Fritz Streiff: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Fritz Streiff.
Karam Shoumali: I'm Karam Shoumali.
Fritz Streiff: This is our 10th episode about the first-ever criminal trial against Syrian officials for crimes against humanity. How strange to think one day we might be making our 100th episode because at this pace with a case this big, that's actually not a far-fetched idea. Will we be tired of covering this trial every week? Will you be tired of listening?
Karam Shoumali: For Syrians and those who follow Syria, this case in Koblenz is just a tiny fragment of a much bigger story. It's important to remember that the uprising started in 2011, which means Syria has been at war for almost a decade now. Following the uprising, citizens of Syria were subject to a harsh government crackdown and arbitrary detention in places like Branch 251.
The armed opposition started battling the Syrian army and Al Qaeda and ISIS found their way into the conflict. Russia sent in its air force to back the Syrian government, and meanwhile, millions of Syrians were internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands made the dangerous journey to Europe. An international coalition fought and defeated ISIS and Turkey invaded Kurdish border towns. All the while, peace talks have been going on one after another.
Fritz Streiff: I remember when the Arab Spring started in 2010, I was in law school, and then the beginning of the Syrian uprising, it feels like a long, long time ago.
Karam Shoumali: It's been a lot for everyone, including global citizens who are concerned about Syria. From the average news consumer to diplomats and aid workers. There is this constant stream of news, it's never waning. It's become increasingly challenging to stay engaged. To dissect this, I spoke last week with Elizabeth Tsurkov. She's a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a longtime Syria researcher. In her work, she talks to everyone from fighters and civilians to governments and journalists.
Fritz Streiff: Towards the end of the episode, we'll be checking in with our court reporter, Hannah El-Hitami for an update on the trial straight from Koblenz.
Karam Shoumali: Before we hear from Elizabeth and Hannah, I want to share with you an example, or maybe a sample of the struggle of Syrians. I have spoken to so many Syrians over the years and every time they tell their stories, no matter how old, they tell it with the same passion, the same sorrowful details as if it just happened the night before. I asked myself, "Aren't they worn out? What keeps them going? They have always been loud about their tragic accounts, but not much has been done to change their reality so why even bother?"
For this example, I want to introduce you to Wafa Mustafa. The chapters of her story overlap often with those of thousands of other Syrians, revolving around the common theme of the tension and then having to live with the uncertain fate of their loved ones. Life reduced to waiting and hoping but also fight and stay in loud. Wafa Mustafa is 30 years old now and just graduated from Bard College in Berlin. She majored in arts and aesthetics.
In 2011, when the uprising started, she was 21. Between then, and now, a lot happened. Her father was detained for one month in 2011 and then released. She was detained for peacefully protesting and then released after a few days. Then two years later, her father disappeared. Actually the day we recorded this episode marked his seventh year in detention. She doesn't know his whereabouts. She doesn't even know if he's alive.
Wafa Mustafa: My dad was first arrested in August 2011. He was accused of aiding terrorists, and those terrorists were actually people who fled from Hammah after the regime attacked Hammah. Remember in Ramadan 2011. He was kept there for a month but at least at that moment, we knew that he was there. We knew the accusations. We knew that his health situation is fine. On the 2nd of July 2013, my dad was in our home in Damascus.
He didn't see my mom for a while and stuff. She made the food he likes and stuff. She called him and he didn't respond, and that was it. The only thing we know till this moment is an info we got from the neighbor, who just told my mom that she saw a group of armed men breaking in, and she heard noises and stuff, and then they went downstairs with him. That was the last thing we heard from him.
Karam Shoumali: Do you know what was the direct reason for his detention?
Wafa Mustafa: I don't even know if he's still alive or not. I definitely don't know. My dad participated in different activities in different forms and formats of the revolution. I definitely have no idea.
Karam Shoumali: Her father told the family to leave the country in case he would disappear. He thought they would be safer somewhere else. That's what Wafa Mustafa, her mom, and her siblings did. With no passports, money, or a plan, and with only the help of a connection, they arrived in Turkey in 2013, one week after her father's arrest. How has your life been affected?
