The government’s enforced disappearances are part of a coldly calculated, widespread attack against the civilian population. These are crimes against humanity, part of a carefully orchestrated campaign designed to spread terror and quash the slightest sign of dissent across the country.Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program: “This report describes in heart-breaking detail the devastation and trauma of the families of the tens of thousands of people who have vanished without trace in Syria, and their cruel exploitation for financial gain.”
The scale of the disappearances is harrowing. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented at least 65,000 disappearances since 2011 – 58,000 of them civilians. Those taken are usually held in overcrowded detention cells in appalling conditions and cut off from the outside world. Many die as a result of disease, torture and extrajudicial execution.
Enforced disappearances have become so entrenched in Syria they have given rise to a black market in which “middlemen” or “brokers” are paid bribes ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, by family members desperate to find out the whereabouts of their loved ones or whether they are even still alive. Such bribes have become “a big part of the economy” according to one Syrian human rights activist. A lawyer from Damascus also told Amnesty International the bribes are “a cash cow for the regime… a source of funding they have come to rely on”.
Those forcibly disappeared include opponents of the government such as demonstrators, human rights activists, journalists, doctors and humanitarian workers. Others have been targeted because they are believed to be disloyal to the government or because their relatives are wanted by the authorities.
In some cases, especially in the last two years, enforced disappearances have been used as a means to settle scores or for financial gain, further fuelling the cycle of disappearances.
Some families have sold their property or given up their entire life savings to pay bribes to find out the fate of their relatives – sometimes in exchange for false information. One man whose three brothers were disappeared in 2012 told Amnesty International he had borrowed more than US$150,000 in failed attempts to find out where they are. He is now in Turkey working to pay back his debts.
“As well as shattering lives, disappearances are driving a black market economy of bribery which trades in the suffering of families who have lost a loved one. They are left with mounting debts and a gaping hole where a loved one used to be,” said Philip Luther.
Family members who try to inquire about disappeared relatives are often at risk of arrest or being disappeared themselves, which gives them little choice but to resort to using such “middlemen”. One man who asked the authorities about his brother’s whereabouts was detained for three months and spent several weeks in solitary confinement. Another man who went to Damascus to look for his disappeared son was arrested at a military checkpoint on the way and has not been heard from since.