The Disappeared Of Syria, Missing From Peace Talks Too

Tens of thousands of people remain in detention or have 'disappeared' in Syria, devastating countless families. Activists say the issue has largely been avoided in negotiations aimed at bringing an end to the Syrian conflict.

With photographs of 'disappeared' loved ones in front of Geneva peace talks
With photographs of "disappeared" loved ones in front of Geneva peace talks
Nicola Cutcher

After being tortured in a Syrian detention center, journalist and human rights activist Mazen Darwish was left for dead.

"When I opened my eyes, I found myself lying among dead bodies. I tried to move and one of the guards saw that I was still alive and dragged me back to my cell. Another officer might have left me there until I died, so it is just chance that I am here today," he said.

Darwish founded the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression in 2004 and worked openly in Damascus despite what Human Rights Watch called the Syrian state's "repression of human rights activism." In February 2012, Syrian security forces arrested him and his colleagues at their office. He was released in August 2015, but some of his closest friends and colleagues died in detention and others remain "disappeared."

Tens of thousands of people are currently missing in Syria, most of them arrested by the regime's security and intelligence agencies and some taken by armed groups. This issue affects hundreds of thousands of people either directly or indirectly. Most households know someone who is missing, but the full scale of disappearances remains unknown. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's government ignores requests to provide information about detainees and many families don't report their loved ones missing for fear of repercussions.

Survivors, including Darwish, speak of overcrowded cells, starvation, medical neglect, torture and death. Families and friends of the disappeared suffer from not knowing where their loved ones are being held nor whether they're dead or alive. The U.N. published a report last year accusing the Syrian government of the murder, rape, torture and extermination of detainees.

However, the issue continues to be largely ignored at Syria peace talks. Darwish's organization and other civil society groups recently wrote an open letter to the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights (UNHCR) to protest against "the international community's negligence and disregard" for those disappeared and detained in Syria.

Last year, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura appointed Eva Svoboda to handle the issue of detainees and abductees and introduced her to the International Syria Support Group's Humanitarian Taskforce. Svoboda was given no public profile, made no public statements on the issue and recently departed her post without announcement. Svoboda declined to comment.
"The United Nations and member states know what's happened and they have the evidence. Yet they do nothing. So their position is that they know everything and allow it. By ignoring the issue, they permit it to continue," Darwish said.
"I can't stop thinking about those who are still alive and those who are dying every day. The minimum that we need is a guarantee that the killing of detainees will stop. This is the most important thing. This was the first point I made when I was released. If we had done something then, maybe Bassel Khartabil would still be alive," said Darwish, referring to a well-known software developer and open web pioneer who was arrested and detained by government forces in 2012. In August 2017, his family said they received confirmation that he was executed in October 2015.

Amnesty International this year published a report claiming that Syrian authorities had executed between 5,000 and 13,000 detainees in Saydnaya military prison during the first five years of the conflict. "We have no reason to believe that these mass hangings have stopped," Nicolette Boehland, an Amnesty researcher, recently told Syria Deeply.

The minimum is a guarantee that the killing of detainees will stop.

The Syrian government denied these claims, but continues to refuse requests from the U.N. and human rights groups for independent monitors to inspect detention centers. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed that it visits some prisons but has no access to facilities run by the security and intelligence agencies. Campaigners have also called on all parties holding detainees to disclose the names, whereabouts and fates of the disappeared and U.N. resolution 2254 called for the release of all arbitrarily detained persons in Syria.

Yet the fate of detainees risks falling victim to broader political negotiations, according to Alise Mofrej, who leads detainee issues for the Syrian Opposition's High Negotiations Committee. "Working to release the detainees should be non-negotiable but Russia and the regime have tied the detainee issue to the political process, which means it can be used as a bargaining chip for political gain," she said.

The U.N."s inaction on detainees has left a vacuum, according to observers, allowing the Russia-led Astana talks to frame the issue in terms of prisoner exchanges negotiated between military parties. Activists such as Mofrej say "exchanges' are not a solution since they "feed the regime's narrative that all their enemies are terrorists … it implies that all detainees are part of the conflict, but many are ordinary civilians and political activists."

The Families for Freedom, a group of women whose loved ones have been arbitrarily detained, echoed this statement in an open letter to the delegations attending talks in Astana. They wrote: "We do not accept prisoner exchanges arranged between military sides as a replacement for a real solution to the horror of mass detention in Syria. It is precisely the peaceful detainees, those who have never picked up a gun, who will suffer." The group also urged the U.N. to deal with detainees through the Geneva process.

However, de Mistura appears to have made the issue a low priority and has so far made no notable progress for detainees or their families — the issue was not even on the agenda at recent Geneva talks. In August, Human Rights Watch called for de Mistura to "publicly address the reasons for lack of progress on Syria's disappeared and strengthen efforts to address this devastating problem."

Mofrej said, "The U.N. is only as strong as its member states … and has been rendered completely powerless and unable to exert any pressure." At the U.N. Security Council, for example, the five permanent member states have veto power — something Russia has used several times to block resolutions about Syria.

There can be no sustainable peace without addressing this.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, the founder and director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, stressed the need for "one country to lead on the detainee file and advocate for detainees and tell Syrians that "we're dealing with this.""

Syrian human rights campaigners like Darwish are dismayed the issue hasn't received more international recognition.

"We are at a point where institutions like the U.N are trying to make me feel guilty for raising the issue … saying that it will endanger negotiations. But I believe that there can be no sustainable peace without addressing this," he said. "If groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch weren't continuing to campaign on this issue and fighting for our human rights, then I feel that I may as well have died in prison."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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