Wafa Mustafa: Definitely, on a psychological level, it is very hard. I've suffered from depression, severe depression, and I was on medicine and I just probably maybe gave up for some time. I just couldn't. It was more difficult than anything I could imagine. Even physically, my health situation was very bad for a while, but these are the most obvious aspects. Mentally, emotionally, it's still very difficult for me to talk about it.
My dad's absence made and still make me at the same time this very responsible adult, supporting my family, still trying to do activism, still believing in the revolution, fleeing from one country to another, working, studying all at the same time. It is on the other hand, makes me this six-year-old child, who by the end of the day, and before I go to sleep, I cannot think of anything except the fact that my dad is not here, and I want him back. You cannot convince a child that for a good cause, for a bad cause, this dictatorship. You know what I mean? The only thing you can do with such a child is just to give them their dads back.
Karam Shoumali: Wafa wanted to stay active. She worked as a journalist, and eventually in a media campaign against ISIS. Not long after she joined, a colleague of hers was found slaughtered in his apartment and it became clear to her that her life was in danger. She relocated to Germany, and that marked yet another beginning of her journey. In Berlin, thousands of other Syrians just like Wafa left their loved ones behind. Knowing that she was not alone helped her continue her fight for the release of her father.
Do you recall your favorite memory of him?
Wafa Mustafa: Yes. This one discussion we had all the time when-- As old dads, he loved music.
I just hated her. I just didn't like her. I would never give up. Every time we listen to her, I would be like, "Her voice is not even beautiful." It doesn't make any sense to me. Every time he had this discussion with me, and it was exhausting. At some point, my mom was like, "You shouldn't just respond to her. It's enough." He wasn't trying to convince me, but we would reach out to a point in the discussion where he would say, "You would grow up and then you would realize why I like her.
Karam Shoumali: Do you like her songs now?
Wafa Mustafa: To be honest, I cannot decide if I like them because I like them objectively or because now that my dad is not here. I remember when I first came to Germany, I went to some I don't know, a place I went out with my friends and they were playing a song by . It was a very difficult moment. I just couldn't keep it together.
Karam Shoumali: In August 2013, a number of photos were leaked by a military defector, codename Ceasar. For many, this meant they could actually try and find the people whose fate was unknown all these years, find them in the photos but they are not just regular photos. They were taken inside torture prisons. Anyone scanning them for familiar faces could potentially be confronted with images that would haunt them for the rest of their life. I asked Wafa Mustafa if she looked at the Ceasar files.
Wafa Mustafa: I definitely didn't. I definitely not me, not my mom, not my sisters. We couldn't. I saw photos of people I knew and it was more than I could take. To be honest, I literally thought that people were looking at photos. If someone would recognize my dad, they would let me know but I don't want to look at them myself. We didn't.
Karam Shoumali: Do you recognize photos of your friends?
Wafa Mustafa: Yes, of course.
Karam Shoumali: How many?
Wafa Mustafa: Three, four, I guess but the closest was someone Ayham Ghazzoul the doctor.
Karam Shoumali: Ayham Ghazzoul was a 26-year-old student at the Faculty of Dental Medicine. He was beating up and arrested and died shortly after in detention in 2012. I interviewed his mother here in Berlin, and it was one of the saddest interviews I have ever done. Wafa Mustafa continues to dedicate most of her time to spreading awareness about the dire situation of detainees, and actively demanding their immediate release. While recording this episode, Wafa Mustafa is in Koblenz again and this time with Ayham Ghazzoul's mother doing all they can do trying to be heard. Is the Koblenz Trial the closest thing to victory?
Wafa Mustafa: The only thing that I feel towards this trial is that it is very important. It is to be honest, maybe a first step towards justice and accountability but this doesn't mean that this is justice. This doesn't mean that justice is now served, and shall all Syrians be happy. This is definitely not at all. This is very important. At the same time, we can realize that this is important obviously on many levels. Justice is something it seems at least at the moment very far and very distant.
