Portraits of Syrian detainees are seen at Koblenz court in Germany where trials started last June of two people alleged to be former Syrian intelligence officials involved in crimes against humanity inside Syrian prisons.  (Courtesy: Maimouna al-Ammar)
Portraits of Syrian detainees are seen at Koblenz court in Germany where trials started last June of two people alleged to be former Syrian intelligence officials involved in crimes against humanity inside Syrian prisons. (Courtesy: Maimouna al-Ammar)

WASHINGTON - Syrian activist Maimouna al-Ammar, 33, has been searching for her two younger brothers since late 2012 when they were arbitrarily arrested along with their uncle Yousef al-Ammar and relative Bilal Koushan by the Syrian government secret police known as Mukhabarat.

Al-Ammar told VOA she is increasingly concerned for them because of a surge in COVID-19 cases in Syria and lack of medical care in the regime’s covert prisons.    
 
“I can’t imagine how the situation will be if the coronavirus spreads among Syrian detainees,” al-Ammar said, adding that eight years of her search to rescue her brothers Suhaib, a 31-year-old English literature student, and Iqbal, a 29-year-old French literature student—if they are even alive—have gone in vain.   
The two Syrians were taken by the Mukhabarat in November 2012 from their family home in the capital, Damascus.  

Maimouna al-Ammar, her husband and two daughters pose in a photo taken in 2018 in northern Syria after their displacement from eastern Ghouta near Damascus following a deal between the Syrian government and rebel groups. (Courtesy: Maimouna al-Ammar)

“I am very concerned about my detained brothers and family members. We know that [the] Syrian regime’s prisons are a piece of hell, and I can’t imagine what the situation will be if the pandemic reaches those who are already suffering in detention,” al-Ammar, a mother of two and a founding member of the Syrian Child Protection Network (Hurras), told VOA.  
 
Syria’s Health Ministry has documented nearly 6,900 COVID-19 cases in the country, with Damascus and Aleppo taking the lead in the number of infections. The United Nations said, however, that reports coming from the country refer to a broader spread of the virus.    
 
“Community transmission is widespread, as nearly 90% of newly confirmed cases cannot be traced to a known source,” Mark Lowcock, U.N. under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the U.N. Security Council in September.   
 
Al-Ammar, a member of the Families for Freedom group, said international organizations must pay closer attention to the plight of the Syrian detainees now, especially because the Syrian government is not providing information about  coronavirus in the prisons.    
 
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) in its annual report last August said that almost 100,000 Syrians who were arbitrarily arrested by different parties across the country remain missing. It found that more than 14,388 detainees have been tortured to death.   
 
The SNHR added that 1.2 million Syrians in the past decade have been arrested and tortured by the Assad government at some point. It said the regime widely used 72 torture methods, such as cramming detainees in narrow cells, keeping them in dark cells for elongated periods, drowning, electrocuting, burning, the German chair method, pulling nails, sexual abuse, and leaving dead bodies to rot among living detainees.
   

Maimouna al-Ammar’s brother, Iqbal, is seen with her one-year-old Imar, in Damascus in 2012, before his arrest by Syrian government security. Al-Ammar has been looking for her missing brothers for eight years. (Courtesy: Maimouna al-Ammar)

Detained and displaced   
 
Al-Ammar said she and her husband, Osama Nassar, were detained by the Syrian regime in March 2011 when she was five months pregnant. They were accused of participating in a protest in Damascus against the ill treatment of political prisoners by the Assad government.    
 
Even though she was released after a few hours, followed by her husband two weeks later, the couple had to move from house to house in Damascus to avoid a second detention because of their reporting about the violations against activists on the ground and for their political activism.    
 
“After the Assad regime increased the level of brutality against dissent, arresting and kidnapping activists, including my brothers, we decided to move to Douma in eastern Ghouta in 2013, when it was held by anti-government forces,” al-Ammar said.  
 
In April 2018, she said her family was displaced again to a refugee camp in Azaz, northwest Syria, before crossing into Turkey, where they reside now.
 
“Despite what we have been through, my family never stopped looking for my missing brothers,” she said.   
 
Most vulnerable   
 
Rights organizations for months have reported about the growing health risk to detainees held in Assad government’s detention centers.   
 
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned of “a catastrophic situation” if there was an outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, among the most vulnerable Syrians, detainees and refugees, adding that tens of thousands of detainees are tortured and detained in horrific conditions.  
 
“What is terrifying to consider is that authorities knew of and enforced these conditions by denying detainees adequate food, medical care, sanitation supplies, ventilation and space,” HRW said.   

Maimouna al-Ammar’s brother, Suhaib, an English literature student at Damascus University at the time, sits in his college’s park before his arrest by the Syrian government in 2012. Suhaib has been detained for 8 years. (Courtesy: Maimouna al-Ammar)

Some Syrian prison observers and activists report that detainees are crammed in small places where simple requests such as asking for medical assistance could be answered with torture. As such, prisoners would rather endure their pain than report their illnesses, said Ameenah Sawwan, a justice and accountability campaigner at the Syria Campaign.   
 
“My father was detained in 2014 for two months for no reason other than belonging to an area considered by the Syrian regime as ‘lawless’ despite the fact it’s under its control now. When my father was released, he was so weak and had scabs. His health state deteriorated in two months. You can’t imagine what is happening to those who are held for years,” Sawwan said.   
 
Debilitated health care    
 
A decade of war in Syria has left its health care system in ruins. The violence has created a shortage of medical professionals, who have either been killed or fled, and battered medical facilities from airstrikes.   
 
“The entire country is suffering right now, and the most neglected group is the Syrian detainees in detention centers. If free people in Syrian don’t have access to health care, how will the detained [have] access to treatment?” Sawwan said.   
 
According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, only 64% of hospitals and 52% of primary care centers in Syria were fully functional at the end of 2019 because of violence. It said up to 70% of the health care workforce has left the country.