A Song Unheard .. A report on kidnapping Christians in Syria

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(( My best friend Ramina is a mother of three children. She is an Assyrian Christian singer, she was kidnapped by IS together with her family in Syria on the 23rd of February 2015. Ramina and I used to play music together, and we used to sing for freedom. She wrote a song that says:  “I will raise my voice, and I will make my song fly, so that the entire world will hear me”  …   and I wonder if the world will ever hear her voice? )).

 

This quotation is taken from a testimony of an Assyrian writer who left his home after an attack by IS on February 23rd 2015 in north eastern Hasska in Syria that resulted in kidnapping 235 civilians.

 

First: Introduction:

The governorate of Hassaka is located on the north eastern part of Syria, close to the Iraqi boarders in the east, and the Turkish boarders in the north. Hassaka, being the center of the governorate, includes other important cities like Kamishli, Yaroubiya, Al Shaddadi, Malikiya, Tal Hamis, Amouda, Ras Al Ein, Qahtaniya and Tal Brak, besides of a large number of villages locating near the rivers, Specially the Assyrian Christian towns and villages located on both banks of the Khabur river.

There were many cases of kidnappings in most of the Syrian cities in during the deterioration of the security situation of the country which followed the uprising against the government in March 2011. That led to the government’s loss of control over the country, spread of destitution and the emergence of organized kidnapping groups of extremist fighters that took advantage of the difficult situation to achieve their goals.

During the documenting of these kidnappings in the Syrian region Al-Jazeera, it was clear that the Syriac Assyrians, who are Christians, were the largest ethnic group to be subjected to systematic kidnappings due to their financial situation or their ethnic and religious identity in order to hold them ransom for money or weapons, force them to leave the province, or to send political messages through them.

The Assyrian Human Rights Network recognizes the necessity in documenting these atrocities considering the detrimental effect it leaves on the Syrian community. Such abuses causes changes in the demographic map of the Syrian society structure. It also damages the relations between all ethnic and religious groups in the Al-Jazeera region, especially since the groups that carry out these attacks are gangs with specific social and religious  backgrounds that threaten the peaceful coexistence in this region.

 

Second: The methodology of the report:

This report is based on data gathered and documented by field researchers of The Assyrian Human Rights Network in Syria. The report deals with the practices of organized gangs, extremist religious groups, and militias that kidnap civilians. It is also based on the testimonies of released kidnapping victims, and from the families of those still detained. The report also summarizes the conclusions and the recommendations that resulted from the analysis of the gathered information. The names of the victims and of those involved in the fact-gathering have been changed for their safety.

 

Third: The legal definition of the crime of kidnapping:

1- The concept of kidnapping according to independent legal researcher: Kidnapping is the transfer of a person or a group of persons to an unknown destination using violence, threatening or deceit, and forcibly keeping them in detention in a place other than their place of residence in order to achieve a goal. The local laws provide that infringements on people’s freedom are crimes, as they consider this freedom a sacred right which is emphasized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2- Kidnapping according to Syrian laws: Article 555 of the Syrian Penal Code calls for six months to two year prison sentences to whomsoever deprives a person of their freedom in any way. Article 655 sentences kidnappers to temporary hard labor if the period of detention exceeded one month, if a moral or physical violence was practiced, or if the victim was an employee in duty. Legislative decree no. 20 in 2013, which was issued in Syria, raised the penalty of kidnapping to hard labor for life applied to anyone who kidnaps a person in order to obtain a political or financial benefit, to revenge or for ethnic reasons. The death penalty is applied if the victim dies, becomes permanently disabled, or has been subjected to sexual abuse.

3- Kidnapping according to international law: Kidnapping civilians and the degrading treatment of the hostages during domestic conflicts tantamount to war crimes according to international humanitarian law, especially when breaking the common article 3 to the four Geneva conventions of 1949 which has it’s legal consequences and is from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court according to items 2 and 3 of paragraph C of article 8 in the statute of the ICC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fourth: Who are the kidnappers and the victims?