I guess it is a hugely exhausting and difficult process. Also as I always say I might myself not witness I don't know. I cannot even conceptualize the moment where justice will be served. With all the loss with all the, I don't know the people we lost with all what people lost, their homes, their memories, their families I don't know if there will be a moment of justice for all Syrians. I know that this is the first step and at least to me, this is important and this is satisfying enough.
Fritz Streiff: It's really unbelievable that for Syrians and many others across the world, this suffering is a day-to-day reality. Stories about people like Wafa Mustafa, who have endured so much and keep fighting seem almost like fictional tales. The truth is that these stories of suffering are endless amongst Syrians.
Karam Shoumali: That's why in my conversation with Elizabeth Tsurkov I started by telling her about Wafa Mustafa and her father and her activism and asked her who is still listening.
Elizabeth Tsurkov: There are many people who are still listening and care and follow developments in Syria and want to see justice done. For, people who are detained and still alive to be released from prisons and for families to be notified in cases where their loved ones have been killed in detention. At the same time, people around the world generally follow their own lives and developments in their own countries if they even consume news.
In recent years, we've had so many upheavals. People are worried about Coronavirus, about Brexit in the UK, about systemic racism in the US, and the shenanigans and stupidity of President Trump. Therefore, I would say that there is less international attention to what is happening in Syria now, compared to the first years of the conflict. This does not mean that people don't care about what is happening in Syria. It's just that they're often fatigued from following what is happening.
The conflict has gotten so much more complicated. First, when the revolution started it was so simple. It was a peaceful protesters versus a brutal regime. Then things got so much more complicated so it became more difficult to understand what is happening, who's the good guy who's the bad guy? Therefore, I think that there is less attention now, unfortunately, to what is happening in Syria.
Karam Shoumali: Elizabeth Tsurkov, can you describe to me the manner with which the media has been covering Syria?
Elizabeth Tsurkov: There is attention that is being paid to Syria, that is greater compared to other conflicts, yet, at the same time, we've gradually seen less and less attention. For me, personally, I write for multiple outlets. Basically, the interest in Syria only spikes, and editors turned to me and asked for me to write articles, when there is some major development in Syria. For example, there was an offensive on Idlib, over one million people fled. Certainly when this number hit one million, suddenly, there was a great deal of interest of editors asking me to write.
When it was just, 200,000, and people are sleeping out in fields and children are literally freezing to death, because all of this was happening in the winter, there wasn't that much attention. It was, "Oh, just another offensive in Idlib." Right now in Syria, there is no active combat release that is happening. There's only low-scale insurgency that is happening. On the other hand, there are major humanitarian developments, as I mentioned, the issue of the large-scale hunger that the population is facing. This is not receiving as much attention because it's not a bomb that is dropping.
It's just people who are sitting at home in the dark because there's no electricity, and they don't have food to feed their children. I know for journalists who care deeply about covering Syria, who struggled to get editors to decide to yes, we're going to go for the story, because they are aware of the fatigue of the fact that people are clicking less, reading less, paying less attention. It's definitely something that we are in constant battle against people who research Syria, people who care about Syria, and the well-being of Syrians to get people to pay attention.
Karam Shoumali: Can you describe to our listener's current ongoing Western efforts when it comes to the release of detainees?
Elizabeth Tsurkov: There are basically two main ways. The UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen has raised the issue repeatedly the issue of political prisoners, as opposed to the Special Envoy before him, Staffan de Mistura, who really did not make this into a major cornerstone of his diplomatic efforts. He's raised the issue. Of course, the regime has absolutely no reason to abide by these requests, even if made politely.
Then the other aspect is, are the sanctions including the Caesar Act, which we know is named after the defactor who leaked photos of over 8,000 detainees who have been tortured to death in Damascus, up until 2013. Of course, there are additional people who have been tortured to death since then and in areas beyond Damascus. The US, one of the conditions for lifting of the Caesar Act, of the lifting of the sanctions is the release of political detainees, allowing human rights organizations, international organizations to go into prisons to check on conditions.
Karam Shoumali: What's your assessment of the international humanitarian effort for the relief of Syria?
