|Exploring the Abyss of Syrian Prisons|
|A Project by UMAM Documentation and Research
In Partnership with the Association of Former Lebanese Political Detainees in Syria
2012 - 2013
Supported by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa)
UMAM D&R has been interested in issues related to the missing since it was founded. Not only are these issues part of the legacy of the civil war, but in a way, they are also the most persistent component of that conflict. Overall, the issue of missing persons is one of ongoing human suffering: lives in limbo, whereabouts unknown and families who forever remain victims of the disappearance of their relatives. In 2008, UMAM D&R began work on the issue in
a project called MISSING. It sought to facilitate an easy, almost tactile expression of that ongoing drama, which involves thousands of individuals. MISSING commenced with the collection of as many photographs and as much information as possible about those who disappeared.
It later became a mobile exhibition that toured Beirut and other regions of Lebanon.
Through its interest in the disappeared, UMAM D&R noted specific details about individuals believed to be missing in Syria. Above all, the disappeared in Syria are at the heart of past, present and future attempts to normalize relations between the Lebanese and the Syrians, interactions that are integral components of Lebanon's civil war—and its ongoing strife. Beginning in 2009, UMAM D&R began to follow closely the establishment of the Association of Former Lebanese Political Detainees in Syria (LPDS). UMAM D&R's relationship with the late human rights activist Kamal Al-Batal (to whom we owe—among other things—his adoption and advocacy of this cause within and outside Lebanon) prompted the organization to assist in the development of this issue and the activities of LPDS. Of note, the year in which Kamal Al-Batal passed away also introduced formalized cooperation between UMAM D&R and the LPDS.
Between fall 2011 and spring 2012, the two organizations coordinated a series of group sessions facilitated by a therapist. In addition, the idea of a live performance
was conceived. All involved agreed that the men's ability to engage in a theatrical re-living of their ordeal as detainees would help them heal the effects of their incarceration by allowing them to express their emotions and experiences, raise awareness of their ordeal to a wider audience and build the capacity of other individuals similarly traumatized by this and similarly heinous human rights violations. After conceiving, rehearsing and actually producing the performance, it was presented for the first time during the launch event THE PASSIONATE OF DARKNESS - Carceral Experiences in Syria's Prisons, on October 11, 2012 in Beirut. Beyond serving as a therapeutic tool, the performance also became an opportunity to publicize the partnership between UMAM D&R and the LPDS. Held under the auspices of the German Ambassador to Beirut, the event
also included an exhibition
of objects that were either created by the former detainees during their incarceration or re-created specifically for this occasion.
Following the Beirut performance, and thanks to the inspired commitment of several parties, One Day in Hell (which ultimately was retitled as The German Chair) was performed in five different German cities. The trip became an invaluable opportunity for the members of LPDS to advocate their cause to an international audience.
While the above describes some elements of the cooperation that continues to exist between the two organizations, it must be highlighted that such cooperation was not always activity oriented. While the main goal of the cooperative effort was to introduce this issue to a broader public, another component was that of building the capacity of LPDS. Thus advanced, the LPDS would be better positioned to engage with the wide civil society landscape and become self-reliant in terms of creating and implementing its own lobbying strategies. Thus, in parallel with the activities described above, regular training sessions were conducted that focused on management, fund raising and public/media relations. Beyond facilitating the development of individual capacities, meetings were also held to enlist additional members. This not only helped strengthen group cohesion, but also infused it with a sense of participatory decision making.
As the issue of reparations was making its way through the Lebanese parliament, UMAM D&R and LPDS hit upon the notion that proving someone had served in a Syrian prison was one of the major obstacles to the advancement of the legislative effort—especially since Lebanese and Syrian authorities were always tight- lipped about the issue. To overcome that shortcoming, UMAM D&R and LPDS were joint hosts at a roundtable held October 19, 2013 at the Riviera Hotel in Beirut. Titled LEBANESE POLITICAL PRISONERS IN SYRIAN PRISONS - Brainstorming the Associated Legal ans Paralegal Challenges, the event was attended by a host of officials, legal experts and representatives of international human rights organizations.
Inspired by UMAM's MISSING project, LPDS members also engaged in the collection of data about other Syrian detainees, both former and (presumably) present. The result of this data collection effort was an exhibition known as DAMASCUS ROAD - The Plight of Political Detainees in Syria through their Portraits. It was held first in Beirut on December 6 – 7, 2013 and then in Tripoli on December 21 – 22. Of note, North Lebanon, historically, is home to the vast majority of Lebanese detainees in Syria.
Finally, the cooperative efforts of UMAM D&R and LPDS were expressed in several publications that either were related to specific activities or were focused on the overarching issue of enforced detention.
Beyond the joint UMAM-LPDS activities described briefly above, UMAM D&R continued its exhaustive documentation efforts related to this painful issue. The results of those efforts are evident in a newly created section of UMAM D&R's MEMORY AT WORK website. Listed under the heading PASSIONATE OF DARKNESS, the section is dedicated to the issue of Lebanese held in non-Lebanese prisons. These documentation efforts are not only important to advocating the issue of Lebanese prisoners in Syrian prisons, but also in the broader context of Lebanese-Syrian relations. Ultimately, realizing a joint revision of those relations will depend in large part on normalizing interactions, past, present and future, based on mutual respect.