When the protests first started in Syria in 2011, my father changed. He was very calm. He told me: “I had hoped my whole life that this would happen, but I never thought I would witness it. Even if I don’t get to see victory for the Syrian people, it is enough for me that I have been there at the beginning.”
I can’t help but think of these words today.
It has been 3,608 days since my father, Ali, an outspoken critic of the regime and supporter of the Syrian revolution, was dragged from our apartment in Damascus by Bashar al-Assad’s intelligence. It was the last time my sisters or mother saw or heard from him.
As countries across the Middle East look to “normalise” relations with the Assad regime in Syria, starting with this weekend’s Arab League summit in Riyadh, to which Assad has reportedly been invited, I see the crimes that have befallen my family and millions of others being erased from history.
On the day my father was dragged away, on 2 July 2013, our family’s world came crashing down in an instant. It was terrifying. Fearing for our safety and the possibility of being detained by the regime, my mother, my 13-year-old sister and I had no choice but to flee Syria.
We left everything behind, taking only our passports and crossing the border into Turkey under the cover of darkness. Eventually, I was granted asylum in Germany in 2016, but had to leave my family behind in Turkey. We are still separated today. My mother and youngest sister are in Canada and my other sister is in the US.
But much more than the splitting of our family, our eternal heartache is the loss of our father. The feeling of not knowing what happened to him is unbearable. It’s like experiencing a form of death. We have taken every possible action to locate him, from hiring lawyers to utilising any – every – connection available to us. We have been met with a deafening silence.
I am just one of many people who have lost loved ones to the regime’s brutal tactics.
More than 154,000 innocent civilians are estimated to have been either forcibly disappeared into detention centres, subjected to torture or killed by armed groups since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. The majority of these atrocities were committed by the regime under the leadership of Assad. Syrians know very well that the true numbers are much higher.
I see our experiences as a tale of communal heartbreak, shared by all Syrians. It is difficult to imagine a family in Syria that hasn’t experienced a loved one being forcibly detained, kidnapped, or simply vanished without a trace. It doesn’t matter to me whether these individuals were supporters or opponents of the revolution; my advocacy is for the freedom of all.
For all of us who have suffered, the narrative of “easing tension” and “reintegrating the Assad regime” implies that the conflict in Syria was a temporary hiccup that can now be resolved with minimal effort. It ignores the fact that the Assad regime has committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons against civilians, targeting hospitals and schools, and forcibly displacing millions of people.
Normalisation is a betrayal of all Syrians who have been victims of the Assad regime’s atrocities, sending a message that war criminals will face no consequences for their actions. It represents an attempt to rewrite history and erase the suffering of millions of Syrians at the hands of this regime.
Rather than achieving peace, it will only embolden the regime to continue its crimes against humanity, including the forced disappearances of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, including my father.
The decision to reinstate Syria’s membership to the Arab League comes at a time when the regime is still committing heinous crimes against its own people; the narrative that the situation in Syria has stabilised and improved is simply not true.
I also fear it could lead to even more deportations of Syrians from host countries, such as Turkey and Lebanon, and bring an end to the search for political solutions or pressure on the regime to release hundreds of thousands of detainees.
My father and I had dreams for our future, dreams that were shattered by the brutal crimes of the Assad regime. I wish for a future where the disappeared are found and reunited with their families. And for a future where all Syrians can protest without being disappeared and losing our lives for it.
Wafa Mustafa is a Syrian activist, journalist and member of the Free Syria’s Disappeared coalition.