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Syria: 3,000 disappeared in Assad's crackdown

President Bashar al-Assad's regime is blamed for kidnapping suspected critics.

A woman holds up a Syrian flag during a demonstration gathering activists, including Syrians living in Turkey, opposed to Syria's regime of President Bashar al-Assad after the Friday prayers on July 29, 2011 in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — For the past two months the widowed woman has scoured the Syrian city of Homs, a mother looking for her missing son.

Yazan, 16, was last seen being bundled into a white van by men from Syria’s security forces who had battered him with sticks until his nose and ears bled and he lost consciousness, according to his friends.

Yazan had been protesting with thousands of others in Homs for an end to the Assad family’s 41-year dictatorship.

“He did not vanish,” said Yazan’s mother. “The security forces have him, and I want him back.”

Yazan is a pseudonym, used at the request of the mother who fears for her son’s safety. Desperate to find her younger son, the woman has visited all the Homs branches of Syria’s notorious security agencies, numbering at least 17 different divisions.

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But in a country where security officers arrest and torture citizens with impunity, a single mother visiting the smoky offices receives no help. Time and again the men in leather jackets and pistols tell her they don’t have Yazan.

When she keeps demanding, they warn her to stop looking, threatening that they will arrest her older son who is 19 if she keeps asking them questions. 

But the mother won’t stop asking.

“If my son is dead, I want to bury his body,” she told a human rights researcher. “And if he is alive I want to see him and smell him again.”

Enforced disappearances like Yazan’s have been occurring at the rate of one every hour since Syria’s uprising began in mid-March, according to the international rights group Avaaz, which has now documented almost 3,000 individual cases.

Under the terms of an international treaty, enforced disappearance is defined as the arrest, detention or abduction of a person by the state or agents of the state followed by the refusal of authorities to acknowledge the whereabouts of the missing person, thereby placing that person outside the protection of the law. 

Enforced disappearance is a crime against international law, according to Amnesty International.

“We are not counting people who we know have been detained. We are strictly talking here about people whose families do not know if they are dead or alive. People who have disappeared,” said Wissam Tarif, director of Insan, a Syrian human rights organization that has worked with Avaaz to document cases of enforced disappearances. 

The rights groups and their network inside Syria have spoken to close family members of all missing persons, all of whom have been told by authorities that their relative was not being held.

“Family members have been shouted at, abused, beaten and even detained when asking at security branches for the whereabouts of their relatives,” said Tarif.

Many of the 3,000 people went missing during anti-regime protests, but others have simply disappeared while walking the streets of their neighborhood, snatched by members of Syria’s fractious security forces, which include plain-clothes thugs, secret police and local members of the ruling Baath Party. 

A lack of communication between rival security branches means a person can be released by one branch after interrogation only to be arrested by a different security branch for the same interrogation, say activists. This makes tracking down the missing all the more difficult.

Since March 15, Avaaz has documented the killing of 1,634 people in the regime’s crackdown, with a staggering 26,000 people arrested, of whom nearly 13,000 remain in detention. The Assad regime contests figures of those killed and arrested, saying that over 500 members of the security forces have been killed attempting to restore order. 

The sweeping campaign of arrests and disappearances has targeted a wide cross section of Syrian society in what several of those affected have described as “a campaign of terror.” Not only have security forces rounded up street protesters, but they have also arrested doctors, engineers and students, anyone seen to be active in society. 

Avaaz said citizens from Daraa have been a particular target for regime forces, which blame the city’s people for igniting the popular uprising.

Enforced disappearances in Syria began when Hafez al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad’s father, ordered a bloody clampdown against an armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1979. 

About 17,000 Syrians disappeared between 1980 and 1987, according to a written statement to the