BEIRUT – About 30 security agents showed up just after midnight, breaking down the door to an apartment in the town of Daraya near the Syrian capital of Damascus. They grabbed a 24-year-old university student and drove off.
That was a year ago. The young man, who had been providing aid to Syrians displaced by the country’s civil war, was never heard from again. His family was told by former prisoners that he ended up in one of the torture dungeons of President Bashar Assad’s regime. They don’t know if he’s dead or alive. More than two years into the conflict, such accounts have become chillingly familiar to Syrians. Intelligence agents have been seizing people from homes, offices and checkpoints, and human rights activists say the targets often are peaceful regime opponents, including defense lawyers, doctors and aid workers.
Syrian human rights monitors say the number of those disappeared without a trace is now in the thousands. By comparison, the official figure of those who disappeared in Argentina’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and 1980s is about 13,000, though rights activists say the actual figure is more than twice that.
In such “enforced disappearances,” governments refuse to acknowledge detentions or provide information about those taken. The point traditionally is to get rid of opponents and scare the rest of the population into submission – a rationale laid out in Adolf Hitler’s “Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog)” decree of 1941.
In Syria, the goal is to “terrorize the society and dry up the revolution,” said Anwar al-Bounni, a veteran defense lawyer and human rights campaigner in Damascus.
However, numbers remain sketchy. Four Syrian human rights monitors offered separate estimates ranging from about 10,000 to as many as 120,000 disappeared. The two lower estimates are based on information from families and released prisoners, while the higher figures are based on extrapolation from partial data.
Two international groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said they believe a majority of detainees in Syria are held under conditions amounting to enforced disappearance. Amnesty said it estimates that tens of thousands of Syrians are in detention but does not have exact figures.
The wide range of numbers also reflects the difficulty of collecting information at a time of chaos, on a practice the regime doesn’t acknowledge.
A U.N. panel said in a 2013 report that when it asked about allegations of thousands of enforced disappearances in Syria, the Assad government responded that “there were no such cases in Syria” and that all arrests were being carried out legally.
The accounts by rights groups and those given to The Associated Press by relatives and friends of five of the missing tell a different story — of arbitrary arrests, of detainees languishing incommunicado in underground cells that are so crowded they have to sleep standing up and of torture to the point of death.
A relative of the university student said that when security forces barged into her family’s apartment in Daraya on May 19, 2012, they initially asked for a man who didn’t live there.
They searched the apartment, and left, apparently to consult with an informer, said the woman who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of further regime reprisals. A different group returned a few minutes later and asked for the family member who was studying for a master’s degree. The young man stepped forward and was taken, she said.
Three months later, a released prisoner told her that her relative was being tortured at a large detention center run by air force intelligence at Mezzeh Airport near Damascus.
Six months after the arrest, another released detainee told her he had fed her relative because he had lost use of his hands. A third former prisoner told her that her relative was taken to a prison hospital in very bad condition about five months ago, never returned and most likely had died.
Uncertainty weighs heavily on the families. “It is psychological torture for everyone in the family,” she said in a phone interview from exile. “No news. One says he is dead, the other says he is not.”
In the town of Banias on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, the Sahyouni family has been living in limbo for two years.
In May 2011, three months after the start of what was then still a largely peaceful uprising, brothers Ghassan, Bashar and Mohammed Sahyouni reported to the local office of the military intelligence. They had joined the protests, but hoped to take advantage of an amnesty promised by Assad at the time.
Instead of being briefly questioned and released, they disappeared. Since then, the family has appealed to foreign observers for help and unsuccessfully tried to bribe officials to give them information.
Worry about the brothers grew exponentially when a 39-year-old member of the extended family was snatched from a coffee shop in October and his body was returned nine days later with signs of severe mistreatment, a relative of the brothers said on condition of anonymity, for fear of regime reprisals.
“When we got his body, he had blue legs, a deep wound in the head and cigarette burns on his chest,” she said.
In Damascus, al-Bounni, the defense lawyer, said he personally knew of hundreds who had disappeared, some for weeks or months and others whose fate remains unknown.
Security forces seized fellow human rights activist Khalil Maatouk from his law office in Damascus on Oct. 2, al-Bounni said. Maatouk, who suffers from lung disease, has been missing since then.
“We asked through the Red Cross and the attorney general in Damascus, but received no answer about his place of detention and his health,” al-Bounni wrote in an emailed response to questions, adding that Syrian law requires a detainee to be released or presented to a judge within 60 days.
The Syrian government has not said how many people it has arrested since March 2011. Those held incommunicado are even more vulnerable to torture than detainees acknowledged by the state, said Lama Fakih, the Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Last year, the group provided details on 27 torture centers run by the four intelligence services across Syria, but said there are likely many more such facilities. Torture methods described by former detainees and regime defectors included beating victims with cables and sticks, pulling out their fingernails, tying them to boards in painful positions or hanging them from the ceiling by their wrists so their toes barely touch the ground.
The Violations Documentation Center in Syria, one of the rights monitors, said nearly 2,400 detainees have been killed in custody since March 2011, including 1,375 by torture.
Even after such deaths, families are often kept in the dark.
Rights activist Mohammed Alsaqqal was taken Oct. 9, but his wife was told only a month ago that he and his brother Iyad had died, al-Bounni said. “They delivered the IDs and personal belongings to the family, but they didn’t deliver the bodies and didn’t tell them about the place of burial,” he said.
Rebel abuses have also increased in frequency and scale in recent months. International rights groups have accused the fighters of capturing and sometimes killing soldiers and suspected regime informers, although abuses by the Assad regime remain far more deadly, systematic and widespread.
The full scale of the disappearances in Syria may never be known. In some countries, the numbers are under dispute decades after conflicts end.
The U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which is pressing governments to provide information, still has nearly 43,000 open cases from 84 countries, more than one-third from Iraq.
But that’s likely just a slice of the actual number of missing, said panel chairman Olivier de Frouville, a Paris-based international law professor. The working group has stringent criteria for cases it agrees to pursue, while relatives of the missing might be afraid to press for information or don’t know the option exists, he said.
From Syria, the group has so far received only 72 cases, but the numbers are rising. “It is probably a very incomplete reflection of the phenomenon in the field,” he said.