Desaparecidos – The Ghosts of Syria

Five years have gone by since the Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio disappeared from the city of Raqqa. But this is not an isolated case: 95 thousand Syrians have been “disappeared” since the beginning of the civil war in Syria: vanished into thin air after ending up in the prisons of the regime or becoming victims of various jihadist groups.

Raqqa – It is a torrid day in late June. For long stretches the road that leads to northern Syria is tortuous and unpaved. From Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, you cross the rolling ochre hills, extending as far as the eye can see. Through the dirty window, you can see rows of white tents enclosed within a metal fence. Although more than seven years have gone by since the start of the conflict, thousands of Syrians still live in refugee camps, right by the Syrian border. Without a visa from the Syrian government, the only way to reach Raqqa is to navigate the natural border provided by the Tigris. We enter the Jazira region, which together with the city of Kobanî is under the control of the Syrian Kurds, whose offices issue the permits needed to reach Raqqa.

This was the last stop of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio’s journey. A journey that had begun more than thirty years earlier in his beloved Syria. A stop that he had chosen, but that became his last station. A sense of mission had led the priest, in late July 2013, to the first city liberated from the rule of the Bashar al-Assad regime. This city was in fact the first to be taken, in March of the same year, by rebel groups, including both Salafist and secular formations. It is also where local committees and forms of self-government were started. Padre Paolo wanted to meet with the locals, the activists, and see how they were organizing. He also wanted to engage in dialogue with the heads of the jihadi militias to convince them not to betray the spirit of the revolution, which he hoped would remain non-violent. He knew the risks he was facing, but he was undeterred. His faith and his lifelong commitment to Syria and its people, as well as the radical Gospel that he was living on the border, led him to travel to the dusty city on the Euphrates.    

It was almost noon when Padre Paolo knocked on the gate of the palace of the Raqqa governorate, occupied by rebel groups. He asked the guards at the elegant brick building whether he could meet with the emir. They told him to come back after evening prayer. The priest showed up for the appointment. This time he was told to come back the next day, July 29, 2013. Five years have gone by since then, and he hasn’t been heard from again.

It is hard to visualize the building where Father Paolo was last seen. Rubble and dust are all that’s left of it today. Raqqa, a majority Arab city that became the ISIS capital in January 2014, was ruled for more than three years by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men. Last October, after a four-month siege, it was taken back by the coalition of Syrian democratic forces under Kurdish leadership and American air power. Piles of debris and junk mark the entrance to an annihilated city. The buildings are crumbling, perforated by shards of protruding metal and dangling electric wires. What used to be homes are now little more than cement skeletons, gray and decrepit. The burnt carcasses of cars are strewn all along the dusty streets. Most of the city, which used to be home to some 200 thousand people, has been levelled by the fury of the bombings. But the endless piles of rubble that mark the landscape are not the only legacy of the war. The acrid odor of decomposing bodies hovers in the air. Thousands of civilians were killed during the fighting and equal numbers were displaced in the war years. Among them is Father Paolo Dall’Oglio.

Loving Islam, Believing in Christ

Word got out quickly when Padre Paolo arrived in Raqqa in late June, 2013. Many citizens were surprised that an Italian priest would travel to the city in that moment. “Abuna Paolo?” says an elderly man, affectionately, wearing a dishdasha, the traditional white robe of Arab men. He is looking at the remains of the Islamic Court of Isis. “Everyone knew him. He was like a prophet, who had come here to spread the principles of peace between societies.”

