When I go to cover an event, I usually try to keep my feelings aside. But sometimes, in spite of myself, hope arises when I go to cover the prisoner exchange.
My heart pounds, excitement building. Will my father be one of them? Will I see him again?
I am an internally displaced photojournalist living in northwest Syria. My father, Mustafa Haj Suleiman, was forcibly disappeared during the war, without charge, conviction, or reason.
Every day, I tell other people’s stories; This time I feel like I have to say it myself.
In Syria, nothing is certain
On April 2, 2013, I saw my father for the last time while he was going out to work. He was driving for a food company on the outskirts of Damascus.
He didn’t come home that day, but I heard his voice on the phone the next day, telling us he’d be back soon. Ten years and almost five months later, we are still waiting for him to return.
I was 13 years old, I used to call him Baba. And I still call him Baba.
Every moment of hope has a heavy price with the cruel despair that follows, but hope always remains in some form. In Syria nothing is certain, so we wait.
Some people spent more than 25 years in detention and then returned home. Then there are those whose families are told they are dead, but they are alive after all.
There are also those who were killed for no reason, and their families are still waiting for them with hope, as we saw in the Solidarity massacre.
Some families clung to hope for years, and were subjected to constant blackmail, only to discover that their beloved had already died years ago.
The United Nations has counted about 130,000 people who have been forcibly disappeared in Syria. That is, 130,000 families who share the same pain of uncertainty and the bitterness of fading hope.
Ten days after Baba disappeared, someone called us to tell us that he was arrested because he was carrying money for his work, 250,000 Syrian pounds ($1,725 at the time).
Baba believed that he would be released immediately because he had not done anything against the system.
I went with my mother from one security branch to another to look for Baba, but they all denied his existence. I remember seeing cars carrying detainees outside the branch and thinking: Is there a door between them?
The regime deliberately tortures the people by concealing information, forcing them to fall at the mercy of brokers and officers who promise them information or the release of detainees in exchange for huge sums of money, and often do not abide by those promises.
Detention without reason is in itself a cruel practice, but in Syria it is another nightmare entirely.
The testimonies of former detainees, which recount the most brutal forms of torture, reverberate in the minds of the families and motivate them to do everything they can, as quickly as possible, to try to save their loved ones.
Many have given us information about Baba’s whereabouts and condition, but testimonies have often been contradictory. I remember someone telling us that Baba was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison. At the time, I wondered if we would still wait and hope until 2023. It seemed unlikely.
My mother moved our family from Damascus to our village in the southern countryside of Idlib. I appointed a lawyer and got some information from her after I paid 150,000 Syrian pounds, but we no longer had any money and the information did not seem reliable, so we had to wait.
My mother worked as hard as she could to support our family of six while waiting for the man she loved. I was able to help her after I finished middle school and started working.
I worked as a cleaner for weeks before a friend started teaching me photography, I started to develop my skills, and then I got a job at an NGO for two years before heading into journalism.
Income did not make up for Baba’s absence. The feast has always been associated with the bitterness of loss.
We try to be strong in front of each other but it just doesn’t work out. My younger sister swears she remembers Baba and talks about him all the time, even though she was only three years old when he disappeared.
I am now 24 years old, and Baba never leaves my mind, he is with me when I need advice or help.
Pictures and photographs are my profession and my lifeline, so imagine my sadness that I only have one picture of Baba on my cell phone. I feel so lonely among the thousands of photos I have.
Perhaps it was his disappearance that ignited a fire in me, and prompted me to cover and document what is happening to Syria and the Syrians in these brutal times. Or maybe I hope to find some information about him.
When I meet a prisoner, I think of Baba. How does he live? What does he eat? what does he drink How is he doing? We try to act like we’ve forgotten so we can get on with our lives, but we get caught up in memories and thoughts of him more often than not.
The torture that detainees are subjected to is one of the things that pains me the most. Some of the detainees I met spoke of how they were punished when their families came to visit them. It really conflicted – I’d like to see Baba if we find out where he is, but I don’t want him to get hurt over it.
We did not have the opportunity to visit Baba because we did not have any confirmed information about him. News from friends or strangers who saw him or had access to information about him stopped in 2019.
Last year, when the regime released some detainees in Damascus, I followed every photo that was published, and I searched for news of every detainee who was released with amnesia. Has Baba forgotten who he is?
The United Nations celebrates August 30 as the International Day of the Disappeared, and last June, after 12 years of war, it announced its success in establishing an institution for the disappeared and missing in Syria.
If the Syrian regime cared about international conventions or the United Nations, it would not have committed all these crimes.
Waiting for more than 12 years of killings, arrests, bombings and torture in the country shows the international lack of interest in what is happening in Syria.
The evidence began in 2014, when “Caesar” documented the death of more than 7,000 people under torture in Syrian prisons. This alone should have prompted any person of conscience to stop these crimes.
Neither I nor any of the families of the forcibly disappeared are waiting for any help from institutions that do not work to stop the regime.
I am still waiting for Baba because his disappearance does not mean that he has been forgotten or abandoned.