[I thank Noor Shakfeh, a Syrian-American who has lost family members to the Syrian regime, and Sara Afshar, who directed and produced Syria’s Disappeared, for inspiring this piece, and for deepening my own understanding of solidarity.]
Though they have disappeared from the headlines, the depravities of the Syrian regime during the war that has raged inside the country for more than six years – a war full of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even acts of genocide – are on prominent display, thanks to YouTube and intrepid journalists. They were most visibly on display a year ago as the regime and its Russian allies rained death upon the people of Aleppo, but have extended from the murderous crackdown on peaceful protesters even before the war began to the regime’s continually aiming their bombs on hospitals and health workers.
Yet all but hidden from view is another set of massive crimes against humanity that the Syrian regime has perpetrated – the murder of tens of thousands of people in its detention centers and military hospitals. The victims include at least 17,700 people killed through December 2015 through torture and inhuman conditions (such as starvation and lack of medical care) in detention facilities, and another 5,000-13,000 people hanged at a single military prison in Damascus (the Saydnaya Military Prison), also through December 2015. Thousands more detainees have likely been murdered in the past two years.
The torture and murder of Syria’s prisons are not entirely hidden. Survivors, family members, and a handful of defectors have spoken to human rights groups, including Amnesty International. In August 2013, a Syrian military defector, known as Caesar, smuggled more than 28,000 photographs of murdered prisoners out of the country.
And now British journalist Sara Afshar has brought these crimes – and their survivors – to screen in the documentary Syria’s Disappeared. (I write “crimes,” yet how really can words describe the inhumanity of an interrogator who jumps up and down on a prisoner – any prisoner, any person, but here, ones whose only “crime” was calling for their country to be free – to break his ribs, or running electric shocks through a person’s body and watching as she turn blue?)
I recently watched Syria’s Disappeared. Two things stood out to me. One was just what I described, a reminder – though alas, one that we have far too often in this world, if rarely as powerfully presented or painful to witness – of the inhumanity that is in our midst. But the other message stood at the opposite end of humanity. I saw people who had every reason to whither away from life – former detainees who had survived life’s worst and experienced the ultimate powerlessness of torture, along with family members of victims – defy their and their loved ones former captors. Instead of being beaten into a life of hiding and fear – a response that would have been more than understandable – they became the most tireless and indomitable of advocates for justice and for the freedom of those still detained.
How can, how should we response to this duality, the two ends of the spectrum of humanity?
There may be nothing we can do – short, perhaps, of dropping everything to join the survivors and their families in campaigning for justice and the freedom of those who remain detained and might yet be saved – that would truly match the urgency of the moment. But on a smaller scale, we can act. You could join Amnesty International in calling for the U.S. and Russian governments to press the Syrian government (and other armed groups) to disclose the whereabouts and fate of those detained. You could raise awareness – your own and that of others – by viewing (or even hosting) Amnesty International’s Tens of Thousands exhibition, or hosting a screening of Syria’s Disappeared. Join the Syrian Families for Freedom, a movement of disappeared and detained Syrians. And of course, you can contact your congresspeople and the administration to urge that they do what they can, in their positions of authority.
For some people, in a single moment, life takes a turn both unexpected and unwanted, in the worst possible ways – the accident that turns a man who was known as Superman into a quadriplegic, the mother who buries her son, an unarmed black man killed by police. But somehow they find deep meaning in their unexpected new life – advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, advocating for police reform and racial justice. Or, advocating for justice against perpetrators of the grossest of human rights violations, and freedom for their victims who might yet be saved. Those who seek to destroy justice and the people who demand it may instead create the most passionate advocates for justice.
Perhaps the lesson for those of us not thrust into these situations is that we who are ourselves fortunate beyond imagination to be free of those horrors can choose a quest for justice and stand in solidarity with those who have had tragedy, and worse, thrust their way. The causes of the parents whose child dies of hunger, the husband whose wife dies in childbirth, the young adult who loses his parents to a car crash on unsafe roads, the parents who lose their child to gun violence, and yes, the mother who loses her son and the democracy advocate who loses his friends to the torturers of Syria’s prison and the regime whose policies they carry out – their causes can become our cause too. We who are not put in these situations have the luxury of choosing which causes to make our own. We may not be able to devote ourselves to all of them, but we have the responsibility to make our choices – and to act.
Our capacity to make a difference may seem painfully limited compared to the injustices around us. Those actions I proposed for Syria, knowing the political situation and the gravity and urgency of what is happening in Syria’s detention facilities, yes, to me too, they seem wholly inadequate. But we do what we can – and if enough of us act, impossible destinations may come within reach.
And no matter what the result, our acting will make this difference: it will demonstrate to those families of Syria’s disappeared, and to the survivors, that they are not alone, that others are joining in what has become the cause of their lives – that we will march alongside those who are “armed with…love.”
That solidarity is of real value. The Syrian regime sought to strip those who demanded nothing more than freedom and democracy of every ounce of power and human agency. Yet survivors and family members of the disappeared have refused to lose their beliefs, in their ideals or in themselves. In our standing with them, they can see that they have, indeed, kept alive that hope for a free and democratic country, and for justice. We can be proof of their power to shape the world. The regime sought to decimate their ability to influence the course of events. Instead, they have achieved a rare level of power, touching the lives and affecting the actions of people the world over, mobilizing others in the causes they hold dear, mobilizing others to stand for the best of humanity.
Yes, Syria’s torturers sought to extinguish the humanity of their victims, to assert that those demanding freedom were somehow less than human. They failed. Instead, they proved that the humanity of their victims was beyond the reach of their cruelest acts. May that inspire us all to give our own humanity its truest expressions.