The  Assyrian Network was not able to interview a large number of the victims because of their families’ rejection to speak about the subject. This is also due to difficult conditions that accompany kidnappings, where the two parties prefer secrecy to ensure the continuation of negotiations and the success of the kidnapping on one hand, and to guarantee the safety of the victims and their families during the process and after the release of the victim on the other hand. We can, however, estimate the number of kidnappings against the Syriac Assyrian citizens in Syria at about 120 cases since March 2011, all of which happened in Al-Hasakah province ( Al-Hasaka, Qamishli, Maldiyah, Qahtaniyah and Ras Al Ain). This estimation is based on discretionary statistics done by political, civil, and human rights institutions. Even though al-Qaeda-linked  Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State are behind a good number of documented kidnapping cases, local gangs in Al-Hasakah province top the list of kidnappers of Christians in the province, especially since they were talking with the local accent. In this context, Sameer, who was kidnapped and recently released, says: ” .. and on the way, an armed group at a check point stopped us. They asked for our IDs and commanded us to get out of the car. After that they blindfolded us, put chains on our hands and led us to an unknown destination. They were six to eight people. They were masked and armed, and they spoke with the local accent.”

 

 

It is very difficult to identify kidnappers because of the government’s failure to perform its duties to track these crimes. Another reason is that the kidnapper groups are now numerous and the activities of these gangs, militias and extremist groups intersect, and they cooperate to get money and weapons. For example, one kidnapper sells the hostages to the other and then, in some cases, to a third. The last one negotiates to get money for releasing the hostages. Mr. Fareed, the father of a hostage, says: “…after some days, Anis, a father of another hostage detained with my son, told me that he delivered seven million Syrian pounds that were demanded as a ransom to a prince of Al-Nusra Front. Anis also confirmed that this group was not the same one that kidnapped them in the first place, and that the prince of the front himself told him that his group received the hostages from another one and that Al-Nusra Front now has them.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fifth: The Reasons behind the Kidnapping:

During our research in kidnapping documentations, we have identified four main reasons behind this kind of violation:

  1. Economic / Financial Reasons: This is the main reason behind the kidnapping of a number of doctors, engineers, traders, and Christian businessmen in Al-Jazeera region. These practices are carried out by outlaw gangs, led by criminals, or by former convicts who have recently been released from prison. These groups are characterized by their professional practices of theft and looting, and they adopt a method of concealment, speed and caution, especially during the communication and negotiation stages in order to determine the required amount of money, and how to get it. These crimes take place in economically poor areas and mostly carried out by people under the age of forty, according to the victims that we met. These kinds of crimes often start by demanding huge sums of money by the kidnappers, and ends after bargaining by paying less amount of money in exchange for the release of the kidnapped victims after threatening the victims with death and subjecting them to severe torture if their relatives refuse to pay any money.

“…. and here their leader had called my family and kept the phone open to let them hear the sounds of the beating and our screams. The kidnappers threatened to cut off our heads, and already one of them put a knife onto my neck and made a cut on it, they also threatened to rape my friend Hanna if he could not convince our families to pay the ransom ….and the negotiations began to go faster on the required amount, as I could hear their voices talking on the phone, we stayed there for about a week. Finally the kidnappers got a deal with my family, as I my parents told me later, and settled on the amount of three million and five hundred thousand pounds, in addition to seizing our car” Sameer says in his testimony.

