Skip to content

No path in, no path out

Project Update Türkiye 4 April 2024

Date and time

01:00 01:00


These survivors of torture, which has been committed by the Assad regimes in brutal detention centres, as well as by non-state armed groups operating in the country, have fled their homes in search of safety and security elsewhere. Many have gone to Türkiye, where they say there is no path in and no path out. 

In Türkiye, the interim reparative measures project is taking place in and around Mersin, Hatay, Urfa, and Gaziantep. Interim in nature, by virtue of being provided by non-duty bearers, these measures have begun to have great impact on the lives of survivors as they navigate the challenges of living in Türkiye and come to grips with all they have suffered. 

Looking at, and looking back to, Syria 

“It smells like Syria,” says Sabreen Shalabi, GSF project coordinator for Türkiye, while walking in Reyhanli. Located only five kilometres from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, Syria can be seen in the Turkmen mountain range. People say it is a comfort to look out a window and see their true home.

They talk about Syria like it is the love of their life. It does not matter if they are originally from Damascus or Idlib, Deir ez-Zor or Latakia. When you ask someone about their hometown, they discuss the beauty of rivers and architecture, the spirit of poets and philosophers, and the tastes of home-grown meals. Most of all, they talk about their neighbours. 

The connection between people, and their generosity, is what makes Syria beautiful, they say. This generosity is on full display during the home visits that a team of 18 case workers often make with the 820 survivors participating in the project. While discussing current financial hardships and violence in detention, coffee and tea flow and pomegranate and biscuits are served.

“It’s not just me who wants to go back,” says Mustafa, while standing at the counter in his coffee shop. “All Syrians need and want to go back to our homeland.” 

Mustafa is originally from Latakia and has lived in Mersin, a seaside city in southeast Türkiye, for seven years. He recently became the owner of a coffee shop.  From behind the counter, Mustafa pulls out a poster photo of Latakia and points to the top right corner. There, is the coffee shop he owned before he was detained. 

Mustafa points to his old coffee shop on a poster photo of his hometown, Latakia.

It’s not just me who wants to go back. All Syrians need and want to go back to our homeland.

— Mustafa, coffee shop owner

“It was my passion to own a coffee shop again,” he says. With the financial compensation provided to him in partnership by GSF and ADMSP, as recognition of being a survivor of detention, Mustafa was able to purchase the coffee shop. 

He would rather be in his old coffee shop, but at least his townsfolk are in Mersin with him. 

“I feel like this place is my home because there are a lot of people from Latakia here,” he says. “Yeah, it is not my original home. I do belong here, though.” 

All Syrian survivors have a deep longing for their first home. As Mustafa says, though, “If the Assad regime is there no one can go back.” 

God’s shadow 

While explaining the hesitancy of many survivors to speak about their circumstances, Tarek Matarmawi, project coordinator for ADMSP, likened the regime to God’s shadow. Everywhere a survivor goes, it is following. This sentiment can be seen in the words of many survivors. 

Perhaps they have relatives in detention, or they wish to return to Syria one day. So, they rightfully worry about the regime. 

They also find their memories of detention inescapable. 

“It is beyond imagination,” says one survivor while describing his suffering in Tadmor Prison. He recounted that he shared a cell with a father and son. One day, the son had succumbed to torture. “The father said, ‘Thanks to God for finally letting my son rest from torture’. There is no other situation where a father would wish for the death of his son.” 

It is beyond imagination. There is no other situation where a father would wish for the death of his son.

— Survivor,

A sample of the arbitrary reasons for being detained are defecting from military service, knowing someone the regime was searching for, speaking badly about the regime in a private setting, and attending peaceful demonstrations. 

Survivors advocate for the end of the practice of detention and all war crimes, including the sexual violence committed in detention centres. For that to happen, they agree, the Assad regime must fall. 

“For all Syrians it would be a big deal to have our own country,” says Mustafa. “To have our rights, to build our country again, and our homes again.” 

While they wait impatiently for the fall of the regime, they do not need to wait for recognition of the harms they have suffered. 

Being seen, being understood 

“A friend of mine told me about the project,” says Huriye, a survivor living in Urfa. “That this project is helping survivors, the people who were in detention.” 

Many survivors learned of the interim reparative measures project from word of mouth in their communities.

One survivor described the meaning of going through the project with his friends. “It feels like we are brothers doing things hand in hand,” he says. “It’s really important.” 

Survivors had to be identified as a survivor of detention by ADMSP to participate. The identification process was easy for some, and worrisome for others. 

ADMSP is an organisation run by a management team of survivors, and all employees have also been affected by detention. This is reflective of the wider Syrian community in Türkiye, where everyone knows someone who has been detained. 

With the project being operated by a group of survivors, many who came forward for identification felt they were in the best of hands. 

“The process felt relaxing because I was speaking with another survivor,” says a survivor while sitting amongst his wife and children in their home in Gaziantep. “They understood what I wanted to say before I said it.”

