The last time Rania (not her real name) spoke to her friend Mohamed Bachir Arab, was on 1 November 2011. As a hard working doctor and committed political activist, Mohamed had been living in hiding for six months, trying to evade the ever present tentacles of the Syrian intelligence forces, who routinely detain peaceful activists like him.
The following day her worst fears were realized. A strap line on the evening news announced he had been arrested. None of his relatives knew where he had been taken.
Mohamed was a marked man. He had been a student leader at his university in the city of Aleppo, in north-west Syria. Over the years, he had organized a number of protests against government policies, which had landed him in trouble with the authorities. Between 2004 and 2005 he was detained for several months before being released.
But this time, his relatives and colleagues feared it was different. Since the crisis in Syria began in March 2011, the number of individuals who have been detained in secret by the state – or forcibly disappeared – has spiralled out of control.
“The Syrian authorities’ strategy to deal with dissent is brutal: speak against them once and they’ll arrest you; do it again and they will simply make you disappear,” said Philip Luther, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
Many of those lucky enough to be released, after months sometimes years in detention, bear the scars of the brutal treatment they have been subjected to.
Most of them have spoken about passing through a number of the detention centres that make up the dark maze of abuse controlled by the Syrian security forces and intelligence agencies.
“When someone is arrested and detained in secret the likelihood is that they will be tortured to extract information from them or as a form of punishment. Syria’s sickening track record means there is a high risk such abuse will result in serious damage to the disappeared person’s health or even death,” said Philip Luther.
And for those left behind, the pain of not knowing is intolerable.
As soon Mohamed’s family learned about his arrest, they began trying to find clues about where he was being held.
Initially they drew a blank. But after a while news started to filter through. A number of men released from some of the country’s most infamous detention centres tipped them off that they had seen him at various locations.
Shortly after his arrest Mohamed had been spotted in the Air Force Intelligence branch in Aleppo and later in a hospital in the same city. The man said Mohamed was suffering from head injuries, reportedly as a result of being tortured or otherwise ill-treated.
Amnesty International has spoken to several people who were held in that detention centre. One of them, who now lives outside of Syria and asked for his name not to be revealed, said that life in the centre was so bad he often wished he were dead.
He described how detainees were often severely beaten, held in overcrowded cells, and that the lack of drinking water forced some to drink from the toilet. The extreme lack of hygiene caused the spread of diarrhoea and other infectious diseases, which contributed to the death of several detainees.
According to other released detainees, Mohamed was seen at other detention centres including the al-Ameerya branch of Air Force Intelligence in Damascus and the Qaboun branch of Military Intelligence.
But news of his whereabouts has been scant. Earlier this year, another man said he had seen Mohamed at Saydnaya Military Prison, where he may have been brought before a Military Field Court – but his fate is still unknown.
“The fact that almost three years after Mohamed was taken into custody no one knows where he is paints a scandalous picture of how the Syrian authorities’ dark network of detention centres functions. Brutal security forces hold detainees in secret and move them around the country without even thinking about the enormous distress to which they are subjecting their families,” said Philip Luther.
Mohamed is one of a long list of peaceful activists, lawyers, journalists and humanitarian workers perceived as opposed to the policies of the Syrian authorities who have been detained in secret by the security forces. Many of them are still missing.
Names include: Ali Mahmoud Othman, a citizen journalist, arrested in Homs in March 2012; Juwan Abd Rahman Khaled, a Kurdish activist, detained in Damascus in September 2012; Khalil Ma’touq, a human rights lawyer, last seen at a checkpoint near Damascus in October 2012; and Nasser Saber Bondek, a poet and humanitarian activist, taken from his home in Damascus in February 2014.
The list goes on. They are the ghosts of Syria’s war.
Speaking from her new home outside of Syria, Rania says she will continue to look for Mohamed: “I haven’t had any real news of Mohamed in eight months, but we will continue to look for him. He is a very peaceful person so I don’t know why he is in prison. Things need to change in Syria.”