As a young Jesuit priest, Padre Paolo travelled to Syria the first time in the 1980s to study Arabic, a language he would eventually speak fluently with a Syrian accent. In 1982 he discovered the mission of his life in the ruins of the sixth-century monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian (Deir Mar Musa), in the hills north of Damascus. He fell in love with the arid beauty of the parched mountains and the ancient frescoes of the crumbling chapel. Inspired by the centuries-old experience of coexistence in Muslim-Christian society, he decided to restore the monastery and found an ecumenical community. Deir Mar Musa became a destination for international pilgrimage that welcomed people of every faith. Many described Padre Paolo not only as a priest but also as an activist for dialogue between Christians and Muslims. For him it was not religious beliefs that enter into dialogue but rather the believers, who placed themselves before God. He fasted during Ramadan with his Muslim brothers and sisters and in 2011 he wrote a memoir titled In Love with Islam, Believing in Christ. From his idyllic retreat in the Qalamun mountains, Father Dall’Oglio could not, however, ignore the political situation in Syria. In March 2011 and from the first days of the revolution, he sided with the protesters against tyranny. He appealed to the United Nations, requesting the protection of Syrian civilians from indiscriminate attacks by the regime. In June 2012 he was expelled from Syria, but his love of the country to which he had dedicated his life drove him to return twice. In July 2013, during Ramadan, Padre Paolo crossed the border from Gaziantep. He sent a final email to his Italian friends, to whom he confided his wish to travel to Raqqa to meet with the ISIS leadership.

In a house that has remained miraculously intact after the bombing of Raqqa, Mona Fraig remembers Padre Paolo’s arrival in the city. “When he arrived, he came to see us right away. He participated in our protests and in the meetings of civil society,” the activist explains at the headquarters of the non-governmental organization, Civil Society Support Centre, which organizes seminars on the fight against violent extremism and radicalization. “He also participated in the last protest in front of the church, where the al-Nusra Front had removed and destroyed the cross. Padre Paolo supported our peaceful revolution and hoped that it would not turn into a military conflict. This is why he wanted to speak with the people who wanted to create an Islamic State, in an attempt to establish dialogue and convey a message of peace,” Mona adds. Friends of Padre Paolo are sitting next to her. You can immediately sense the deep affection that ties these young Syrians to the Italian priest. Many of them escaped from Syria during the occupation of the Daesh militants but chose to return to Raqqa, trying to keep alive the spiritual legacy preached by Padre Paolo. “His disappearance affected the whole society. For us it was even more painful because we were so close to him,” explains Basheer al-Huwaidi, visibly upset. “Today we try to spread the same message of peace of Islam and Christianity. This is one of the main reasons that encouraged us to return to the city: to work with the community to rebuild that dialogue of peace and tolerance, and put the radicalism and violence behind us.”

Without a body to mourn, it is hard to accept that Padre Paolo is dead. Most of the people met and interviewed during this trip believe that he was murdered and thrown into the river, others claim that he was taken by the regime, while still other sources report that he was arrested by Emir Abdulrahman Al-Faysal, a prominent leader of ISIS and the last person to see Padre Paolo alive. Today the Emir lives freely in Raqqa but every attempt to approach him comes up against a wall of silence. Like Padre Paolo, thousands of people have been disappeared, swallowed up by the quicksand of the Syrian night. In these seven years, the revolution, which began peacefully in 2011, turned into an atrocious civil war that today counts more than 400 thousand dead and 11 million refugees outside the border (one and half million in Lebanon alone), out of a population of 20 million. Not to mention an unspecified number of young people who have fled the country to avoid military service, a million and a half people wanted by the authorities, and thousands of disappeared. The Syrian cities are piles of rubble, the militias and the warlords dictate law over a good part of the territory and, while the Astana “guarantors” – Russia, Iran, and Turkey – have begun to talk about reconstruction and the return of refugees, the theme of justice and the desaparecidos has been all but forgotten.

Desaparecidos in Syria: the Fight of the Women 

“It was an emotional and rather unique meeting: an Italian priest kidnapped in Syria and his family affected by the Syrian question. In the tragedy, we succeeded in doing great things together, as Italians and Syrians. If Padre Paolo were alive, he would be happy.” The person who is speaking, at her “second” home in Beirut, is human rights lawyer and expert in enforced disappearances, Noura Ghazi Safadi. It is not easy to get an appointment to see her.

She spends her days alternating between conferences, meetings with the European Commission, and talks with survivors of the government prisons. Since 2011, she has met with more than 2,000 detainees, including peace activists, political prisoners, and opponents of the government. She has gathered testimony and reports of the physical and psychological tortures suffered inside the prisons of the Bashar al-Assad regime. She has spent thousands of hours inside prisons.