2 – Military Reasons: Some armed military groups abduct civilians in order to get money to finance their military activities or to get access to ammunition and weapons. In this context, Abu George, an Assyrian Christian official in a local military council in Syria, an individual who has previously served as an intermediary in the release of a number of Christians and non-Christians kidnapped at various armed groups fighting in Syria, points out in his testimony  “.. … often the kidnappers usually begin demanding to be provided by large quantities of ammunition to be used in combat operations, and if that is not possible they tend to request arms instead, while some other groups call to be given money for the purchase of ammunition and weapons, and I remember that I have contributed to the release of  one of the kidnapped civilians at one of the militant factions in return for a sum of money equal to the price of five Kalashnikovs or a ransom for the release of the hostage detainee”. Similarly Mr. Abdul Ahad, an elderly man who was abducted in the city of Al-Hasakah, confirms this fact by saying: “… on the second day they asked me to give them my two sons’ (Samir and Ashur) phone numbers in order to communicate with them, I asked them what they wanted from me, and they replied ” We are from the free army, and you are a rich man and you have a lot of money, and we need the money for our brothers who are fighting, we need to buy them weapons and medicine”.

Some local military forces used kidnapped civilians as human shields to protect their combatants and military bases from targeting and shelling during military operations. This is exactly what IS did when they attacked Assyrian Christian villages in north eastern Hassaka in Syria and kidnapped many civilians in the village of Tal Shamiram on the 23rd of February 2015 where they were held hostages at a school in the village.

Gabriel describes what happened that day in his testimony: “it was almost four o’clock in the morning when I called my friend Kamil who lives in Tal Shamiram, after I heard explosions in their neighboring village, he told me that armed men took over the village, may God help us. After a few minutes I saw three men who escaped from Tal Shamiram in their underwear, they fled to our village which is very close to theirs, they told me that all inhabitants of the village have been kidnapped by IS.”

3 – Political Reasons: Conflicting parties in Syria kidnap eminent civilians or members of the military from other parties in order to create media pressure to achieve a political or other demand. This explains the frequent kidnapping of the Christian clergies.

It also explains why IS kidnapped 235 civilians from the Assyrian towns during the attack against 34 Assyrian Christian villages in Hassaka on the 23rd of February 2015, a majority of these victims being women, children, and elderly persons.

 

It is worth mentioning that the issue of the abduction of Bishops Ibrahim Yazaji and John Abraham, kidnapped since  April 22, 2013, the kidnapping of the Sisters of the Monastery of Maloula on  December 3, 2013, and Father Paolo Dall’Oglio abducted since  July 29, 2013. In his testimony Abo George says: “The Al-Nusra Front and The Islamic State are the most sophisticated in the political recruitment of kidnappers, especially the ones kidnapping Christian figures, the use of hostages they have to achieve political gains, just as happened in the case of the issues of the nuns and the Bishops for the barter and the exchange of the prisoners, and the demands of these two groups is not limited to the Syrian region only but, sometimes it extends to demand the release of the princes of the Front and the state in other Arab and non-Arab countries as well. ”

In many cases, the purpose behind the abductions is to intimidate Christians to seek protection from military authorities in control of the land as – as they try to claim themselves – the only source that provides protection for Christians in their areas, and therefore the Christians or the other Syrians have to obey and assist them. In some respects the kidnapping may occur to intimidate Christians to push them to be displaced from the areas where they live, in order to achieve certain demographic changes, and thus to gain control of a national or religious component to the entire region.

4 – Religious and Sectarian Reasons: The Al-Nusra Front and The Islamic State have practiced kidnapping for the purposes of intimidation and to impose a new lifestyle on the controlled areas, especially the Christian areas. This is what happened in the case of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant kidnapping seven Assyrians, including doctors and their staff, in late September 2014 until January 3rd, 2015, by the ” Emiri decision”  to release all of the kidnapped in exchange of $1,700 per person, and the mainstreaming of a tribute to All Assyrian towns and villages located in the countryside of northern and eastern Al-Hasaka region population, which was estimated at about ten grams of gold for the family per year, according to reports from the field by the representatives of The Assyrian Human Rights Network in Al-Khabur area.

235 civilians kidnapped by Islamic State have been documented by our team, among them 86 women, 39 children, 87 men mostly elderly during the military assault conducted by IS pursuant to the refusal of the Assyrians in these villages to remove the crosses off their churches.

