Since I left Syria, I don’t know whether to feel happiness because I survived or sorrow for the tens of thousands of unfortunate people who are still being held in conditions of enforced disappearance.
Our dream was a simple one, even if most German citizens do not usually think about such things, as for them it is a fact often taken for granted: to have a homeland that protects us and respects our humanity, and a state that treats all its citizens equally in accordance with the law. Despite the simplicity of this dream that should now be a matter of course by 21st century standards, we knew that the price of this demand would be enormous. But we did not expect, even in our worst nightmares, that the regime would be prepared to escalate its crimes beyond what any ordinary person could imagine.
When the president of Tunisia fled and then the Egyptian president resigned, we were certain that this dream belonged not only to individuals or small groups, but to millions of people in our overall region. We believed that it could also be fulfilled in Syria by the power of the people, although the history of the regime since the 1980s was well known to us. We took to the streets with the demand to reclaim our homeland, equipped only with our collective voice and will. The security apparatus and the military responded with live ammunition. Two bullets flew past me, one of which almost hit my head. I was lucky, or else I would not be here today, but hundreds of thousands of others were not so lucky.
Because we would not let ourselves be deterred by gunfire, the regime decided to confront us with armored vehicles and tanks, surrounding and starving out towns and communities. Incredible video footage documents the bombardment of residential areas with all types of weapons. I remember one of these videos: the cameraman was filming a tank bombardment of a residential neighborhood in Tall Kalakh. The soldiers appeared to have been watching him, and as the tank’s cannon took aim at him, he stood there nailed to the ground, not knowing what to do. He shouted that the tank was about to shoot him. And that is exactly what happened. The young man fell, and only his phone survived, so we were able to see this clip a few days later.
I do not want to go into all the details of the crimes committed by the regime and its supporters, from the bombing of civilians to the destruction of the whole of Syria. The Federal Prosecutors spoke about this more than once in a way that made an impression on me because it revealed how many details of the Syrian tragedy were actually known to them. Pictures and videos often express more than words. But I want to talk about something that pictures do not usually convey, namely, the experience of detention and of enforced disappearance.
It is frightening enough to be subjected to live ammunition when you’re unarmed, and it’s even scarier to be bombarded with all manner of weapons, including planes – but nothing can describe the horror of being detained in Syria.
In the early months of the revolution, a detachment of hundreds of security forces attacked the town of Harasta, where I lived. Harasta was in the jurisdiction of the al-Khatib Branch. I was visiting my family’s house, which was 200 meters away from my apartment, while my wife and two children stayed at home. We heard a strange noise outside and opened the door to see what was happening; we then were confronted by intelligence officers shouting at us. We realized they were storming the neighborhood. I tried to contact my wife, but all the phone lines in the city were dead. I wanted to go back and check on my wife and children, but my mother rightly prevented me from doing so, because if I had gone out onto the street, I might never have come back, like many others who were arrested that day.
I don’t know how long it lasted, but it felt like years. I was overwhelmed with the fear of being a wanted man, that they would enter my home, not find me, and harm my wife and children. Or they would come to my parents’ house and take me away, so that I would disappear “behind the sun” and that “even the blue flies would not know” where I was.
I respect your decision not to include the crime of enforced disappearance in the charges against the defendant. I also may not have the evidence required by law to establish that enforced disappearance is a systematic process pursued by the regime and applied with full awareness of its consequences on the part of the military and intelligence services with the aim of terrorizing Syrian society. But I would like to tell you about this crime from my own lived experience because what we are presenting here also constitutes an historical documentation in the interest of all Syrians and all human rights defenders.
When the interests of a security official come into conflict with a citizen of Syria, the first thing we hear from these henchmen is the following phrase: “I will take you behind the sun and even the blue flies will not know where you are.” The citizen is then forced to back down because he knows exactly what this means and that for the official, carrying out this threat is easier than taking a sip of water.
The purpose of this threat is to intimidate the other party, and it is a recipe that has been often implemented by the regime and its officials. In fact, enforced disappearance must be considered not only a crime against humanity, but also an act of terror, because it aims to terrorize society and force it to submit to power.
“To disappear behind the sun” means to live in the darkness and to be banished from life without actually dying. The individual becomes Schrödinger’s cat, as those on the outside do not know whether he is dead or alive. These two possibilities are also present at all times for the prisoner himself, as well as for the prison guards and officials. The officer or warden himself does not know whether he is going to kill someone in the next minute; he might suddenly become angry about something his son has done and because of that, kill a prisoner who happens to be in front of him at that moment. Yes, it is that simple for them! What is even worse is that the prisoner does not know his own fate in the next instant. While of course no one can tell the future, the difference between the two situations is fundamental: the prisoner does not die naturally, but is murdered, probably in the most horrible way. The prisoner has no means of resisting this fate.
