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Activist Mazen al-Hamada, tortured by Assad regime, disappears after returning to Syria

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Mazen al-Hamada. (Miguel Bueno/FIFDH)

هلأ إنت نازل على دمشق، إنت شو حيصير فيك بعد ما تنزل؟ فوراً حتُعتَقَل إنت شو مفكّر حالك يا مازن؟

So, you’re going to Damascus now. What’s going to occur to you when you get there? You’ll get arrested instantly. Who do you assume you’re, Mazen?

.معلش، إن شاء الله خير أُختي. إنتي توكلي على الله، هو إلّي الله كاتبه بدّه يصير

Every thing shall be all proper, sister, God prepared. No matter God desires will occur.

.ادعيلنا بس إن شاء الله

Simply pray for me, God prepared.

.أنا عم بنصحك العمل هاد جداً سيء يا مازن إلّي عم تعمله. أنا عم بنصحك

I’m advising you that what you’re doing now could be very unhealthy, Mazen.

.أنا بدي أضحّي بحالي مشان أوقف نزيف الدم إلي عم بصير، بس

I need to provide myself as much as cease the bloodshed that’s taking place. That’s all.

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LONDON — Along with his gaunt body, haunted face and copious tears, Mazen al-Hamada turned a poster boy for the struggling of Syrian torture victims. After escaping from Syria to the Netherlands, he traveled extensively, sharing with audiences throughout the USA and Europe tales of the horrors he endured in a Damascus jail.

After which, mysteriously, inexplicably and maybe suicidally, simply over a 12 months in the past he returned to Syria, to danger as soon as once more the cruelties of the federal government he had so strenuously denounced.

Hamada has since disappeared, leaving family and friends to agonize over what prompted a person so scarred by his experiences to return to the arms of his tormentors — and what they concern is one other stint within the nightmare of Syria’s jail system.

Was his more and more erratic conduct an indication that trauma had pushed him to make irrational selections? May he have been lured again to Syria, as those that knew him suspect, by pro-government Syrians eager to silence a possible witness to conflict crimes?

Or had he merely develop into so disillusioned with life within the West that he was ready to danger going dwelling? Had he felt betrayed by the world’s indifference to his nation’s plight, its failure to cease the bloodshed?

The solutions go to the guts of the tragedy of Syria, the gorgeous, tormented nation the place the Arab Spring protests a decade in the past went most disastrously awry. Interviews with these Hamada knew and testimonies he left behind reveal a portrait of a person so haunted by the horrors he endured that he was unable to adapt to a brand new life in Europe, or to just accept that there could be no retribution, no accountability, no justice for the struggling he had seen.

Euphoria of the rebellion

When the Syrian revolt erupted in 2011, Hamada, then 33, was working as an oil technician close to his dwelling in the jap province of Deir al-Zour. Syrians impressed by the toppling of presidents in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets throughout the nation to demand the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, whose household had on the time dominated Syria for greater than 4 a long time.

Hamada was swept up within the euphoria of the second. In interviews he later gave, his eyes lit up with uncommon pleasure as he described these heady first days of peaceable protests. “While you’d see the demonstrations, your coronary heart would fly. I swear, nobody might imagine it,” he instructed Sara Afshar, the director of the documentary “Syria’s Disappeared,” in 2016.

His actions in Syria, as a citizen journalist who spoke to international information shops and as a protester, inevitably drew him to the eye of the authorities, who had directions to spherical up anybody discovered to be aiding the rebellion. Tens of hundreds of people that had participated within the peaceable demonstrations have been being detained and incarcerated to quell the sudden spirit of rebel that had taken maintain in a rustic cowed for many years by the oppressive regime.

Hamada was briefly detained twice in his dwelling province earlier than relocating in 2012 to Damascus. Arrested once more nearly instantly, he was taken to the dreaded air power intelligence headquarters within the Mezzeh neighborhood, the place his nightmare started.

