06 October 2022 15:26
Wafa Mustafa was 23 when her father was kidnapped in Damascus by the Syrian regime. On July 2, 2013, a week later, she had to flee with her mother and sister. Since then, she has been subjected to torture, from a distance. That particular torture experienced by the families of the victims of enforced disappearance. There are over 110,000 in Syria today according to the Syrian network for human rights.
Host of the Internazionale festival in Ferrara, Wafa recalled how many innocent people like her father, activist Ali Mustafa, are victims of the Assad regime and eleven years of war. When he talks about him he says that he is “between life and death” as if he were in purgatory to which for nine years he has been asking for news without results. Wafa does not sleep well, he does not eat well – “there is no night I go to sleep without asking if he is dead or alive” he says – he has attempted suicide, he often loses hope.
It is part of the Families for Freedom network but does not stop explaining to the world how difficult it is to move forward in life when a loved one, a father, a daughter, a wife have disappeared.
Crime against humanity
For international law, forced disappearance is a violation of the rights of the victim and those of his relatives. According to the Syrian Human Rights Network (Snhr), while nearly 15,000 people have died after being tortured in prison since March 2011, another 111,000 have been victims of enforced disappearances. Wafa’s analysis, however, goes far beyond the denunciation of the violation of international law, which often becomes very frustrating.
The journalist explains that authoritarian regimes use enforced disappearances to silence as many people as possible. He has collaborated with many international organizations for family law, has testified before various UN commissions, and every one of his speeches asks himself if he is right to speak: “If you look at the dynamics of power, they hold back my father … In this sense they have a power over me. Every time I speak in public, I think: what if they had forgotten him in prison and now because of me they are pulling him out and killing him, torturing him? Am I doing him good or bad? But then, when I begin to think that I should be silent, I see his face, and I know that I am not doing this just for him and I continue ”.
Sometimes the international organizations with which he collaborates ask for his testimony but without his political analysis
Wafa chose activism, primarily because of the upbringing he received from his father. In a demonstration he carried a sign that said “There is no peace without justice, the only engine of change is solidarity”: “Many tell me that it is difficult to be in solidarity, to extend your emotions to other struggles. Maybe it comes from my education, but for me solidarity comes by itself. The first protest I took part in – I was ten – was in support of Palestine ”. The only protests authorized by the Syrian regime were in fact for Palestine: “We knew that the regime was using us in this sense, but we also knew that by demonstrating for them we were demonstrating for ourselves”.
And then, solidarity is a way to survive: “If I limited my activism to Syria, I would feel that there is not much to be done, it is hopeless. With solidarity I also keep my sanity. I now look to Iran and see hope… ”.
Often, he explains, this solidarity and these political choices do not meet with the support of his interlocutors, in particular those who deal with human rights. Sometimes the international organizations with which he collaborates ask for his testimony but without his political analysis of him. “They want to hear about my suffering, but they don’t want to hear more. My father disappeared because he was a political activist. He was arrested because he talked about politics, I would feel like I was betraying him if I didn’t dare to talk about it too. The dictators ”- he thinks of Assad and Putin -“ are often in solidarity with each other, I feel that we too should be more united to fight against them ”.
Disinformation on Syria
A large part of his journalism and activism work is also to try to disseminate correct information about the conflict. There is a clear difference in the handling of information from Syria or other conflicts. The old Orientalist adage that the Middle East “is complicated” is still very popular: ‘Every day I have to explain that it is not a civil war. People rarely know that there has been a revolution for freedom and democracy. The narrative promoted by the regime was almost immediately adopted by most of the international media. For the international community it was easier that way. Justify their non-intervention. Think of what was said on the red line, the use of chemical weapons. After the attack on Al Ghouta there were high-sounding declarations and then… nothing ”.
But the Syrians have never stopped talking to the world, telling stories – from the activists of Kafranbel with their banners in multiple languages to the photos of Caesar. But according to Wafa, even if the world does not listen, we must continue because this regime cannot be left unpunished. Impunity is the mother of all other wars, he explains, proof of this is the lack of reaction to the Russian bombing that has hit Syria for seven years. That’s why she went to the Koblenz courthouse, sitting outside with hundreds of panels with photos of missing people. She often felt “transparent” in Koblenz, and also very lonely. But she feels she has no other choice.
The black hole of Sednaya prison
The central issue of the regime’s impunity re-emerged forcefully on October 3 with the Sednaya Prison’s Association of Inmates and Missing Persons report revealing new atrocities committed by the regime. This is an investigation into the Sednaya prison “the black hole of Syria” where about 30 thousand people have been held since the beginning of the conflict, and only six thousand released. Most of the others are officially considered missing because death certificates rarely reach families unless relatives pay an exorbitant bribe.
In addition to the terrible – unsustainable at times – testimonies of some survivors, the report reveals how enforced disappearances are also a business for the regime that monetizes any information about their loved ones: “The Syrian regime has raised almost 900 million dollars since 2011. Americans (868,900,573 dollars to be exact) from the financial extortion he practiced against families in exchange for information about their loved ones or a promise to visit or release ”.
The report also received confirmation of the existence of “two salt chambers” where survivors were brought: they say that these rooms filled with salt are used to store the bodies of those who died under torture, disease or starvation. In the absence of refrigerated rooms, the salt serves to protect the guards from the smell of corpses or from any disease.
Meanwhile, Wafa Mustafa, together with the 5.5 million Syrians who had to leave their country, try to survive without their father but also without the rest of his family: “Often, when friends invite me to dinner, I have to escape to bathroom to cry, I also forgot the pleasure of a simple family dinner “. Canada refused her a visa to visit her mother and sister whom she hasn’t seen in three years.