“To disappear in the darkness behind the sun” means to lose one’s sense of time. I ask you to devote five minutes of your time to imagining that you are in a confined, dark place where not a single ray of light ever enters, where “even the flies do not stray,” and where one has lost all connection to time. After a few days, you no longer know whether it is day or night, as if you no longer exist at all. Light and darkness become meaningless; you forget what trees and leaves look like, along with the smell of flowers. And what is life other than these small details?
Einstein once dismissed all scientific evidence and said, “I want to know that the moon exists whether I can see it or not!” He was practically obsessed with the idea. In detention, we become crazy because we are no longer sure of anything. I cried once just because I heard a prayer call, even though I am not religious! I cried because I heard a sound that was something other than the prison guards; I cried because I remembered for a moment that life is more than this darkness I was living in. I cried in that moment, even though I did not cry during the daily torture and torments I lived through at the time.
Do you know why I fled Syria? Not out of fear of dying by a bullet or gunfire, but because of precisely this fear of disappearing again. Yes, the intelligence officers, one of whom is standing trial here, succeeded in terrorizing me to the point where I was compelled to flee. Enforced disappearance is one of the crucial elements of a systematic policy of the regime to silence or get rid of us. This method is well known and adopted by all those who have collaborated with the regime, and the defendant was an important and senior agent of this regime.
I fled because I did not want my family to experience for a third time the nightmare of never-ending questions weighing on their lives: did they kill him? Is he still alive? Did they hang him somewhere? Did they break his back? Are they torturing him right now while we are eating? Did this happen and did that happen? Despite the bitterness of the death of a loved one, the families of prisoners can at least have closure, which, albeit painful, puts an end to these uncertainties when the death of their loved one is confirmed. A distant and vague hope, on the other hand, is even more agonizing and exhausting.
When I was arrested by the al-Khatib Branch, I was on my way to an appointment for work. After my release, my then three-and-a-half-year-old son cried every time I left the house. He thought that if I left, I would not come back. I never dared to promise him that I would come back in the evening because I might not be able to keep that promise, and in fact that is exactly what happened: one time, when I was again outside, I didn’t come back until four years later.
What hurts perhaps more than the killing and torture is the zeal that these employees and officers have in doing the utmost harm to us. I am convinced that they were not just carrying out orders, but were taking revenge on us for trying to take away their absolute power, that power given to them as part of the regime’s control machine, a power that stands outside of any law or morality and that they can use however and whenever it suits them.
I was ten years old when I began to understand the people’s fear of the Syrian intelligence services and to grasp the warnings I received from those around me not to say anything that might displease these officials. Parents warned their children that the slightest word could lead to the disappearance of the whole family.
At the age of ten, I began to feel disgusted by everyone who worked in the intelligence services and their family members, who were proud to be in a position of power that allowed them to terrorize those around them.
My uncle was arrested in the 1980s and tortured for six years because he belonged to the Communist Party. Three members of a friend’s family, his father, uncle and brother, disappeared, and since then, no one knows what became of them – just because they were suspected of opposing the regime.
There is no Syrian, adult or child, who does not know about the crimes the Syrian intelligence services have committed and continue to commit. Anyone who has voluntarily registered to work for them has consciously chosen to be a tool in committing crimes against humanity. In this sense, no intelligence officer, regardless of his position, can claim that he was merely following orders, that he was forced, or that his role was only marginal. Everyone in the intelligence services is an active part of that apparatus and is responsible for his or her actions. It goes without saying that the higher one’s position is, the more egregious the crimes are for which he is responsible. More significantly, the higher one’s position is, the more aware he was when joining one of the security services that he would commit crimes.
I might have been able to forgive the defendant for his crimes committed against me. But in his testimony at the beginning of the trial, he showed no remorse or sense of responsibility for the crimes he committed or contributed to, and he claims to this day that there was no systematic torture in the al-Khatib Branch. I could have forgiven him because I am not looking for personal revenge but, rather, for justice in the broadest sense, so that in the future there will be no place for the perpetrators of such crimes in Syria or anywhere else in the world.
Therefore, in the spirit of attaining a minimum of justice, I demand that those who committed such crimes in Syria be held accountable – and the defendant is one of them. And regardless of how long he will be imprisoned, he will have a clock near him, he will see the sun and know when it rises and when it sets, he will have medical care when needed, and he will receive visits from relatives who will know how he is doing, just as he will know how they are doing.
I survived, but the same good fortune was not experienced by Mustafa Karman, Ayham Ghazoul, Rania al-Abbasi, her husband and six children, Nabil al-Sharbaji, Yahya al-Sharbaji, Bassel Khartabil, Islam al-Dabbas, Mohammed Arab, Ali Shihab, Ali Mustafa, and tens of thousands of people who deserve that we name them here one by one and tell their stories and those of the pain of their loved ones.