Escalation into conflict

Throughout the Center East, the uprisings of 2011 have been crushed, subdued or derailed. Protesters have been shot. Activists have been imprisoned and tortured. A second of hope in a area lengthy dominated by autocrats backfired, and the Arab world is now extra firmly within the grip of tyrants than ever earlier than.

However nowhere has the dimensions of the struggling been larger than in Syria, the place Assad’s ferocious response to the revolt triggered a spiral of violence that engulfed the nation within the bloodiest conflict of the twenty first century. Safety forces mowed down peaceable protesters with gunfire. When the protesters took up weapons and fired again, the military introduced in tanks and artillery to bombard rebellious cities and villages into submission. When that didn’t work, warplanes dropped barrels full of explosives that demolished entire condo buildings. When airstrikes failed, chemical weapons have been deployed in opposition to recalcitrant communities, in accordance with the United Nations and the Group for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The United Nations stopped counting the useless in 2016 at 400,000. Six million Syrians fled their homeland, escaping throughout its borders into neighboring international locations. 5 million are nonetheless stranded, barely surviving in substandard situations. 1,000,000 climbed into flimsy boats to cross the Mediterranean to Europe — together with Hamada, whose journey took him from Turkey by way of Greece, Italy, France and finally to the Netherlands.

“He didn’t see the change he wished to see.”

Omar Alshogre, who additionally escaped from Syria

Away from the TV cameras, tens of hundreds who had participated within the protests have been being systematically rounded up and incarcerated in Syria’s gulag.

Of the 145,000 folks detained by way of September 2019, 128,000 — or almost 90 p.c have been taken by the Syrian authorities, in accordance with the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which paperwork each particular person detention. Of these, 83,000 have vanished with no hint.

Most are more likely to have died underneath torture or to have been killed in mass executions documented by human rights teams. Amnesty Worldwide described the killings as “conflict crimes and crimes in opposition to humanity” that have been licensed at “the best ranges” of the Syrian authorities.

The Syrian authorities didn’t reply to a request for remark about human rights abuses and the whereabouts of Hamada.

‘I cannot relaxation’

After arriving within the Netherlands in 2014, Hamada threw himself into publicizing the horrors of the Syrian jail system. He linked up with Syrian advocacy teams and traveled throughout Europe and the USA to recount his experiences. He spoke to lawmakers in Washington, generals at U.S. Central Command in Florida, college students at Princeton College, human rights investigators and a number of journalists.

He described how his wrists have been gouged by chains used to droop him from the ceiling, his ribs damaged by guards who jumped on him, his pores and skin scorched by cigarettes and his physique jolted by electrical shocks. When he reached the half the place his genitals have been positioned in a clamp and he was concurrently raped with a metallic pole, he invariably broke down, transferring his audiences additionally to tears.

It was at that time within the interrogation that he capitulated, he told The Washington Publish in 2017. “Once they began to show the screw, I confessed every little thing they requested,” he stated.

He was decided to carry the Syrian authorities to account for what it had executed, not solely to him however to these he noticed die in jail beside him.

“I cannot relaxation till I take them to courtroom,” he stated within the documentary “Syria’s Disappeared,” tears streaming down his face. “Even when it prices me my life, I’ll pursue them and convey them to justice, it doesn’t matter what.”

Tears ‘like a river’

The amount of tears Hamada shed struck those that met him, together with Omar Abu Layla, a Deir al-Zour exile in Germany who regularly communicated with Hamada on social media and attended a convention with him in 2018. “I bear in mind he cried on the stage. Once we had a espresso break, he cried. The one factor you observed about Mazen was how a lot he’s crying. He speaks and his tears come down like a river,” he stated.

The prolific weeping supplied a clue to Hamada’s psychological state. Away from the general public glare, his life wasn’t going nicely. He lived alone in a sparsely furnished condo in Amsterdam supplied by the Dutch authorities. He took Dutch classes, however struggled to study the language. These near him observed he was smoking an increasing number of marijuana, which is authorized in Holland however costly.

