Without a body, exiled Syrians won't believe regime's explanation of how relatives died
Bashar Al Assad's government is finally releasing death certificates, but families say the reasons given do not add up
His left hand is tattooed with scissors and combs, his hair is cropped short in the latest fashion, and he wears deliberately ripped jeans. Thirty-year-old Ahmad looks like many young male hairdressers in Lebanon.
However, looks can be deceiving.
Ahmad, who asked for his name to be changed out of fear of retaliation against his family back in Syria, is trying hard to maintain a veneer of normality in his life.
Ten days ago, one of his worst fears was confirmed: he was told his older brother Moustafa – whose name has also been changed – died in Damascus in July 2013.
The news – after years of uncertainty – came a few months after Ahmad's own release from a Lebanese prison where he served a four-year sentence for drug trafficking, a charge he denies, coupled with a divorce.
The experience, he says, has made him fearless.
"That's why I'm talking to you," he laughs, sitting in the tent he shares with his brother and his wife and the latter's three children in a refugee camp in Bar Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a fertile basin known for its vineyards and agricultural produce.
Many Syrians living in the Bekaa, as it is better known, were recently informed of a relative's death in prison. Most are reluctant to speak about the matter as they fear repercussions being meted out to relatives who remain in Syria.
Around 1.5 million Syrians now reside in Lebanon according to local authorities, though a little under a million are officially registered with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
"In my heart, I can't believe my brother is actually dead," says Ahmad, scrolling on his phone through the only three pictures he has of his sibling. "They just told us that so that we would stop asking."
Despite their doubts, the sense of grief has enveloped them, with the family adding condolence messages to those same pictures.
"May God bless him," and "Waiting has killed us," read two such notices.
Perhaps incongruously, one picture features Moustafa posing with his baby son, with what seems to be the tip of a Kalashnikov rifle visible near his face.
The weapon, at the very least, is a visual reminder of how the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has played a part in the family's loss.
According to Ahmad, who fled his country in April 2011 to avoid conscription, Moustafa "joined peaceful demonstrations at first, but took up arms after the government destroyed our homes".
Moustafa was arrested with three friends in April 2012 by vigilantes in the village of Kafr Abad, just north of his hometown, Homs, a city that fell early to rebel forces. All four men were handed over to Syrian security services by their captors. Ahmad believes that all of them were executed by firing squad on terrorism charges.
Read more of The National's Syria coverage:
The Assad regime started handing out death certificates in April, says Fadel Abdul Ghany, founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Up to now 790 death certificates have been issued, including for nine children and one woman. This figure is not to be confused with the thousands of cases of death by torture in Syrian prisons since the beginning of the uprising, said Mr Abdul Ghany.
Hearing the news, Ahmad's sister, who lives in Syria, went to the authorities to question her brother's fate. She was handed a certificate that details his date of birth, of death, and the names of his parents.
But it gives no indication as to how Moustafa died, and his family cannot access his body.
"I don't believe in his date of death," says Ahmad. "Some prisoners who were released in 2014 told us they saw him and that he was still alive."
In some cases, families have been told verbally by government employees that their relatives died of disease or medical conditions.
"They told the lawyer who picked up his death certificate that my brother died of a heart attack," said Tarek Shorbaji, who lives in Marseille, France.
His brother, Mazen Shorbaji, took part in peaceful protests in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, before being arrested in May 2011, released, then arrested again in August.
He was recently officially recorded as dying on January 15, 2013. Like Ahmad, Tarek clings to hope that his brother is still alive.
"We heard from a fellow detainee released just four months ago that Mazen is in good health".
The reason for death certificates being issued, according to Ines Osman, legal officer at Geneva-based human rights group, Alkarama, should not be doubted.
"The strategy is clear: the authorities are avoiding any recognition of their responsibility by not mentioning the real cause of death. They want to avoid being held accountable," now that the regime is rapidly regaining ground, she told The National.
As such, the regime "wants to prepare for 'transition' by closing the files of the missing as well as detainees".
"This is a way of saying, 'we have dealt with the issue, let’s move on now'," said Ms Osman. "However, as long as these families are not handed over their relatives' bodies and informed of the circumstances of their death, under international law, this in no way means that the case is 'clarified': they remain victims of enforced disappearance'".
Ahmad fears for his other brother still in prison in Syria, who was arrested solely for being a relative of Moustafa.
The family was asked to pay a bribe amounting to $9,000 to get him out.
"We couldn't afford it. All we know is that he is still alive and in Adra prison."
With Mr Al Assad is increasingly perceived to have won the war, Lebanese authorities have been pushing hard for refugees to return to their home country.
And last July, Lebanon said it was ready to work with Russia to coordinate the return of Syrian refugees.
"How could they return home after learning that their relatives died in prison?," asks Tarek Shorbaji.
"It’s a new form of terrorism: the regime gives us a piece of paper, says that they killed our brother, and we can’t do anything about it".
Back in Lebanon, Ahmad says it is unthinkable for him to go home.
"The regime would immediately take me to prison, or forcibly conscript me in the army," he says. "I would rather die in Lebanon than in Syria".
Updated: August 13, 2018 04:15 PM