“Iif they returned my father to me I’d give them my pushcart for selling beans, I don’t even mind if I don’t buy new clothes for the holiday.” These are the words of Khalid, who, at age 13, finds himself the head of his family while his father remains detained in a regime prison. He recently learned from a news show about a regime program to release prisoners if a long list of conditions is met.
Khalid circles his besieged town in the northern Homs countryside with his pushcart, selling meals of beans from his push. He is trying to figure out how to get all the necessities for the household for less than 500 SP ($2.30) so that there is enough money left to buy new clothes for the Eid holiday. His younger brother has also started working to help realize that goal.
This young head of the family knows the details of the work market as well as the economic reality that the siege has brought about. He follows the rising prices of the dollar, talks about politics, and sounds like a young man who has aged quickly due to the hardships the war has imposed on him.
He told the Syrian Voice that he is prepared to trade everything he owns to those who took arrested his father to get him back. This includes the cart he sells beans from, which is his only source of income. However, he knows that this is probably worth nothing to those holding his father.
Since the beginning of the revolution, a practice of extortion has emerged wherein those close to the regime take money from the families of detainees in exchange for help getting them released, information on their whereabouts, or simply to know whether their jailed relatives are alive or being tortured.
An Amnesty International report has accused the regime of profiting from widespread forced disappearances through these these extortionary payments, saying that these practices amount to crimes against humanity.
“I paid four million SP ($18,600) to secure the release of my son, who was arrested a year and a half ago at a regime checkpoint, and who was never charged with a specific crime,” the father of Mohammed, a university student from the Homs countryside, told the Syrian voice.
Human rights and opposition activists have launched intermittent campaigns in solidarity with the detained, requesting the regime to release them, and there are human rights groups advocating for those arrested or forcibly disappeared. However, there is not enough interest in the issue among the international players and decision makers; military and political developments have taken precedence while the issue of detainees has remained on the sideline.
Activists campaigns have been limited to social media, where they are trying to impact public opinion and get decision makers to release detainees. However these campaigns are short-lived and the detainees remain in limbo.
Abu Hasham Khalaf, the secretary of the revolutionary leadership in Rastan, a city in northern Homs, gave some insight into the regime’s rationale for a prisoner release.
“Only a month ago, talks began for an agreement between the opposition in the Homs countryside and the governor of Homs, Talal Barazi. These talks happened because the regime wants to run an power line through rebel-controlled areas to serve areas under regime control–the line was previously damaged in regime bombardments of these areas. In exchange, the regime will have to release a number of detainees in addition to other conditions requested by the opposition. This agreement is still being talked over.”
Tracking the number and identity of detainees has proven a difficult task.
“There has been no documentation or recording of the numbers or names of the detained. There are only rough estimates provided for humanitarian organizations so that their relatives can get modest amounts of aid,” according to Haj Ahmad, who works for the Food Aid Office in northern Homs.
According to a Syrian Network for Human Rights Report, an estimated 215,000 people have been detained by the regime since the beginning of the revolution in 2011. The estimate is rough, given the difficulty of getting information about detainees. In addition to this figure, there are also prisoners being held by the Islamic State, the Kurdish Self-Administration, and extremist Islamic groups.
The report also indicates that the international community, with all of its mandates, has not been able to pressure the regime to release any prisoners, and that in most cases where detainees were released occurred because of agreements between armed opposition groups and the regime.