Buddies whose lives adopted considerably related paths have fared higher. Karam al-Hamad, one other refugee from Deir al-Zour, additionally spent greater than a 12 months in a Damascus jail. He has thrived in Germany, beginning a enterprise and assembly and marrying his spouse. This summer time, he’ll start finding out on a scholarship at Yale.

Karam stated he wouldn’t have overcome his trauma with out in depth remedy, antidepressants and the help of household and buddies. Against this, Hamada obtained some remedy within the Netherlands however complained to Karam that Western therapists didn’t perceive what Syrians like him had been by way of.

Though six years had handed since his launch, Hamada appeared unable to shed the survivor’s guilt felt by many who escape trauma, stated Karam. Throughout their final encounter in Berlin, shortly earlier than the return to Syria, Hamada was jittery and emotional, Karam recalled. Hamada stored speaking concerning the destiny of the prisoners he had left behind, and the way he felt compelled to do one thing to rescue them.

“He was unhappy; he was weak. From the best way he was speaking, it was clear this man was so misplaced,” Karam stated. “I used to be questioning, when will this man kill himself? I felt he was on the sting of suicide.”

Omar Alshogre, who spent three years underneath torture in Syrian prisons earlier than fleeing to Sweden, met Hamada throughout visits they made to the USA. Alshogre has succeeded since arriving in Europe in 2015 at age 20; he has discovered three languages and later this 12 months will start finding out for an undergraduate diploma at Georgetown College.

Alshogre stated he discovered inspiration within the likelihood to begin a contemporary life. Hamada, who is almost 20 years older, appeared unable to maneuver on. “I used my trauma as a driving power. Mazen used his trauma to develop into an increasing number of depressed,” he stated. “For Mazen, every little thing received worse and worse. He was remoted. He was lonely. He remoted himself as a result of he felt nobody cared.”

‘I need to return’

Hamada’s difficulties deepened as his trigger was unraveling. Syrian authorities forces have been steadily taking again the big areas of the nation seized by the rebels within the first years of the conflict. The Western policymakers whom he had hoped to affect have been extra targeted on combating the Islamic State than difficult Assad’s grip on energy.

More and more, Hamada complained to buddies that telling his story was a waste of time. The tears shed by his audiences didn’t translate into tangible efforts to convey justice to the victims. He felt pressured, exploited even, by the organizations that invited him to look at their occasions.

As an Arab from the overwhelmingly Arab province of Deir al-Zour, he additionally began complaining concerning the growing encroachment there of Kurdish forces, who have been working with the U.S. navy to roll again the Islamic State.

In a rambling, emotional video broadcast reside on his Fb web page in 2017, his bitterness spilled out. He raged in opposition to the Dutch authorities, who had frozen his checking account and reduce off his help after he accepted again pay from the corporate he had labored for in Syria, in violation of guidelines utilized to refugees. And he lambasted the USA and Europe for sending warplanes to bomb the Islamic State.

“I need to return to my nation — sufficient. Even when which means going again to regime areas, it’s higher than right here,” he stated, sobbing right into a tissue. “I don’t need to combine! It’s extra honorable for me to die in my nation.”

‘Rock-solid proof’

Hamada’s frustrations are shared by the many individuals who’ve campaigned, with out outcome, for war-crimes fees to be introduced in opposition to the Assad regime, stated Stephen Rapp, who has been investigating Syrian conflict crimes since serving as ambassador at massive for international felony justice within the Obama administration, and extra just lately as a senior fellow on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He met Hamada on a number of events and located his testimony convincing, and deeply transferring. Like so many, he recalled choking again tears as Hamada instructed his story.

Mountains of documentary proof of conflict crimes dedicated by the Syrian authorities have been gathered by investigators, together with images of the our bodies of 55,000 torture victims, smuggled out of Syria by a defector identified by the code identify Caesar, and over 600,000 paperwork detailing authorities ways for suppressing the revolt. Amongst them is an arrest warrant for Hamada, dated in 2012, for taking part in demonstrations, Rapp stated.

