UN workshop on human rights for Syrians finds fractured nation may have difficulty reaching a post-conflict reconciliation. Phil Sands reports
Revenge would be sweet for Syrians exposed to atrocities
AMMAN // In the lobby of an upmarket hotel in Amman, Abu Omer smoked a cheap cigar and relaxed after a day at a UN workshop on human rights.
A cheerful, middle-aged man, he spent his adult life as an enlisted soldier in Syria’s military until, after the revolt against Bashar Al Assad’s regime started, he joined the Free Syrian Army in his hometown of Deraa, the southern city where the uprising began.
Like many others opposing Mr Al Assad, he was captured and tortured by regime forces, a punishment that ended only when he promised to infiltrate and spy on the rebels.
“I believe in the importance of justice, human rights and international law, which is why if I get my hands on the men who tortured me, I would be fair with them,” he said.
“I remember their faces and if I ever see them again, I will kill them quickly, that will be merciful. I will shoot them, I will not torture them as they tortured me, which was worse than death.”
A series of workshops and courses run by NGOs, including the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, have been held in Jordan in recent months, teaching participants – invited members of Syrian opposition groups, civil society movements and FSA fighters – the importance of justice, adhering to the rules of warfare and respecting human rights.
In a war marked by serial atrocities and with more than 120,000 killed, it is a difficult and complicated task, with no clear boundaries between justice and revenge.
It was a demand for justice that first ignited the Syrian revolution in Deraa in March 2011, with protesters calling for local security chiefs, including a cousin of Mr Al Assad, to be held to account for torturing a group of schoolchildren.
If the Syrian president had apologised and seen to it that his cousin, Atef Najib, a notoriously ruthless man, was punished, those first protests might have fizzled out, opposition activists say.
Instead, the regime responded to the outbreak of dissent with extreme violence and, rather than extinguishing the demonstrations, it only fuelled them. Eventually, responding to the regime’s violence, the rebels emerged and themselves turned to violence.
“We took up weapons for revenge. I just wanted revenge,” said another participant in the UN human rights workshop in Amman last month, a woman in her 20s from Damascus.
She was reluctant to talk about her time in a regime prison, having been arrested last year after her fiance, an FSA fighter, was summarily executed by government forces.
“Being in detention was awful. The worst thing in many ways was hearing the other people being tortured. I can’t forget the screams. I still don’t sleep well at night, I have nightmares,” she said.
Like Abu Omer, she said she remembered the faces of the men who abused her in jail, one man in particular.
“I’ll never forget him, and if I ever get the chance I’d want to kill him slowly. It would take days for him to die. He would truly know pain,” she said.
“Justice will be done when they have felt what we have felt.”
She said the human-rights training she had received was interesting but “just words on paper”, with no relevance on the ground.
Despite the peace conference planned to take place in the Swiss city of Montreux next month, the conflict in Syria shows no sign of abating, and, with no agreement between the rebels and regime about how to achieve even a temporary ceasefire, the thorny questions of post-conflict reconciliation and justice have hardly been touched upon. There is certainly no Nelson Mandela-type figure who seems capable of one day uniting a fractured nation, should the war end.
UN human-rights investigators have called for the Syrian conflict to be referred to the International Criminal Court for possible war crime prosecutions, something that can happen only with a Security Council referral.
Russia, a key backer of Mr Al Assad and a veto-holding Security Council member, has blocked such a move.
Instead of looking to international courts, rebels are taking justice into their own hands.
“When we catch regime soldiers and militiamen who have been fighting us, we kill them,” said Abu Omer. “We should probably keep them alive, as evidence, but we don’t.”
He recounted a case when a wounded soldier was captured in Deraa and given medical care by the rebels, who made a propaganda video of him being well treated. Once the camera stopped recording, he was shot.
“But we do not torture, there is still mercy,” Abu Omer said.
“There is a concept in traditional Islamic law called ‘solh’, it means ‘reconciliation’ and the principle is that the best outcome for any dispute happens when everyone agrees their rights have been respected and they can then leave the dispute behind them,” said a lawyer from Deraa.
“In Syria that solh is no longer possible, there is no way to settle it so that all sides will accept the outcome and move on.”