Eight years ago, as pro-democracy protests raged on the streets of Syria, Wafa Mustafa’s father, Ali, was dragged from an apartment in Damascus by armed men and driven away. It was the last time he was seen or heard from. “In just a few moments, our family was obliterated,” says Mustafa. “It was the end of our lives, and the beginning of another kind of existence altogether.” Mustafa was 23. “So young, really, although I didn’t feel like that at the time,” she says.
Now 31, she has not talked to her father for nearly 3,000 days. “For me, losing my dad feels like losing a part of my soul,” she says. “After he was taken from us, I realised that my whole life, everything, has been about trying to impress him or imitate him. He was this powerful, essential force. For years, without him, I didn’t even know who I was.”
The powerlessness of not knowing what has happened to Ali has been “like a kind of death”, she says. “We have done everything we could. We have assigned lawyers, leveraged every connection of a connection. We’ve bribed, beaten down every door, but it has just been silence.”
Mustafa’s search for her father has come to dominate her life. She has become a relentless campaigner to free all of those who remain detained in Syria, fighting to ensure that the families left behind are not forgotten.
Since the Syrian revolution began in 2011, it is believed that more than 150,000 civilians have disappeared into detention centres or been tortured and killed by either the Bashar al-Assad regime or other armed groups in a conflict that has ripped millions of families apart.
“What we’re going through is a story of collective tragedy,” says Mustafa. “In Syria, I doubt there is a single family who has not had a loved one detained, kidnapped or disappeared. Whether those who were taken were for or against the revolution, it doesn’t matter to me. I advocate for freedom for all.”
Mustafa’s family feel certain that those who dragged Ali away were acting on the orders of Assad’s military regime. Ali was an outspoken critic of the regime and supporter of the Syrian revolution, which, in 2013 when he disappeared, was looking as if it might have the momentum to overthrow the dictatorship.
“My father was living in a neighbourhood that was tightly controlled by the regime, but where there was a lot of support for the revolution and where there had been many arrests and kidnappings by government forces,” she says. “He was taken away with his best friend, whose family was told he had been killed under torture in a government detention facility.”
The last photograph of Mustafa with her father, taken days before his disappearance. Photograph: Courtesy of Wafa Mustafa
Mustafa’s family is from Masyaf, a religiously and politically diverse city in north-west Syria, three hours from Damascus. Before his disappearance, Ali had already been arrested, detained and tortured by the regime for his human rights activism and political beliefs.
“When he was detained, people would talk about him being in prison, but I was never ashamed,” Mustafa says. “I wanted people to know. I was proud of who he was.” Ali’s passion for politics and for freedom for Syria defined and shaped Mustafa’s childhood. “He was really a hero to us. When he was young, he was very handsome and intense. He had gone out to fight for the Palestinian cause,” she says. “I always had this very romantic idea of him being like a Palestinian freedom fighter, very passionate in love and in fighting. He filled our house with music, politics and people.”
When she was growing up in Masyaf, Mustafa would always tell people she wanted to be a war correspondent. “I mean, that was true, but only because I knew that would impress my dad. Really, all I wanted was to be just like him.”
Ali encouraged his three daughters to think for themselves – despite the fact that under the regime freedom of speech was curtailed. “There is this saying that we grew up with: ‘The walls have ears.’ Everyone was scared of that, but nothing was off-limits in our house. Neither my mother nor my father hid their political views from us. They wanted us to be free.”
Her father took her to her first demonstration when she was 10 – to protest about Palestine and the war in Iraq. At that time, the regime allowed people to blow off steam for what it considered to be safe political causes. “But, even then, I knew that, when we were chanting for freedom for Palestine, we were also calling for our own freedom,” says Mustafa.
When Egyptians started protesting in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the Arab spring in early 2011, Mustafa and Ali would take it in turns to do shifts in front of the TV news. When the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, resigned, it was the first time she saw her father cry.
“I think he understood what this meant for Syrians: that a revolution was coming,” she says. “When the protests started in Syria, he changed. He was very calm. He told me: ‘I had hoped my whole life that this would happen, but I never thought I would witness it. Even if I don’t get to see victory for the Syrian people, it is enough for me that I have been there at the beginning.’”
The revolution turned Mustafa from politics to activism. She was out on the streets protesting every day. Her mother was terrified, but when Mustafa was arrested – she spent weeks in a Syrian government prison where she was beaten and interrogated – her father continued to support her participation in the uprising.
Mustafa speaking to the UN from Berlin. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE
“My mother supported me completely, but she was scared of what would happen to me at the protests, while my dad always said: ‘You have to do what you think is right.’ I think it takes a special kind of strength to see your children put themselves in danger for what they believe in, but support them with your whole heart.”
By 2013, as the conflict was escalating, one of Mustafa’s closest friends was killed in a shelling by regime forces in a civilian neighbourhood, and she fell apart. “I’d been protesting every day for two years. I’d been kicked out of school for my political beliefs, I’d been detained and terrorised. And then when I lost that person it just broke me.”
At this time, Mustafa was living in Damascus with Ali, as it had become too dangerous for him to remain in Masyaf. “My dad was there with me and he nursed me, and got me through that really dark time. It was just the two of us. Without him, I wouldn’t have made it. A few months later, he was gone.”
