Syrian prisoner release creates hope, pain for families of detainees
Thousands of families gathered in Damascus on Wednesday in hopes that their loved ones would be among those released by a presidential amnesty issued over the weekend.
The presidential amnesty, nominally issued to mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday which ends the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, pardoned "hundreds" of detainees accused of terrorism. Activists said this was the biggest prisoner release since the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011.
The Syrian regime did not specify which detainees were to be released and did not inform their families before letting them out.
It is estimated that half a million Syrians have been detained in regime prisons since 2011, with at least 100,000 dying from torture or unsanitary conditions, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"Syrian regime prisons are notorious for their inhumanity … torture remains widespread. These sub-human conditions are designed to break people – mentally and physically," Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK's Crisis Campaigns Manager, told The New Arab.
Confusion reigned as families camped out overnight in anticipation of the prisoner's release, presenting those who emerged with pictures of their loved ones and questions about their wellbeing. Others ran after cars said to hold detainees, hoping to catch a glimpse of their relatives.
One prisoner, Said al-Ghajar, emerged from a regime jail emaciated and confused with no memory of where or who his family was. Pictures of al-Ghajar circulated on social media in hopes that the pictures would help him locate his family.
Al-Ghajar's cousin, Ahmad, spotted the picture of Said but was unable to find out where in Damascus he was. Ahmad and Said's immediate family have all been displaced in Idlib and have no family left in the capital city.
"His family is still searching for him. It's difficult to reach him or know where he currently is. We are trying to communicate with the [social media] pages that shared his photo to find out where he is," Ahmad told The New Arab.
Still, knowing that Said was finally safe after nine years of captivity was a cause for celebration.
"It's a happiness that can't be described … After his family saw his picture, their strength returned," al-Ghajar said.
For others, like Um Abdo Ahmad, whose husband died in the notorious Sednaya prison in 2015, scenes of prisoners reuniting with their families were bittersweet.
"When I see the detainees released, my heart burns, because I waited a long time for a moment like that. However, at the same time, I'm happy that there are people who get to return to their families," Um Abdo Ahmad told The New Arab.
Her husband was arrested at a checkpoint in 2012, and she had received no information about him until 2015. Her lawyer promised her that she could visit him, but a week later she received news that he had died, supposedly from a disease.
"When I attend the death of a relative, I tell them you are lucky, you got to wash and shroud your son, you will visit their grave. I never got to do that," she said.
The prisoner release came on the back of a video published by The Guardian of the Tadamon Massacre in 2013, where at least 41 men were executed in cold blood.
"[The amnesty] probably has to do with the Tadamon Massacre … But to be honest, this is not directed to Syrians. This is a message that targets the West and the international community to say that we are trying to fix things," Wafa Ali Mustafa, a Syrian journalist and activist whose father has been held in regime prisons for the last nine years, told The New Arab.
Mustafa cast doubt on the sincerity of the regime to want to create real change in its prison system and said the disorganised nature of the release had a secondary motive.
"These past two days have been very difficult. I read the names of those who were released. My dad's name is Ali, and every time I read the first name of anyone named Ali I have huge hope. Then I continue to read their last name and see it's not my dad. It's just heartbreaking," Mustafa said.
"It's a very clear message from the Assad regime that we still control this country and we control it by fear, deprivation and keeping millions of Syrians occupied and drained and exhausted as they look for their loved ones," she added.