هلأ إنت نازل على دمشق، إنت شو حيصير فيك بعد ما تنزل؟ فوراً حتُعتَقَل إنت شو مفكّر حالك يا مازن؟
So, you’re going to Damascus now. What will happen to you once you get there? You will get arrested immediately. Who do you think you are, Mazen?
.معلش، إن شاء الله خير أُختي. إنتي توكلي على الله، هو إلّي الله كاتبه بدّه يصير
Everything will be all right, sister, God willing. Whatever God wants will happen.
— أنا عم
I am —
.ادعيلنا بس إن شاء الله
Just pray for me, God willing.
.أنا عم بنصحك العمل هاد جداً سيء يا مازن إلّي عم تعمله. أنا عم بنصحك
I am advising you that what you’re doing now is very bad, Mazen.
.أنا بدي أضحّي بحالي مشان أوقف نزيف الدم إلي عم بصير، بس
I want to offer myself up to stop the bloodshed that is happening. That’s all.
LONDON — With his gaunt frame, haunted face and copious tears, Mazen al-Hamada became a poster boy for the suffering of Syrian torture victims. After escaping from Syria to the Netherlands, he traveled widely, sharing with audiences across the United States and Europe stories of the horrors he endured in a Damascus prison.
And then, mysteriously, inexplicably and perhaps suicidally, just over a year ago he returned to Syria, to risk once again the cruelties of the government he had so strenuously denounced.
Hamada has since disappeared, leaving friends and family to agonize over what prompted a man so scarred by his experiences to return to the arms of his tormentors — and what they fear is another stint in the nightmare of Syria’s prison system.
Was his increasingly erratic behavior a sign that trauma had driven him to make irrational decisions? Could he have been lured back to Syria, as those who knew him suspect, by pro-government Syrians keen to silence a potential witness to war crimes?
Or had he simply become so disillusioned with life in the West that he was prepared to risk going home? Had he felt betrayed by the world’s indifference to his country’s plight, its failure to stop the bloodshed?
The answers go to the heart of the tragedy of Syria, the beautiful, tormented country where the Arab Spring protests a decade ago went most disastrously awry. Interviews with those Hamada knew and testimonies he left behind reveal a portrait of a man so haunted by the horrors he endured that he was unable to adapt to a new life in Europe, or to accept that there would be no retribution, no accountability, no justice for the suffering he had seen.
Euphoria of the uprising
When the Syrian revolt erupted in 2011, Hamada, then 33, was working as an oil technician near his home in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. Syrians inspired by the toppling of presidents in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets across the country to demand the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family had at the time ruled Syria for more than four decades.
Hamada was swept up in the euphoria of the moment. In interviews he later gave, his eyes lit up with rare joy as he described those heady first days of peaceful protests. “When you’d see the demonstrations, your heart would fly. I swear, no one could believe it,” he told Sara Afshar, the director of the documentary “Syria’s Disappeared,” in 2016.
His activities in Syria, as a citizen journalist who spoke to foreign news outlets and as a protester, inevitably drew him to the attention of the authorities, who had instructions to round up anyone found to be aiding the uprising. Tens of thousands of people who had participated in the peaceful demonstrations were being detained and incarcerated to quell the unexpected spirit of rebellion that had taken hold in a country cowed for decades by the oppressive regime.
Hamada was briefly detained twice in his home province before relocating in 2012 to Damascus. Arrested again almost immediately, he was taken to the feared air force intelligence headquarters in the Mezzeh neighborhood, where his nightmare began.
Escalation into war
Across the Middle East, the uprisings of 2011 were crushed, subdued or derailed. Protesters were shot. Activists were imprisoned and tortured. A moment of hope in a region long ruled by autocrats backfired, and the Arab world is now more firmly in the grip of tyrants than ever before.
But nowhere has the scale of the suffering been greater than in Syria, where Assad’s ferocious response to the revolt triggered a spiral of violence that engulfed the country in the bloodiest war of the 21st century. Security forces mowed down peaceful protesters with gunfire. When the protesters took up weapons and fired back, the army brought in tanks and artillery to bombard rebellious towns and villages into submission. When that didn’t work, warplanes dropped barrels stuffed with explosives that demolished whole apartment buildings. When airstrikes failed, chemical weapons were deployed against recalcitrant communities, according to the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The United Nations stopped counting the dead in 2016 at 400,000. Six million Syrians fled their homeland, escaping across its borders into neighboring countries. Five million are still stranded, barely surviving in substandard conditions. A million climbed into flimsy boats to cross the Mediterranean to Europe — including Hamada, whose journey took him from Turkey through Greece, Italy, France and eventually to the Netherlands.