“There’s rock-solid proof, corroboration, of conflict crimes by the regime and you then don’t see the world sending it to a tribunal, regardless of the horrors that occurred to you, your pals and your nation,” he stated. “It’s arduous to not really feel annoyed. I really feel it every single day.”

The conviction in Germany final week of a former Syrian intelligence official accused of detaining protesters relied on the type of eyewitness testimony that Hamada has given. If war-crimes fees are introduced in opposition to folks related to the air power intelligence department the place Hamada was held, or the 601 Army Hospital, the place he witnessed a few of the worst horrors, Hamada “could be an important witness,” Rapp stated.

However realities on the bottom make it unlikely that senior figures within the Syrian regime will ever be held to account, stated Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Close to Jap affairs who’s now a visiting fellow on the Brookings Establishment. He has been advocating a brand new course for Syria coverage, predicated on the probability that the Assad authorities will survive for the foreseeable future.

“Assad deserves to be hauled earlier than a courtroom in The Hague or a global tribunal. He deserves to be on trial in The Hague,” he stated. “Is that going to occur? No it’s not going to occur” — partially as a result of Russia, Assad’s strongest ally, would veto any try by the U.N. Safety Council to determine a global courtroom.

‘In a foul psychological state’

Within the final months of 2019, Hamada’s monetary issues reached a head. Unable to pay his hire, he was evicted from his condo and went to stick with his sister and her husband, who have been additionally dwelling in Amsterdam. The humiliating expertise of dropping his dwelling additional embittered him and should have performed a giant half in his choice to return to Syria, stated his brother-in-law, Amer al-Obaid.

“He felt betrayed. He was in a foul psychological state,” Obaid stated. Hamada had develop into combative and troublesome, quarreling with nearly everybody he met. “He would say: ‘I see the regime as higher than the likes of you,’ referring to the opposition activists who have been his buddies. “It reached some extent the place he misplaced belief in many individuals.”

“He was somebody that will by no means quit … on his nation, on his household, on his folks.”

Mouaz Moustafa, who organized visits for Hamada

Hamada additionally stayed a number of weeks along with his nephew, Ziad al-Hamada, who lives in a city in western Germany, and spent hours telling him concerning the tortures endured six years earlier, Ziad recalled.

For the primary time, Ziad discovered simply how badly Hamada’s genitals had been injured, to an extent not revealed in his public accounts. Ziad had met a lady he thought would make an appropriate spouse for Hamada and steered they open a bottle of whiskey to have fun the potential match. Hamada refused, turned agitated, then defined why. He instructed Ziad he longed to have youngsters however not might. He cried when he recounted the way it occurred, confirmed Ziad the harm within the lavatory, then wept once more.

“All of the nights he and I spent collectively he would cry,” stated Ziad. “All he would discuss was his torture.”

The world ‘didn’t pay attention’

On the morning of Feb. 22, 2020, a Syrian refugee in Germany dropped a good friend at Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport for a flight to Beirut, which linked to a flight to Damascus. Amongst these checking in for the flight was Hamada, whom he didn’t know however acknowledged from his social media and activist appearances, stated the person, who spoke on the situation of anonymity as a result of he fears for the security of members of the family in Syria.

Incredulous that such a well known critic of the Syrian authorities could be making such a dangerous journey, the person approached Hamada to ask the place he was going. Hamada was evasive, defensive and denied that he was going to Syria, the person recalled.

“His entire physique regarded exhausted. He regarded unhappy and unwell. He wouldn’t communicate correctly. You can simply see he wasn’t doing nicely,” he stated.

Disturbed by the encounter, the person known as a good friend, Maysoun Berkdar, a famend Syrian activist who has lived in Germany for 27 years and has a status for checking out issues. She tracked down Hamada’s contacts and reached him after he had landed in Beirut.

The recording she made from their dialog is extremely revealing.

“We went to America and instructed them the entire story. We went to Germany and instructed them the entire story. We went to the Netherlands, France and even Italy. And other people didn’t pay attention. The entire world didn’t pay attention,” Hamada instructed Berkdar.