Elizabeth Tsurkov: The needs of the population are growing at a much, much faster pace than what the international community is offering. As a result, we're seeing living conditions, education, services, all of this deteriorating over time. We now have, for example, in Idlib, large-scale food insecurity and malnutrition. This is not something that was as much of an issue in previous years. The situation on the ground is deteriorating, and this is something that will likely continue happening, particularly as now Syria is entering a very dangerous phase of increasing food insecurity due to the rising prices related to the collapse in the Syrian lira. It is quite likely that Syria will witness a famine in the coming months, and I don't think that the humanitarian actors are flexible enough to be able to quickly address those exponentially growing needs.
Karam Shoumali: Are we desensitized in a way after seeing thousands of photos of dead bodies, the Caesar photos, videos of execution, videos of bombing, videos of pulling kids from beneath rubble, is it so familiarized that we are now desensitized in a way?
Elizabeth Tsurkov: For people who follow Syria closely, yes, we are desensitized. I can look at an image of a mutilated corpse and just click through it because I've seen so many of them. At the same time, people who are the average news consumers, I wouldn't say that they are desensitized, because, first of all, they're scared, much of the horror, because TV stations in the West don't showcase really gory images, same with newspapers.
Therefore, I know that, for example, when I gave lectures to publics in different countries, I would use images that I thought were very mild, for example, the aftermath of an airstrike or a massacre, but I would never use images of decapitated bodies or something that I considered very gory, and people would be really, really horrified. It made me realize that, for people who track Syria closely, all of us have become desensitized.
Karam Shoumali: Elizabeth, is there anything else you want to tell our listeners?
Elizabeth Tsurkov: I think that reflecting back, Syria will be remembered as one of the worst atrocities in the 21st century. The horrors that we've seen in Syria, fortunately, have not been repeated in that many conflict, the extermination of people in prisons, the chemical weapons use, the mass population transfers, the massive displacement. I think for us people who follow it closely or people who care about it, we will be able, at least, to look back and say that when this was happening, we were warning about it, we were writing about it, we were paying attention to it, even as many others chose to look away. This does not give us much consolation. The situation in Syria is catastrophic, but at least we can find some comfort in knowing that we did our best, that we bore witness. Even as it was painful to keep paying attention, we stayed engaged. I think this is something that allows me to sleep at night.
Karam Shoumali: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Fritz Streiff: There are three things that I found especially interesting that Elizabeth mentions when Karam discussed the concept of Syria fatigue with her, the issue of humanitarian aid, the challenges for the media in covering the increasingly complicated situation in Syria, and the issue of political prisoners and detainees. She says the international community might not be able to address the pretty dire needs of the Syrian population fast enough to prevent a humanitarian disaster like famine, that the humanitarian response is not flexible enough.
Interestingly, a number of states and international actors pledged €6.9 billion just a few days ago during the Brussels Conference. We'll include more on this Brussels Conference in the show notes. Despite Elizabeth’s concerns about humanitarian aid and how it is put to work, it does continue to flow. The international community does not seem to be fatigued, at least not in terms of numbers, €6.9 billion. The question of course remains, will it be used in a flexible way that Elizabeth says it's needed?
Meanwhile, according to Elizabeth, there is definitely Syria fatigue among news consumers and outlets, and so I want to revisit this point she makes about how the media deals with this increasingly "fatigued audience." I'm interested to hear from you, Karam Shoumali, you yourself started covering the story for international media right after you left Syria in 2012. What do you think about the media attention to Syria these days, are people still paying attention to what's going on?
Karam Shoumali: I think the interest is still there, but at this point, the story is too familiar. From an outsider's perspective, not much has changed in Syria. You can't just keep reporting the same story. At the end of the day, journalism is a selling industry and international publications need entertaining stories that get people to click and subscribe. I can give you an example. Elizabeth mentioned the likely famine in Syria, but it is not enough of a story, at least not yet, because you can't just go and film hunger.