“He didn’t see the change he wished to see.”
Omar Alshogre, who also escaped from Syria
Away from the TV cameras, tens of thousands who had participated in the protests were being systematically rounded up and incarcerated in Syria’s gulag.
Of the 145,000 people detained through September 2019, 128,000 — or nearly 90 percent — were taken by the Syrian government, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which documents every individual detention. Of those, 83,000 have vanished without a trace.
Most are likely to have died under torture or to have been killed in mass executions documented by human rights groups. Amnesty International described the killings as “war crimes and crimes against humanity” that were authorized at “the highest levels” of the Syrian government.
The Syrian government did not respond to a request for comment about human rights abuses and the whereabouts of Hamada.
‘I will not rest’
After arriving in the Netherlands in 2014, Hamada threw himself into publicizing the horrors of the Syrian prison system. He linked up with Syrian advocacy groups and traveled across Europe and the United States to recount his experiences. He spoke to lawmakers in Washington, generals at U.S. Central Command in Florida, students at Princeton University, human rights investigators and multiple journalists.
He described how his wrists were gouged by chains used to suspend him from the ceiling, his ribs broken by guards who jumped on him, his skin scorched by cigarettes and his body jolted by electric shocks. When he reached the part where his genitals were placed in a clamp and he was simultaneously raped with a metal pole, he invariably broke down, moving his audiences also to tears.
It was at that point in the interrogation that he capitulated, he told The Washington Post in 2017. “When they started to turn the screw, I confessed everything they asked,” he said.
He was determined to hold the Syrian government to account for what it had done, not only to him but to those he saw die in prison beside him.
“I will not rest until I take them to court,” he said in the documentary “Syria’s Disappeared,” tears streaming down his face. “Even if it costs me my life, I will pursue them and bring them to justice, no matter what.”
Tears ‘like a river’
The quantity of tears Hamada shed struck those who met him, including Omar Abu Layla, a Deir al-Zour exile in Germany who frequently communicated with Hamada on social media and attended a conference with him in 2018. “I remember he cried on the stage. When we had a coffee break, he cried. The one thing you noticed about Mazen was how much he is crying. He speaks and his tears come down like a river,” he said.
The prolific weeping offered a clue to Hamada’s mental state. Away from the public glare, his life wasn’t going well. He lived alone in a sparsely furnished apartment in Amsterdam provided by the Dutch authorities. He took Dutch lessons, but struggled to learn the language. Those close to him noticed he was smoking more and more marijuana, which is legal in Holland but expensive.
Friends whose lives followed somewhat similar paths have fared better. Karam al-Hamad, another refugee from Deir al-Zour, also spent more than a year in a Damascus prison. He has thrived in Germany, starting a business and meeting and marrying his wife. This summer, he will begin studying on a scholarship at Yale.
Karam said he would not have overcome his trauma without extensive therapy, antidepressants and the support of family and friends. By contrast, Hamada received some therapy in the Netherlands but complained to Karam that Western therapists didn’t understand what Syrians like him had been through.
Although six years had passed since his release, Hamada seemed unable to shed the survivor’s guilt felt by many who escape trauma, said Karam. During their last encounter in Berlin, shortly before the return to Syria, Hamada was jittery and emotional, Karam recalled. Hamada kept talking about the fate of the prisoners he had left behind, and how he felt compelled to do something to rescue them.
“He was sad; he was weak. From the way he was talking, it was clear this guy was so lost,” Karam said. “I was wondering, when will this guy kill himself? I felt he was on the edge of suicide.”
Omar Alshogre, who spent three years under torture in Syrian prisons before fleeing to Sweden, met Hamada during visits they made to the United States. Alshogre has succeeded since arriving in Europe in 2015 at age 20; he has learned three languages and later this year will begin studying for an undergraduate degree at Georgetown University.
Alshogre said he found inspiration in the chance to start a fresh life. Hamada, who is nearly 20 years older, seemed unable to move on. “I used my trauma as a driving force. Mazen used his trauma to become more and more depressed,” he said. “For Mazen, everything got worse and worse. He was isolated. He was lonely. He isolated himself because he felt no one cared.”
‘I want to go back’
Hamada’s difficulties deepened as his cause was unraveling. Syrian government forces were steadily taking back the large areas of the country seized by the rebels in the first years of the war. The Western policymakers whom he had hoped to influence were more focused on fighting the Islamic State than challenging Assad’s grip on power.
