When I studied physical anthropology at Iowa State in the late 1980s, I remember we were handed out pieces of human skulls during our exam. A fragment of a skull can tell you so much: the sex, the age, and sometimes even the general health of the person. We assembled pieces and tried to sketch a resemblance. I later saw a photo of the girl whose skull I had studied. It really struck me because she was so young and pretty. Probably only twenty-something and maybe a student like me. She had been dug up among hundreds of other bodies from one of the mass graves discovered near Buenos Aires. The remains were sent to American Universities in a programme created to help identify the bodies. She was, unfortunately, one of the 15,000 or so people who «disappeared» during Argentina’s dictatorship in the late 1970s.
Since the Islamic State (ISIS) was defeated in the north-eastern regions of Syria, news of newly discovered mass graves keep surfacing in the media. Families whose loved ones disappeared in the upheavals of the country’s conflict hope they will finally get some answers. Some claim that up to 120,000 civilians are still disappeared in Syria since the uprising started in 2011.
The 11th edition of Oslo’s Arab Film Days (11 – 22. March 2021 – online) introduces two events that address this problem. Yasmin Fedda’s documentary film Ayouni, which gives a close account of two people who go «forcibly disappeared» and the implications that follow. The Middle East expert, Frida Nome, will also speak on the topic while presenting her newest book The Missed: A Story from Syria (De Savnede).
Nome’s book is an investigative journey where she goes searching for her disappeared colleague, a Syrian human rights activist lawyer. In her quest, she unveils a complex system evolved around the abductions of civilians. There is a thriving black market in Syria where information revealing the whereabouts of the disappeared persons is sold for a high price. Some families ruin themselves economically in their desperation to find out if their relative is still alive.
Since the Islamic State (ISIS) was defeated in the north-eastern regions of Syria, news of newly discovered mass graves keep surfacing in the media.
A permanent state
Nome also points out that families of disappeared people live in a long-lasting uncertainty that affects not only their mental health but can also have a great implication in their practical lives. Women left behind often have children they need to take care of and rent to pay. Without a death certificate, they have no right to economic support and are often denied access to their husband’s bank accounts. They cannot remarry as their husbands might still be sitting somewhere locked up.
The permanent state of ‘not knowing’ is tremendously devastating as we see in Ayouni. At the beginning of her story, we are introduced to two sympathetic pro-democratic advocates living in the north-eastern part of Syria. Their storylines run separate but are braided together as both share a similar fate. The young and good-looking Bassel Khartabil is one of Syria’s most popular computer programmers. The other is the warm-hearted Italian priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio. He is an active humanist who is loved among the locals Muslims and Christians. When they all of sudden disappear, it comes as a big surprise.
The director has managed to reconstruct the lives of the main characters through an impressive amount of archive materials filmed on several mobile phones. We see Bassel run through the frontline of the demonstrations when the violent crackdown happens; documenting civilians who have been shot and left untreated; declaring his love for a young woman called Noura. As they celebrate their engagement, we feel the liberating and optimistic atmosphere of the city Raqqa. Then, Noura wakes up the next day to the news that Bassel has been picked up by government officials. This is actually where the film really begins, in the aftermath of the «abduction.»
When Father Paolo is arrested the first time, Muslims and Christians stand shoulder to shoulder demanding his release. Raqqa then falls under ISIS control and father Paolo is transferred to a place where «no names are written on the wall and no paperwork is kept.» He «disappears» for good.
A decade on
In the timespan that lasts nearly a decade, the film crew follows Noura and Machi as they advocate for the mens’ release. It is heartbreaking to see how Noura is changing from a confident youngster to a nervous woman. «Was it when my hearth shuddered, that something happened to him? Is he in the same world as I am?» Drinking problems, mental breakdowns, and eating disorders are mentioned. She has become a lawyer, but she seems so insecure and tormented. Someone urges her to start a new life in Europe, but she can’t really start anything anywhere.
The Assad’s regime has, to this date, not released the names and information of the detained. As Frida Nome concludes «there is really no chance for peace talks in the region until the ‘disappeared’ have been accounted for.»
Fedda’s powerful documentary is a reminder of how important it is that the international community still cares about what is going on in Syria and puts the right pressure on the regime to release information about these «forcibly disappeared».