On 2 July 2013, Mustafa’s mother, who had stayed with her youngest daughter in Masyaf, was on her way to Damascus to visit her husband after months of separation. “My mother and father had this epic love story. She still has letters from him that she won’t let us read. For them to be apart was really hard, but she was keeping everything together for my sister at home. Even though travel was very dangerous at that time, she decided to visit my father, and was only 15 minutes away from his apartment when she called him to say she was nearly there. When she reached the apartment, he was gone.”
I will do this until I get the truth, even if it takes me the rest of my life.
Her father’s arrest marked the end of Mustafa’s life in her homeland. “I never thought I’d ever leave, I thought that I would always stay and fight for a fair and just Syria, but my dad always told us: ‘If I am arrested, you must take your mother and your sister and get out because they will come for you all too.’ So that’s what we did. We left my father behind in Syria and we ran for our lives.”
Taking nothing but their passports, Mustafa and her mother and youngest sister embarked on a terrifying escape, crossing over the border into Turkey under the cover of darkness. They lived there for three years as refugees, a period that Mustafa calls “the darkest of times”.
“I was just so depressed and heartsick,” she says. “In Turkey, I felt as if I were barely alive. I only got through it because I knew I had to look after my mother and my sister.” She started documenting Islamic State (Isis) atrocities in Syria with the citizen journalism collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which reported on human rights abuses by Isis and other forces occupying the northern Syrian city. But, one by one, her colleagues in Turkey were assassinated by the terrorist group. Later, she worked for a Syrian radio station and as a reporter for the New Arab website.
In 2016, Mustafa was granted asylum in Germany and fled, leaving her family behind in Turkey. They have been separated ever since. Her mother and youngest sister are now in Canada, and her other sister is in the US. “Being separated from my mother is another hardship that is difficult to bear,” she says.
Since she arrived in Berlin, a place of relative safety, Mustafa’s life has been consumed by the search for her father. “It’s become this daily existential crisis,” she says. “I talk about him all day, every day, but haven’t heard his voice for eight years. He’s the first thing I think about in the morning. It’s as if he’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Mustafa with a picture of her father … ‘He was really a hero to us.’ Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE
“Enforced disappearances, kidnappings, detention, it breaks the people who are left behind. It’s a form of imprisonment in itself. You spend your life in this state of suspension, completely powerless with no way of moving forward.”
Being interviewed over video from Berlin, Mustafa is impressive, eloquent, fiercely bright. It’s easy to see how she is shaping up to be a ferocious campaigner. “I poured all my energy into fighting for a free and peaceful Syria,” she says. “Now I am fighting for him.”
Since 2016, while completing her education and working as a journalist, Mustafa has also worked with Families for Freedom, a campaigning group fighting for the release of the victims of forced disappearances.
Her activism has led to the plight of the families of the Syrian disappeared being debated at the highest political and diplomatic levels. In July 2020, she was asked to give a speech to the UN security council on forced disappearances as a war crime where she demanded the release of those still detained in Syria. “Which was a surreal experience because in the same meeting was Assad’s representative at the UN. I had to sit through his speech, and afterwards I was shaking. I thought: ‘OK, if I can get through that then I know I’m strong.’” Her campaigning has seen the issue of arbitrary detention covered extensively in the international media.
In April last year, Mustafa also held a one-woman vigil outside a courtroom in Koblenz, Germany, where two former senior Syrian military intelligence officers – Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib – were on trial in a high-profile case over alleged state-sponsored torture and murder at a Damascus detention centre. Mustafa sat alone among 121 photographs of missing people, including her father, who had been detained since the start of the Syrian uprising.
“It felt like a heavy burden because I was very alone, sitting there surrounded by all those photos of people I’d never met. But I also felt very strong because I was there representing all those families, letting everyone know that we wouldn’t be silenced, and we wouldn’t give up until we found them.”
She has become the public face of the search for the disappeared in Syria, and is constantly contacted by families looking for their loved ones. “It’s a huge responsibility because has my campaigning led to the release of my father? No. Has it led to the release of any other of the disappeared? No. But if I don’t scream and shout as loudly as I can about what has happened to 150,000 people, will anything ever change? We will just be forgotten. I won’t let that happen. I can show them that someone is out there fighting for them.”
It is inconceivable that she will ever stop trying to find out what happened to her father, she says. “It’s not like one day I’m ever going to wake up and forget he’s my father or find a way to make peace with the fact that he’s missing,” she says. “No. I will do this until I get the truth, even if it takes me the rest of my life.” She understands that she has been hardened and eroded by the exhaustion of living through the pain of her father’s absence day after day. “Some days, I look in the mirror and I don’t recognise myself. I feel so old, even though I’m only 31.”
I ask her if she believes her father is still alive. “Yes, I believe he is, with my whole heart,” she says, with a determined shake of her head. She tells me that many people she knows were thought to be dead by their families only to be released and return home to them years later. “I have no evidence to the contrary. And, yes, maybe everything I’m doing is pointless, but I have no other option but to try.”
Sometimes, she worries that her activism might be harming any prospect of her father’s release. “But I know my dad wouldn’t want me not to talk about it. I keep imagining him getting released and coming home and me having to explain how I sat there and did nothing for him and all the thousands of others like him. I’m doing this because this is what I want to do – but I’m sure that this is also what he wants me to do as well.”