Increasingly, Hamada complained to friends that telling his story was a waste of time. The tears shed by his audiences did not translate into tangible efforts to bring justice to the victims. He felt pressured, exploited even, by the organizations that invited him to appear at their events.
As an Arab from the overwhelmingly Arab province of Deir al-Zour, he also started complaining about the increasing encroachment there of Kurdish forces, who were working with the U.S. military to roll back the Islamic State.
In a rambling, emotional video broadcast live on his Facebook page in 2017, his bitterness spilled out. He raged against the Dutch authorities, who had frozen his bank account and cut off his aid after he accepted back pay from the company he had worked for in Syria, in violation of rules applied to refugees. And he lambasted the United States and Europe for sending warplanes to bomb the Islamic State.
“I want to go back to my country — enough. Even if that means going back to regime areas, it is better than here,” he said, sobbing into a tissue. “I don’t want to integrate! It is more honorable for me to die in my country.”
Hamada’s frustrations are shared by the many people who have campaigned, without result, for war-crimes charges to be brought against the Assad regime, said Stephen Rapp, who has been investigating Syrian war crimes since serving as ambassador at large for global criminal justice in the Obama administration, and more recently as a senior fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He met Hamada on several occasions and found his testimony convincing, and deeply moving. Like so many, he recalled choking back tears as Hamada told his story.
Mountains of documentary evidence of war crimes committed by the Syrian government have been gathered by investigators, including photos of the bodies of 55,000 torture victims, smuggled out of Syria by a defector known by the code name Caesar, and over 600,000 documents detailing government tactics for suppressing the revolt. Among them is an arrest warrant for Hamada, dated in 2012, for participating in demonstrations, Rapp said.
“There’s rock-solid evidence, corroboration, of war crimes by the regime and then you don’t see the world sending it to a tribunal, despite the horrors that happened to you, your friends and your country,” he said. “It’s hard not to feel frustrated. I feel it every day.”
The conviction in Germany last week of a former Syrian intelligence official accused of detaining protesters relied on the kind of eyewitness testimony that Hamada has given. If war-crimes charges are brought against people associated with the air force intelligence branch where Hamada was held, or the 601 Military Hospital, where he witnessed some of the worst horrors, Hamada “would be a very important witness,” Rapp said.
But realities on the ground make it unlikely that senior figures in the Syrian regime will ever be held to account, said Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs who is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has been advocating a new direction for Syria policy, predicated on the likelihood that the Assad government will survive for the foreseeable future.
“Assad deserves to be hauled before a court in The Hague or an international tribunal. He deserves to be on trial in The Hague,” he said. “Is that going to happen? No it’s not going to happen” — in part because Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, would veto any attempt by the U.N. Security Council to establish an international court.
‘In a bad mental state’
In the last months of 2019, Hamada’s financial problems reached a head. Unable to pay his rent, he was evicted from his apartment and went to stay with his sister and her husband, who were also living in Amsterdam. The humiliating experience of losing his home further embittered him and may have played a big part in his decision to return to Syria, said his brother-in-law, Amer al-Obaid.
“He felt betrayed. He was in a bad mental state,” Obaid said. Hamada had become combative and difficult, quarreling with almost everyone he met. “He would say: ‘I see the regime as better than the likes of you,’ referring to the opposition activists who were his friends. “It reached a point where he lost trust in many people.”
“He was someone that would never give up … on his country, on his family, on his people.”
Mouaz Moustafa, who arranged visits for Hamada
Hamada also stayed several weeks with his nephew, Ziad al-Hamada, who lives in a town in western Germany, and spent hours telling him about the tortures endured six years earlier, Ziad recalled.
For the first time, Ziad learned just how badly Hamada’s genitals had been injured, to an extent not revealed in his public accounts. Ziad had met a woman he thought would make a suitable wife for Hamada and suggested they open a bottle of whiskey to celebrate the potential match. Hamada refused, became agitated, then explained why. He told Ziad he longed to have children but no longer could. He cried when he recounted how it happened, showed Ziad the damage in the bathroom, then wept again.
“All the nights he and I spent together he would cry,” said Ziad. “All he would talk about was his torture.”
The world ‘didn’t listen’
On the morning of Feb. 22, 2020, a Syrian refugee in Germany dropped a friend at Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport for a flight to Beirut, which connected to a flight to Damascus. Among those checking in for the flight was Hamada, whom he did not know but recognized from his social media and activist appearances, said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears for the safety of family members in Syria.