The following table shows the numbers of civilians kidnapped by IS in February 2015:

 

Tal Shamiram Tal Jazeera Tal Hormiz Tal Feida Qabr Shamiya
35 women 43 women 3 women 5 women
30 children 9 children
44 men 32 men 6 men 3 men 2 men
109 84 9 8 2
Released from Tal Goran: 21 among them two women and a child.

Released from Tal Shamiram: 2 one of them a woman

Total Assyrians kidnapped by IS on the 23rd of February: 235

 

 

Om Fady, a 55 year old Syrian Assyrian woman displaced after the IS attacks on Assyrian villages, says: “it was four o’clock at the morning 23rd of February when we started to hear bombs shelling on Tal Massas, We thought that it may stop after a while as usual, but the sounds increased more, and after almost an hour I saw many people from neighbouring village of Tal Goran, which is located on the opposite bank of Khabour river, they told us that they have crossed the river using little boats. They warned us and told us to immediately leave our home and flee, because Daeish, [IS], has invaded the Khabur villages and they are killing and kidnapping civilians. At almost ten at the morning we left the village using a taxi which was in the village at that time”.

The religious identity of the kidnapped is one factor that determines the outcome in many kidnapping cases: either to be exchanged with detainees of this group with the Syrian regime or with other militant groups, as is the case of the nuns who were taken by Al-Nusra Front, where the Syrian Regime was forced to release 152 female prisoners detained in Syrian jails, or to be killed, as was the case of the kidnapping of Father Fadi Haddad that ended tragically with his killing by his kidnappers, or to force the abducted to convert to Islam, which happened when a Christian soldier who defected from the Syrian army was forced by Al-Nusra kidnappers to convert to Islam. The defected soldier says in his testimony: “…. At that time they told me they decided to heal the wounds I had and to release me, but under one condition. The Prince told me “but we have one condition in order to release you and not to kill you”, and without asking him about the condition or replying or commenting he went on to say: “You are Christian, and it is our duty as Muslims to call you to Islam.” he added “so we want you to embrace the religion of Islam,” and added that I should announce it in a taped video to be uploaded to the battalion account on YouTube so people can see it or otherwise death would be my destiny”.

Fifth: kidnapping Conditions:

In all of the cases we documented, all instances of kidnappings were accompanied with the use of violence against victims. Captives were subjected to physical violence and verbal abuse, death threats, threats of rape, cruel and degrading treatment, and starvation. The detention facilities were usually described as being in dark rooms or under harsh conditions. Abdul Ahad says in his testimony: “…. and  I remained trapped in a very small room built of mud during the first period, which lasted  for fifteen days, this room was a prison and a place to eat and sleep and to relieve myself. At that time all I had was some bread crumbs and a cup of tea once a day, in addition of course to severe beatings I receive every day or two”. The pressure was put on the families of the kidnapped people to force them to yield to the demands of the kidnappers, and the results were disastrous for some families. Perhaps the death of Jamil’s mother, who died suddenly after a heart attack after her grief over her kidnapped son, has highlighted these cases. In his testimony to our working team in Syria, Mr. Abu Jamil’s, the father of the kidnapped, says: “… In this period, our family suffered the biggest catastrophe since my wife died on 11/07/2014, after a heart attack, after ten days of our son’s kidnapping. My wife was very sad ,and very concerned throughout that period, and the painful topic is that my son does not know about his mother’s death to this day.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sixth: The Conclusions:

