had even visited the prisons, he laughs dismissively saying, 'no, I’ve been in the presidential palace'. The detachment from reality is no more palpable than at this point.
'Justice for me and my friends they killed.'
We recently held a screening of Syria’s Disappeared at the Amnesty UK office. The film ended and you suddenly realise you were holding your breath. As the credits role, there was no applause - just a deafening silence. And a collective, weighty feeling amongst the audience that no doubt, if put into words, raises one question: 'what can we do?'
Our screening concluded with a panel discussion involving some of those involved in the making of the film, plus other authorities on this subject.
They stressed that this is the story of the Syrian revolution and we should never forget how it started. Mazen Darwish, a former detainee himself who now works at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression said, 'We don't seek revenge. We try to protect our society from revenge, to protect youth from extremism.' He is echoing Mazen Hamada’s selfless sentiment from the film, who says he doesn’t want revenge – he wants justice. 'Justice for me and my friends they killed.'
Nicola Cutcher, the film’s producer highlighted the bravery of the storytellers she met while making the film. She recounts the example of a man who lost all 28 of his families members, so he now felt there was no risk involved anymore. There was no one left to face a backlash if he brought out the truth.
The film’s director Sara Afshar commented that: 'It's not enough to watch the film. We all need to start talking about this issue and start raising its profile.' She explained that this situation has constantly been swept under carpet by the UN, yet it’s the number one issue for Syrians. Why should they have to suffer for years not knowing what happened to their families, she asked. If nothing wrong is going on, why won't Assad let independent bodies into detention centers to verify that? 'It's an emergency situation because every day people die,' she concludes. The UN must take heed of that urgency.
Glimmers of hope
But there are glimmers of hope. During the film, on a coach to a demonstration at the UN office in Geneva to urge them to take action, we see Mazen Hamada joyfully singing powerful songs of the revolution, determined to get his loved ones freed. Mariam now delivers workshops on transitional justice and Mansour is also a vocal campaigner. Despite seeing the worst of humanity, these people don’t want vengeance. They want the truth.
In the film, Mazen says how he and his fellow prisoners were 'destroyed', but we don’t see that in him, or Mariam or Mansour. They have not been destroyed by these atrocities because they are fighting back. They are heroes.
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