The last time Fadwa Mahmoud heard the voice of her son, Maher, she was bustling around the kitchen, cooking. She had planned to go to the airport to meet her husband, but had decided instead to stay home, in Damascus, and prepare lunch.
“‘We are in the car, we are coming. I’ve just picked up Dad at the airport,’ Maher told me,” said Fadwa, describing her phone conversation. “After a few minutes, I called him back. The phone was disconnected. It wasn’t until nighttime I realized they were detained.”
Today, Fadwa, 63, splits her time between Berlin, Germany, and Geitawi, a Greek Orthodox neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon. She still wears a necklace given to her by her husband, and the torment of the last six years appears deeply etched in her face. Her son, Maher, and her husband, Abdulaziz Al-Kheir, disappeared on September 20, 2012, at the Damascus airport exit. She has no idea whether they are dead or alive.
In recent months, as the government of President Bashar al-Assad has regained control of much of Syria from opposition forces, attention has begun to shift to the displaced and the disappeared. In 2017, motivated by the fight of women’s movements such as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the Women in Black in Serbia, and the Families of the Disappeared in Algeria and Lebanon, Fadwa, together with other Syrian women, founded Families for Freedom, a grassroots movement that aims to give a voice to the relatives of the detainees and the disappeared. Led by women from affected families, and supported by three Syrian human-rights organizations—Women Now for Development, The Syria Campaign, and Dawlaty—the group hopes to reach the “sisters, sons, and people who believe in humanity” and who are disappointed by governments and international institutions, according to Bissan Fakih, the group’s communications officer.
The women, hailing from various regions of Syria, work mostly outside the war-torn country, in Lebanon, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, and the UK. They drive around European capitals in a rented bus adorned with photos of their missing relatives, trying to raise awareness, and will be holding memorials in a number of cities on August 30 to commemorate the International Day of the Disappeared.
“We are not political, we are not the opposition, and we are not loyalist. We are families, just families,” Fadwa said. “We want to know the fate of our relatives.”
“Our stance is against enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention by the Syrian regime and all parties involved in the conflict,” she explained.
Forced disappearances in Syria aren’t a new phenomenon. As Leen Hashem, Syria’s regional campaigner for Amnesty International, explained, they have been carried out since the 1970s and ’80s, starting under Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, to silence political opponents. But, according to Hashem, “this issue became even worse after the conflict that started in 2011, so we are seeing hundreds of thousands of people being disappeared.”