Hamsa, on the other hand, was uneasy about first reaching out to ADMSP. “I was hesitant because I thought I wouldn’t be understood,” he says, while standing in the alleyway beside his restaurant. 

Many survivors also described a distrust of services. Other organisations have taken the details of their stories, but then have disappeared.

I was hesitant because I thought I wouldn’t be understood.

— Hamsa, restaurant owner

When it became clear that the project is real, they describe feeling happiness. For many, it was the first time they were recognised as a survivor of detention, and the first time they learned of their right to reparation. 

GSF knows that survivors cannot and should not wait for their right to reparation to be recognised by perpetrators or the State. That’s why, in partnership with organisations like ADMSP and CVT, and hand in hand with survivors, we are co-creating interim reparative measures projects for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. 

For survivors from Syria, there is a particular urgency and moral imperative to providing these measures. The Assad regime has made it abundantly clear to the international community that it will not be accountable for crimes perpetrated. 

This staunch objection to accountability means that others have to step in and try as best they can to meet the right to reparation. 

This project includes 820 survivors, unfortunately a small portion of the thousands of people who have suffered detention in Syria. But we hope to be providing an example to the international community, demonstrating that reparative measures provided by non-duty bearers have reparative value, are affordable, and are urgent.

“Everyone says that you need to wait for the fall of the regime for justice to be served,” says Riyad Avlar, co-founder of ADMSP. “We thought otherwise.” 

Survivors rebuilding their lives in dignity is possible without a court. 

Starting anew 

Interim reparative measures projects are co-created with survivors, meaning they take the lead on deciding what repair is to them. The project in Türkiye offers survivors the possibility of using their compensation how they wish. Some have chosen to use this financial compensation for small businesses, either using it as startup money or to invest in their current business. Others have decided to pay for their own, or their child’s, education. 

Because of their great needs, some survivors have also used their financial compensation for daily life expenses, like rent, and to pay for ongoing medical treatments. 

Rehabilitation is also included as an interim reparative measure in the project, offered through CVT. Over 230 survivors have accessed both individual and group psychological sessions. Physiotherapy sessions were included for survivors to address physical ailments they have as a result of detention. 

For some survivors, the financial compensation provides the opportunity to replace the teeth they lost during detention.

Aliye, originally from Damascus, has recently opened a salon with her friend, and fellow survivor, Sawsa, in Reyhanli.

“I love this job,” she says. “Since I was a small girl, I’ve loved doing this. I work here from my heart. All my efforts are put into my salon.”

Aliye poses in her salon.

I love this job. Since I was a small girl, I’ve loved doing this. I work here from my heart. All my efforts are put into my salon.

— Aliye, salon owner

For many survivors, like Aliye, the compensation provided an opportunity to revisit the career they left behind in Syria. Reigniting their passions has brought newfound hope to their lives. Now, after a few months in business, survivors are already talking about expanding. 

“This project is making revenue, but not too much,” says Mustafa. “I will try to do something like marketing to bring a new audience to the shop.”

Hamsa had only been released from detention one year ago, and he bought shares of a restaurant with his brother. “To stand on my feet after only a year since being detained, it is a miracle,” he says. 

Reparation is most effective when provided in a timely manner. In only a year, Hamsa’s community looks at him as a business owner, and as an example of what is possible. 

For others, like Shaysh, the interim reparative measures come long after his detention. Now 65 years old, he was detained in the 1980s, under Hafez Al Assad. He has a sweets shop for the winter, where he serves delicious qataif to waiting customers in Reyhanli. From this shop, as well as through his shoe selling business in the summer, he supports his large family. 

The value of education 

Many survivors are supporting their children through the interim reparative measures project by paying for their university fees. 

Education, for them, is a way to ensure brighter futures, build stronger communities, and help others. 

“The assistance came to help others, and my son can help others,” says a survivor who paid for his child’s first year of medical school. 

When discussing the value of education, the ability to help others came up often. 

Non-educated people can only help themselves. Educated people can help their family, their society, and their whole world. That’s why education has so much value.

— Survivor from Syria,

“Non-educated people can only help themselves,” says a survivor. “Educated people can help their family, their society, and their whole world. That’s why education has so much value.” 

Huriye was on the verge of having her eldest children drop from school to financially support the household, a decision that pained her. 

“I couldn’t continue my education when I was young,” she says. “So, I don’t want them to drop from school. Because I’ve been through this. I know it’s very hard without education.” 

Because of her small business, a catering project conducted from her home, her children can stay in school. 

“It is very important that they continue their education, so that they can help each other,” says Huriye . “I always continue to motivate them.” 

Other survivors have gone back to school themselves, finishing their studies that were interrupted years ago. 

