By Mara Noto
The war in Syria, from the European press point, looks like memories of a long time ago: the images of destruction, the black flags of the Islamic State and the refugees seem far. But over there, the situation is far from normalized and the unsorted issues, from thousands of refugees to the Islamic State, are all still there. Furthermore, that conflict spread thousands of miles away and disrupt the lives of those seeking a haven of peace after facing years of wars and suffering.
This is the story of Mazen Hamada, a Syrian activist who escaped from the regime’s prisons, who arrived to the Netherlands after crossing the Balkan route. We heard about him for the first time at the end of February: the worried posts of Fouad Roueiha and Nancy Porsia, two Italian freelance journalists, mentioned his name and shared concerns about his safety.
Mazen is a well-known figure in the Syrian diaspora. For those, who don’t know Mazen, he is a Syrian activist and witness of the torture in the prisons of the Assad Regime. And on February 24, the two Italians both mentioned that he could have been dead. After gaining refugee status in the Netherlands, he eventually went back to Syria. Why? That question has still no answer. And an aura of mystery also remains about the circumstances of his disappearance: it happened a year ago and attracted the interest of several international media, including the Washington Post.
Beyond the Syrian cause activism Mazen’s personal story as a refugee is a drama shared with thousands of people trapped in the limbo of the asylum seekers; a limbo where the roar of weapons and the signs of destruction are still stuck on fragile minds, traumatized by all they had to go through.
Who are the Syrians in the Netherlands?
“Syrians here come from every corner of our country,” says George *, an academic and refugee in the Netherlands. Statistics speak of about 90,000 Syrian refugees: “Many of them did not even know of the existence of the Netherlands before becoming displaced,” he says with a smile. “If we talk about the majority of Syrian refugees, they are based in Germany and Sweden, the Netherlands is a small country and many people in Syria think it is a part of Germany”, George says.
Drawing a human map of Syrian refugees in the Netherlands is not easy; most of them come from Aleppo but the overall picture is bigger: “I don’t think there is a difference between those from Aleppo or the others from Damascus,” continues George. “When it comes to the eastern part, the inhabitants of the areas under the occupation of the Islamic State were also in danger. However, often for the simple fact of coming from those areas they were accused of being terrorists. When in fact ISIS has found fertile ground because of the crisis, “says George.
Those who could afford it, reached the shore of Great Britain, while in the Netherlands the social spectrum of the Syrians is more polarized: “we have highly educated people and others with a lower level of education. But we don’t exactly know the human geography of Syrians in NL: this is partly due to the situation back in the country”. An association of Syrian refugees in the Netherlands does not exist yet. Nor is there any plan to do so George admits. “Above all, the civil war has fueled a feeling of suspicion among Syrians: they do not trust each other”.
Refugee in the Netherlands? You must integrate
As said before, there is no association representing Syrians in NL, but the case of Mazen has sparked a campaign named “Freedom for Mazen” (Vrijheid voor Mazen). The campaign has been launched by Natasha, a Dutch activist, and Akram, a Syrian refugee, who has been living in the Netherlands since 2016. Akram, who shares with Mazen the horror of the prisons in Damascus, is critical of the IND, the Dutch asylum system: according to him attention to people is little, and in addition, there is scarce knowledge of the very nature of the conflict from which he and Mazen have fled: “they have no idea what we have left behind. For them it is enough to give you asylum if you qualify, but there is no real attention to the context,” says Akram. “When you get here you have to integrate and the government is putting pressure on refugees to follow that path, without paying much attention to each one individual past.”
In short, for The Netherlands, the past is far and the present requires a quick integration: according to the activists, there is little assistance for those dragging along with the psychological after-effects of the struggle against the regime.
What happened to Mazen Hamada?
“Do you want to remain anonymous?”, we ask. “No, why should I?”, he says. Amer al-Obaid is Mazen’s brother-in-law and he has been living in the Netherlands for long. We have found him and he agreed to spend a few hours with us and Khaled Al Haj Saleh, a friend of the missing activist, in a small village near Leiden, to talk about Mazen.
“I have known him before I met my wife,” Amer says. They both grew up in the same neighborhood and the families were close to each other. “Mazen’s three brothers were politically active and well known to the regime. Assad’s political police kept an eye on their activities” says Amer, who points out that the Arab Spring was the moment when Mazen chose to become active in politics. He started taking pictures at the demonstrations and later became active for children’s rights, bringing them milk.
“They arrested him along with two others because they were bringing baby milk to the regime’s opponents. We don’t know what happened to the others. All that we know is that he was released after a year and a half of physical and psychological torture because they believed he was no longer a danger ”, says his brother-in-law.
In August 2013, after his latest release, the family convinced Mazen to leave Syria. Six months later he reached the Netherlands, and shortly thereafter media attention focused on him.
From Syria to The Netherlands
The first 3 years in the Netherlands, Mazen lived a normal life: he was mostly busy telling his story to media and local activists: “After 3 years, the consequences of constantly retracing his traumas were evident,” Amer and Khaled say.
His normal life began to falter as well as his mental health; his attitude became more aggressive and unfriendly in particular with those closest to him: “I love you and respect you but in this way, we cannot be friends” became a recurring confession from whom close to him. “I was among them,” says Khaled. “As a friend, it was increasingly difficult to be close to him. Not because I didn’t want to, but because we didn’t really know how to help him”.
Mazen isolated himself and obsessions sparked: he began to live broadcasts on social media “but more than live streaming it was a live screaming” Khaled specifies. “They were disconnected thoughts about Daesh, the Kurds, Syria and all that his tortured mind produced “.
“We all wanted to get him back on track, me, Amer, and his sister, in particular her. But Mazen is the older brother and he wasn’t listening to the younger sister, ”continues Khaled.
To get the situation more complicated, he was evicted by his flat: “I only found out later that he hadn’t paid the rent for 8 months. He lived only with the government subsidy which was not enough to cover frequent trips abroad, especially to Geneva”, explains the brother-in-law. But that wasn’t the only problem according to Amer: Mazen ended up hanging around with the wrong people. We don’t know who persuaded Mazen to leave but these people are likely linked to drug trafficking and the regime and could be based in Berlin, Amer suspects.
The sudden return home
The last time that the activist was spotted in the Netherlands was February 14, 2020. He left his sister’s house to go to Germany to meet “someone”: it is still not clear who this someone was. He used to travel to Berlin to visit his cousin Ziad, but 8 days after his alleged departure for Berlin, Amer came across a Facebook post: according to the page, linked to the regime, the dissident (Mazen) was in Syria.
During those 8 days, no one had contact with him. Eventually, Ziad managed to call him, “I made a mistake”, he would have told him. What actually happened, nobody knows.
After Mazen’s disappearance, his family filed a complaint with the Dutch police. In 2020, a question in the Dutch parliament was asked to the foreign minister to seek clarity over the matter. But the minister dismissed the discussion, hiding behind the formula “we do not deal with individual cases”, when it comes to refugees. To date, there has been only misleading news: unconfirmed sightings while some continue to talk about death, even this unconfirmed.
*George is a fictitious name chosen by the interviewee who preferred anonymity, so as not to put the family that still resides in Syria at risk. The editorial team is aware of his identity