Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Syrian lives should not be mere statistics

They were in the frontline of the conflict but their fate has not always come first

People mourn as they attend the funeral of an Arab fighter in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). AFP
People mourn as they attend the funeral of an Arab fighter in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). AFP

To their families, they are loving husbands and caring fathers. To the outside world, Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes are simply a statistic: two of the tens of thousands of Syrians still missing in the aftermath of the eight-year war.

The International Committee of the Red Cross’s appeal for information as to their whereabouts is a poignant reminder that the victims of their abductors, ISIS, cannot be forgotten, nor can the search for them be abandoned. Both men were drivers in a humanitarian mission to deliver aid, together with missing New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi.

All three have been the subject of tireless negotiations by the ICRC since their convoy was first held up by armed insurgents in 2013. They have not been seen since, although there was evidence Ms Akavi was still alive as recently as late last year.

Their prolonged captivity is heartwrenching and a reminder that although ISIS’s so-called caliphate has fallen, its destructive legacy continues to tear apart lives.

Long after news of their disappearance faded from headlines, their suffering and torment has continued. While global attention has been skewed towards foreign fighters for the terror group and their fate, it has diverted focus away from the real victims: the Syrians caught in the conflict in their homeland.

The UN says at least 60,000 people have gone missing in Syria since the beginning of the war. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that figure could be as high as 192,035, the number of people who cannot be traced, in addition to the 367,965 recorded dead by December last year.

Last year the Syrian regime began releasing death certificates for thousands of the missing but many more are still unaccounted for, whether they were caught up in conflict between different rebel factions or fell foul of the regime.

The last two years of the war saw a surge in the number of mostly Syrian doctors, paramedics and pharmacists kidnapped in north-western Syria. Last year 12 Syrian medical workers were abducted in the province of Idlib by Al Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, which demanded huge ransoms. As recently as Saturday, seven citizens were kidnapped in Suweida in the south-east.

In a country in which human life has become dispensable, the risk of falling prey to predatory gangs and being kidnapped for nefarious purposes has been a constant fear for millions of innocent civilians.

This has only added to the misery of the Syrian people, at the mercy of armed militias, an oppressive regime and extremists for the past eight years.

Ms Akavi is fortunate in having the full force of the New Zealand government behind her, with special forces working behind the scenes to find her; missing Syrians are not as lucky.

It is, ultimately, Syrian lives which have been impacted most by the Syrian conflict. They cannot be forgotten by an international community, which might have thought its work was done once ISIS was decimated.

Now that the terror group’s reign is over, it must seize the opportunity to track those who are still missing and double efforts to find them. That is a complex task, with ISIS fighters holed up in camps, fleeing Iraq and Syria, or returning to their native countries.

The Syrian Democratic Forces have repeatedly said they do not have the means to bring extremists to trial, let alone conduct investigations into the disappearance of citizens and foreigners.

Tracing kidnappers and getting information from them, let alone bringing them to justice, is arduous and a job that requires collective international efforts – but that is no reason not to try.

Updated: April 16, 2019 03:53 AM