The cost of equipment necessary for studying, like a laptop, is a barrier of access to education for many survivors. With the financial compensation, they could purchase such equipment, allowing them to invest in their futures and pursue their dreams. 

Daily discriminations 

Many survivors also described the challenges they face in daily life. No challenge is more glaring than covering monthly rent. After the earthquake, many survivors had their rents increase because the demand for housing could no longer be met by the supply of buildings. On top of this, general inflation has negatively affected the ability of survivors to make ends meet.

One survivor, living in Reyhanli, shared that their apartment used to cost 2,000 TKL (69 USD) per month. Now, the apartment costs their family 7,000 TKL (241 USD) per month, not including utilities. 

Survivors also speak about their restriction of movement. Unable to leave their province of residence, a survivor in Mersin may have a sister in Istanbul they have not seen in years. If they are stopped at a checkpoint trying to cross provincial lines, they can be sent back to Syria. 

The daily discrimination from being Syrian is too much to bear at times. Many consider leaving Türkiye and beginning again somewhere else, like Europe. Survivors are asking for peace and protections in Türkiye, which they should be afforded because of the violations they have suffered. 

The long path to justice 

It is a long and arduous path to justice.  

The case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where the Netherlands and Canada accuse Syria of violating the International Convention Against Torture, could legally order Syria to cease all torture. This judgement would be a legal and symbolic breakthrough, recognising and sanctioning what is happening. However, without a change of regime in Syria, it is implausible that a ruling would be implemented. 

It is clear that the likelihood of Bashar al-Assad and his accomplices ending up before a panel of judges at the International Criminal Court is low, given the permanent obstruction of Russia at the Security Council.

The regime has been murderous in everything they’ve done to the Syrian people. They committed so many violations and so much pain. In any other case they should be prosecuted. But that is not even what I am asking for here. I just want accountability.

— Survivor,

In parallel, based on the extraterritorial jurisdiction of States*, many European countries have brought forth legal cases against alleged perpetrators. France issued an international arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad in relation to the 2013 sarin gas attack in Ghouta.  

Survivors have renewed hope for accountability through the confiscation of assets. Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of Bashar al-Assad, has had assets confiscated by France in relation to war crimes committed in the 1980s. These assets include multiple properties. When discussing the possibility of repurposing seized assets, survivors make three points. 

First, the seized assets are the properties of the Syrian people. The regime gained everything from exploiting Syrians. So, it should be returned to the Syrian people. Second, if Rifaat al-Assad’s properties are repurposed in some manner for Syrian victims, it will have significant symbolic value. It would show that he did not just get away with what he did; there is some accountability. 

Finally, any money provided should go back into building communities and the betterment of all victims. Dr Zakaria, a physiotherapist living in Gaziantep, says that should he ever receive reparation, he would put it towards his service for Syrian refugee children. Some children he works with have prosthetics from surviving bombings. 

“Money means nothing,” says one survivor. “The regime has been murderous in everything they’ve done to the Syrian people. They committed so many violations and so much pain.”  

“In any other case they should be prosecuted,” they continued. “But that is not even what I am asking for here. I just want accountability.” 

Everything for those still detained 

Gazwa also hopes for justice. “As long as he tortures people, he is supposed to be in court,” she says about Bashar al-Assad. “Justice should take place.” 

She wants one thing even more than justice. “All I want now is to see my two sons,” says Gazwa. 

The background of her phone is a collage of three photos, her two sons and brother. All are currently in detention. Where they are being held, she does not know. This photo that she keeps as a background shows her two boys as teenagers.  

Gazwa has not seen her sons since 2018, when they were both detained as minors. 

“I feel so many pains inside for the people still in detention,” she says. “So many young people are still in detention in Syria. I want to raise my voice.” 

She herself was detained once, which entitled her to participate in the interim reparative measures project. However, nothing can assuage the pain she feels about her sons’ detention. While serving coffee, she offers pre-packaged biscuits. “I used to make these biscuits,” Gazwa says. “I don’t want to make these biscuits since my son is in detention. I don’t want to make anything at all. He was helping me with making them.” 

Gazwa is not the only survivor who has family members still in detention. And even if a survivor does not have someone close to them currently in detention, the detained are who they first talk about. 

Everything done, must be done for them. That includes this project, where survivors are considering how to use their interim reparative measures to raise their voices for people still in detention. Many survivors lament that it seems as though the world has moved on.

This interim reparative measures project, the possibility of repurposing confiscated assets, the ongoing case at the ICJ, and their own activism, including the tireless work of ADMSP in documenting the regime’s practice of detention, all feed into the prospect for acknowledgement and accountability. 

“It is very important for the world to know about the pain of people in prisons,” says Mustafa. 

All survivors share hope for their futures, their families’ futures, and their communities’ futures. Most of all, they share a collective hope for Syria. 

“We have hopes for a better life for Syrian people,” says Mustafa. “For all Syrians, not just survivors.” 

Scroll to top