  1. The practice of kidnapping has escalated dramatically since the Syrian government lost control over many cities in Syria, and is also due in part to the deterioration of living conditions, especially in rural areas. The escalation of the Syrian civil war and the growing military conflict and its transformation into an internal armed conflict, equates the kidnappings committed against Syrian civilians to war crimes according to its enumeration in international humanitarian law.
  2. Most cases of kidnapping against Christians are attributed to economic and financial motives, but the religious and political dimensions of these cases cannot be overlooked, especially with respect to intimidation that occurs against Christians and pressure that they experience to flee their towns and villages. These migrations work in the favor of the kidnappers to achieve new demographic realities in their areas on the one hand, or to force them to pay tribute, or to seek protection from the parties of the conflict, whether the Syrian system or other military groups.
  3. Most of the families of kidnapping victims left Syria almost permanently, and the last assaults against Assyrians by IS led Syrian Assyrians to believe that they are left exposed and unprotected, where their neutrality could not protect them from violence in the ongoing conflict in Syria. This threatens a mass exodus of Christians in the case of its continuity in the case of failure to take immediate action to stop that.
  4. Most of the kidnapped were released after the intervention of the tribal and religious figures, civil institutions, and political and partisan forces under the complete absence of any role of the institutions of the Syrian government.
  5. Many of kidnappings of Christian Syrians ended in the payment of a sum for ransom, but a significant number of kidnapping gangs still retain kidnapped people hoping to get large sums of money by those who intervene to recover them.
  6. The kidnapping against Christians in Syria has pushed large numbers of doctors, lawyers, engineers, employees and businessmen of the Assyrian Syriac component to be displaced, in a dangerous phenomenon led to severe brain drain from the region.
  7. The practice of kidnapping Christians for political purposes is a phenomenon adopted by all parties of the conflict in Syria in order to draw local and international media attention to the political demands of the kidnappers, and this was clearly demonstrated in the cases of the abduction of the nuns at the monastery of Maloula, and the kidnapping of Bishops Yazaji and Ibrahim in Aleppo countryside. The same happens now to the Assyrian civilians kidnapped by IS.

Seventh: Recommendations:

To the Syrian government:

  1. The Syrian authorities, are quite as the criminal militant groups  and gangs, and the sectarian religious groups and terrorist organizations, which  are all involved in the ongoing armed military conflict on the Syrian territories, and they have the full legal responsibility of the incidence of kidnappings in accordance with the applicable international law during the internal armed conflict.

2 – The Syrian government is called to take responsibility to protect citizens and to enforce security and to restore the discipline in the areas under its control, and to put an end to the kidnappings that target innocent civilians.

  1. To encourage the kidnappers to release their hostages by issuing conditional Amnesty decrees contingent on the safety of victims and their immediate release.
  2. The cooperation with civil society organizations, local institutions, and Christian and Muslim religious figures that had effective role in the release of many of the kidnapped safely, and have become accepted as mediators among many parties.
  3. To support the families of the kidnapped people and to provide the legal assistance and to compensate them financially and morally, and to help them to end the tragedy of their kidnapped family members and to settle in their home country, and to help the families displaced after IS attacks to go back to their homes and villages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To The Combat Armed Groups:

  1. To keep the civilians out of the circle of conflict in the country with the mention of the legal obligations imposed by the International Humanitarian Law at all the groups involved in the fighting during the internal armed conflicts.
  2. The release of all hostages of Syrian civilians who have nothing to do with any form of the ongoing armed conflict on the Syrian territory.
  3. Keeping away from civilians and the immediate quit of committing more crimes of kidnapping, which is punishable by law.
  4. Helping in uncovering the fate of some of the hostages who have been missing for more than two years and comes in the forefront of Bishops John Abraham and Paul Yazaji and Father Paolo Dall’Oglio and others.

 

 

To the Human Rights Council

  1. To call on the Commission of Inquiry on Syrian Arab Republic to open serious investigations on the kidnapping crimes against ethnical and religious minorities, including Assyrians, and finding urgent solutions to stop them.
  2. To refer the crimes of kidnapping civilians to the ICC , as the crimes committed during an internal armed conflict may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC.
  3. To call on the Security Council to hold responsibility in keeping the international peace and security, due to huge affect that the armed conflict in Syria may leave regionally and internationally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Song Unheard

A report by: Assyrian Human Rights Network

Issued in conjunction with the 28th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Stockholm  –  11th April 2015

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