Fritz Streiff: Then Elizabeth points out the issue of political prisoners. That, for example, the previous UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura didn't prioritize this file concerning detainees like Wafa’s father. de Mistura was the special envoy to Syria for almost five years. That is five years of marginalizing one of the biggest tragedies in Syria. I would really like to ask him why he did not make a bigger point of this in the diplomatic efforts towards the regime. Perhaps if there had been less Syria fatigue, more media attention, more pressure on him and other diplomatic actors, would he and others have prioritized this more and detainees like Wafa’s father may have been released?
Karam Shoumali: We don't have answers to these questions either. The topic of Syria fatigue doesn't exist, and if so, what is it exactly? It's a complex one. There is much more to it than what we discussed today. We haven't even touched on the military dimension of the Syria fatigue.
Fritz Streiff: Exactly. Just as an example, how is it possible that the Assad regime has been able to continue its terrible campaign to use chemical weapons against its own people? How has the world let that happen? If there had been less Syria fatigue, would that have made things turn out different?
Karam Shoumali: Discussing the military angle could be an entire separate podcast, to be honest. There is so much to say and discuss. We will dedicate an episode to this topic in the future.
Fritz Streiff: Just now while we were finishing the recording, we introduced the topic of this week's episode with a tweet, just an hour ago, and we've already gotten some really interesting reactions. We want to continue the discussion with you guys, so please do respond on Twitter or send us direct messages. This brings us to this week's court report. Let's check in with Hannah El-Hitami who attended this week's sessions. This is what she told us.
Hannah: Yesterday's witness actually told some really gruesome details about his time at the Khatib Branch. He said that he was piled into the cell with so many other people, that people were lying on top of each other. You sometimes didn't know who was dead and who was alive. The problem, I think, with his testimony was the court seemed to have doubts in some of the very extreme details he actually mentioned. It did sometimes seem that he was exaggerating. He said that there were more than 400 people in a 25-square-meter cell, or he said that he saw 500,000 dead bodies, not in prison, but during his time in Syria.
Today's witness, he was working for the Branch for quite a while, and he could definitely confirm that he saw Anwar R. there. He could confirm what the position of Anwar R. was. However, he did say that Anwar R. was one of the few who were nice to the low-ranking soldiers as himself, but that he didn't know what that meant, what that said about his personality. He might as well have been very different towards the prisoners.
Well, he also definitely contradicted some of the things that yesterday's witness said. Yesterday's witness said that, on the way to the interrogation offices, he saw dead bodies left and right, everywhere, everything was full of blood, and today's witness said that he only saw a dead person at the Branch once, but he did confirm that there was lots of torture and lots of beating in the courtyard when the prisoners arrived.
He also confirmed that there were little tiny windows from the prison cells that led to the courtyard and when you were walking there as an employee, you could often hear the screams of the people in the cells in the prison which was underground. That was actually why today's witness decided to desert at some point because he didn't want to work in these circumstances any longer.
These two weeks were very interesting because, for the first time, we heard witnesses who have themselves worked at Branch 251, and it was very clear that both were very worried. Last week's witness was worried because his family in Turkey was allegedly being threatened by members of Eyad A's family and today's witness was worried because his mother and brother remain in Syria. He was worried that his statement in court would be a danger to them. I just think this shows how difficult this trial is going to be because a lot of people are going to testify, I assume, who have families who are not in Germany and that they have to be worried about. This is actually going to be a big issue, I think.
Fritz Streiff: That was the court update for this week. The court is still in session while we're recording. Next week, we'll hear from Hannah again. We will dedicate the whole episode to the recent witness testimonies at court. With this, we come to the end of the episode. We hope you're not fatigued and that you will be tuning in when we're back next week.
Paulina Peek: This podcast is listener-supported. You can help keeping it going by subscribing and sharing it with your friends, colleagues, and networks and by hitting the donate button on our website. Thank you for your support. Branch 251 is created, produced, and hosted by Fritz Streiff Streiff and Karam Shoumali. Production feedback by Maarten van Doornmalen. Hannah El-Hitami is our court reporter.
Fritz Streiff: That was Paulina Peek, who we are happy to announce will be supporting the podcast as a production assistant.
Fritz Streiff: That's it for today. See you next time on Branch 251.
Karam Shoumali: See you then.