As the spokesperson of “Families for Freedom,” and the wife of one of the desaparecidos, Noura has met with various members of the Dall’Oglio family in recent years. Her husband, Bassel Kharabil Safadi, a software engineer and well-know activist, was one of the founding fathers of the Syrian revolution. Arrested in March 2012, he disappeared without a trace in 2015. Noura was forced to leave Syria: too many risks and threats from the regime’s security apparatus.

In Lebanon she joined with other women to create “Families for Freedom,” a movement of mothers, wives, daughters and sisters of disappeared detainees and civilians. Founded in 2017, it brings together the Syrian diaspora in exile in Lebanon, Turkey, France, Germany, and England.

Like in Argentina during the dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla, when the Abuelas gathered in the Plaza de Mayo to demand truth and justice for their disappeared children, today it is the turn of the Syrian women. London, Berlin, Paris, Brussels. They rent a bus, covered with photographs of their family members, and travel to the European capitals to draw the governments’ attention to the issue of the desaparecidos in Syria.

“We are not a political group. We represent neither the opposition nor the regime. We are families: we are mothers, sisters, wives. What we are demanding is the right to truth,” Safadi explains.

The women belong to different ethnic and religious groups. They are Arabs and Alawites, Christians and Muslims, and they come from various regions of Syria. They organize using Skype and WhatsApp. “We want to know where our loved ones are. Where are their bodies?” the lawyer affirms resolutely. “We are afraid that many have been cremated to hide proof of the violence and avoid trials in the future.”

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent British organization, more than 95 thousand Syrians have been disappeared since the start of the conflict. It is estimated that most of the disappearances were at the hands of the Syrian regime, but at least 11 thousand are attributed to armed groups such as ISIS or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Enforced disappearances are not a new phenomenon. According to Leen Hashem, head of Amnesty International’s campaign for Syria, this is a method that has been used in Syria in the past three decades, starting with Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, to silence the political opposition. She explains, however, that the phenomenon intensified in 2011. “We are witnessing the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of people. In general, they are arrested at check-points or taken directly from their homes. The families of the disappeared live in a perennial state of anxiety, not knowing where their loved ones are or if they are still alive. And their relatives, when they try to learn the truth, risk their lives.”

Fadwa Mahmoud is another founder of Families for Freedom. She had to leave Syria on account of her activities to find her husband, Abdelaziz, and her son, Maher, both of whom disappeared on 20 September 2012. Abdelaziz belonged to the Communist Party and had been to China to seek potential peaceful solutions to the conflict. Her son had gone to the airport to pick him up.

“We’re in the car, we’re almost home. I just picked dad up from the airport, he told me. A few minutes later I called him back to ask if he wanted tabbouleh. His phone was out of service. Since that moment I have not known what happened to them. Even if the regime has always denied that they were in the Syrian prisons, I am certain it was the Mukhābarāt (secret services) that took them,” she states without hesitation. 

Fadwa, an Alawite like the Assad family, is quite familiar with the regime’s methods of detention and torture. Arrested in 1991 for belonging to a party of opposition to Baath, she served an eighteen-month prison sentence, while she was pregnant with her son Maher. Her husband was imprisoned for 14 years. She recalls that time with a mysterious veil of nostalgia, listing the names of her arrested companions, of the disappeared, and the ideals that led them to hide in damp shacks to read the books of Marx, Lenin, and Gramsci, prohibited by the regime. The phenomenon of enforced disappearances, in fact, has existed in Syria since the 1980s and 90s. Disappearing thousands of people into thin air was the most effective method for repressing opponents and dissidents. Then and now.

Today Fadwa lives in Berlin, but she alternates her time between Germany and Lebanon. Together with Noura Ghazi Safadi, she is one of the promoters of Families for Freedom.

In recent weeks, hundreds of Syrian families have learned that the government has issued death certificates for disappeared relatives, most of whom were summarily executed inside the regime’s prisons. Many human rights observers and experts argue that Bashar al-Assad is convinced he has won the war. Cushioned by international impunity, Assad is confident that there will be no regime change and that the revolutionary spirit of thousands of civilians and activists has been crushed.

“We must work to assure that the ideals for which Abuna Paolo and thousand of young Syrians fought were not in vain,” adds Noura. “Our fight will help future generations, who can one day live in a democratic and civil country.”

Translation: Michael Moore