Incredulous that such a well-known critic of the Syrian government would be making such a risky journey, the man approached Hamada to ask where he was going. Hamada was evasive, defensive and denied that he was going to Syria, the man recalled.
“His whole body looked exhausted. He looked sad and unwell. He wouldn’t speak properly. You could just see he wasn’t doing well,” he said.
Disturbed by the encounter, the man called a friend, Maysoun Berkdar, a renowned Syrian activist who has lived in Germany for 27 years and has a reputation for sorting out problems. She tracked down Hamada’s contacts and reached him after he had landed in Beirut.
The recording she made of their conversation is highly revealing.
“We went to America and told them the whole story. We went to Germany and told them the whole story. We went to the Netherlands, France and even Italy. And people didn’t listen. The whole world didn’t listen,” Hamada told Berkdar.
Veering from frustration to anger, he confirmed that Damascus was his destination. He said he had tired of trying to persuade the world to turn against Assad and wanted to find ways of bringing about a political solution to the war. He also said he wanted to “kick out” the Kurds and Americans, whom he accused of occupying his home province, and to work for the release of other political prisoners. He was willing, he said, “to sacrifice myself to stop the bloodshed that is happening.”
Pleading with him not to go, Berkdar argued that he was more likely to be imprisoned and tortured again than welcomed as a peacemaker by a government he had publicly denounced.
“We are dying anyway,” he responded.
Questions and clues
Hamada’s relatives and friends are convinced he was persuaded to go back by loyalists of the regime, with a view to silencing his testimony about atrocities. There is no evidence of that, they acknowledge, but they cite mysterious disappearances during which he would meet with “friends” he refused to name and his apparent confidence, evident in his final conversations, that he had guarantees of safety if he returned.
Hamada visited the Syrian Embassy in Berlin at least three times about a month before his departure, according to Ibrahim Aswad Khalafallah, a family friend he had stayed with. Hamada told him he had been assured he was not on any wanted list in Syria.
A report submitted late last year by a London law firm to four U.N. human rights agencies accuses the Syrian government of responsibility for Hamada’s “enforced disappearance” after he landed in Damascus. The report seeks U.N. help in locating Hamada and cites a Facebook post, reportedly seen by his brother-in-law, that claimed Hamada was accompanied at the airport in Berlin by a woman who works with the Syrian Embassy. If Syrian government employees or loyalists played a part in Hamada’s return and subsequent detention, they could face charges of abduction, said Toby Cadman, a lawyer with Guernica 37, the London law firm.
Rumors have since swirled that Hamada is being held in this or that prison, or has died in custody. None has been confirmed, said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, who organized Hamada’s visits in the United States and became his friend. He nonetheless believes that Hamada was lured with false promises of safety, only to be taken into custody.
“Pro-regime people found his vulnerability and exploited it. They connected him to the embassy. The embassy promised him something,” he said. “He finally realized when he got to passport control that he was wanted for interrogation, and that meant going back into the black hole.”
Was Hamada fully aware he might be putting himself at risk? Two phone conversations after he landed at the Damascus airport suggest he may have indeed realized, too late, that he could be in danger.
The first was with his nephew Ziad, who reached him shortly after he landed. Hamada’s voice was shaking and his “teeth were clattering,” Ziad recalled. There seemed to be a man beside him who was telling him what to say. “It was very clear. I heard someone tell him, ‘Speak, speak,’ ” Ziad said. “I heard people next to him telling him ‘Say this’ and ‘Say that.’ ”
In the call, Hamada said airport immigration officers had told him he would be detained for interrogation if he entered the country. He said he was trying to find a ticket for the next flight out, which was to Sudan. Ziad urged him to take the flight. “Pray for me dear cousin, pray for me,” Hamada said, as the line cut off.
Moments later, he called an American friend in the United States. Natalie Larrison, the humanitarian aid director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, doesn’t speak Arabic, but she understood that Hamada was saying he was at the Damascus airport. She also got the impression there was someone close beside him, telling him what to say. She could hear a man breathing, and seemingly giving instructions to Hamada before he spoke.
Then Hamada hung up. Larrison said she tried reaching him several times over WhatsApp, the messaging service they used, but he didn’t answer.
Less than three hours later, his account went offline, along with all his other social media accounts. None has been active since.
Nader Durgham in Beirut, Munzer al-Awad in Berlin and Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.