Veering from frustration to anger, he confirmed that Damascus was his vacation spot. He stated he had bored with attempting to influence the world to show in opposition to Assad and wished to seek out methods of bringing a few political resolution to the conflict. He additionally stated he wished to “kick out” the Kurds and People, whom he accused of occupying his dwelling province, and to work for the discharge of different political prisoners. He was prepared, he stated, “to sacrifice myself to cease the bloodshed that’s taking place.”

Pleading with him to not go, Berkdar argued that he was extra more likely to be imprisoned and tortured once more than welcomed as a peacemaker by a authorities he had publicly denounced.

“We’re dying anyway,” he responded.

Questions and clues

Hamada’s kinfolk and buddies are satisfied he was persuaded to return by loyalists of the regime, with a view to silencing his testimony about atrocities. There isn’t any proof of that, they acknowledge, however they cite mysterious disappearances throughout which he would meet with “buddies” he refused to call and his obvious confidence, evident in his last conversations, that he had ensures of security if he returned.

Hamada visited the Syrian Embassy in Berlin at the very least thrice a few month earlier than his departure, in accordance with Ibrahim Aswad Khalafallah, a household good friend he had stayed with. Hamada instructed him he had been assured he was not on any wished checklist in Syria.

A report submitted late final 12 months by a London regulation agency to 4 U.N. human rights businesses accuses the Syrian authorities of accountability for Hamada’s “enforced disappearance” after he landed in Damascus. The report seeks U.N. assist in finding Hamada and cites a Fb submit, reportedly seen by his brother-in-law, that claimed Hamada was accompanied on the airport in Berlin by a lady who works with the Syrian Embassy. If Syrian authorities staff or loyalists performed an element in Hamada’s return and subsequent detention, they may face fees of abduction, stated Toby Cadman, a lawyer with Guernica 37, the London regulation agency.

Rumors have since swirled that Hamada is being held on this or that jail, or has died in custody. None has been confirmed, stated Mouaz Moustafa, govt director of the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Job Drive, who organized Hamada’s visits in the USA and have become his good friend. He nonetheless believes that Hamada was lured with false guarantees of security, solely to be taken into custody.

“Professional-regime folks discovered his vulnerability and exploited it. They linked him to the embassy. The embassy promised him one thing,” he stated. “He lastly realized when he received to passport management that he was wished for interrogation, and that meant going again into the black gap.”

Was Hamada totally conscious he may be placing himself in danger? Two cellphone conversations after he landed on the Damascus airport counsel he might have certainly realized, too late, that he may very well be at risk.

The primary was along with his nephew Ziad, who reached him shortly after he landed. Hamada’s voice was shaking and his “tooth have been clattering,” Ziad recalled. There gave the impression to be a person beside him who was telling him what to say. “It was very clear. I heard somebody inform him, ‘Communicate, communicate,’ ” Ziad stated. “I heard folks subsequent to him telling him ‘Say this’ and ‘Say that.’ ”

Within the name, Hamada stated airport immigration officers had instructed him he could be detained for interrogation if he entered the nation. He stated he was looking for a ticket for the subsequent flight out, which was to Sudan. Ziad urged him to take the flight. “Pray for me expensive cousin, pray for me,” Hamada stated, as the road reduce off.

Moments later, he known as an American good friend in the USA. Natalie Larrison, the humanitarian help director for the Syrian Emergency Job Drive, doesn’t communicate Arabic, however she understood that Hamada was saying he was on the Damascus airport. She additionally received the impression there was somebody shut beside him, telling him what to say. She might hear a person respiratory, and seemingly giving directions to Hamada earlier than he spoke.

Then Hamada hung up. Larrison stated she tried reaching him a number of occasions over WhatsApp, the messaging service they used, however he didn’t reply.

Lower than three hours later, his account went offline, together with all his different social media accounts. None has been lively since.

Nader Durgham in Beirut, Munzer al-Awad in Berlin and Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.



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