[Published here April 5, 2018]
Desperate to find out if they can ever return home, Syrians exiled by their country’s uprising-turned-war are scouring a leaked database of people reportedly wanted by the intelligence services. Typing in first, last and father’s names into the online list, Syrians abroad hold their breath to learn if a long-awaited visit to Damascus would land them in government prison or potentially far worse.
Hundreds of thousands have been arrested by Syria’s feared security apparatus since the conflict erupted in 2011, many for opposing the regime.
Others have fled the country, fearing detention, torture or worse.
Last month, the pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl news website released a searchable database of 1.5 million reportedly wanted people, including which security branch seeks their arrest, questioning or travel ban.
“Wanted By: General Intelligence Directorate. Action: Arrest,” reads the result for Amr al-Azm, history professor at Shawnee State University in the United States.
“I would not have assumed otherwise,” sighed Azm, 54, who last visited his native Syria a year before protests against President Bashar Assad began.
Since then, Azm has spoken out actively against Assad, so was unfazed to see his name on the list.
“On the one hand, you feel proud you’ve done enough to attract the attention of the authorities,” he said. “But at the same time, it makes me very sad – because if it’s true, it means I’ll never see Syria again.”
Zaman al-Wasl says the list was part of a trove of 1.7 million government documents leaked by Damascus-based sources in 2015.
It says the database has been searched more than 10 million times. Their site also shows frustrated reactions from people who learned they were wanted.
When a first installment of 500,000 names was released in early March, exiled Syrian opposition figures began sending each other the link. Many already knew they were persona non grata in their homeland, but wanted details: Which of Syria’s feared security branches held outstanding warrants for them?
Would they face a simple interrogation or full-blown arrest?
“It’s like a terminal disease. You know you have it, but the lab tests come through and you get the confirmation,” Azm said.
The list does not include the specific crime in question and doubts remain about whether it is comprehensive or up-to-date.
Still, when Zeina learned of the database, her heart began racing.
She left Syria in 2012 after two stints in regime jails for demonstrating and wondered if she’d face a third arrest.
“I never considered not searching, because I’d rather know,” Zeina said, using a pseudonym.
As each third of the database was released, she punched in her real name, but it generated no criminal record. “I want it to be true for selfish reasons, because I’m not on it and I want to go back,” Zeina said.
She aches for personal letters, books and ancestors’ belongings she would inherit, still thousands of kilometers away.
To double-check, Zeina asked contacts in Damascus to run her name against their lists, which could be more recent and detailed.
“I don’t have an answer, and that’s why I haven’t taken action yet,” she said. “Is it worse to go back and risk being taken? Or never go, and then it ends up that they never wanted me in the first place?”
Even people living outside regime control in Syria have used Zaman al-Wasl’s database. Dilbrin Mohammad, 37, lives in Kurdish-held Qamishli and fears arrest by the regime for protesting in 2011.
He has searched lists like Zaman al-Wasl’s and paid bribes to government officials to search their records, which can cost as much as $200. To be safe, he avoids government checkpoints.
“You feel like the government-controlled parts are a different country that you need a visa for,” the computer technician said. “It’s like they’re North Korea and we’re the South.”
It’s been more than two years since Mohammad Kheder resettled in Germany with his wife and three children, but he insists it’s a temporary stay. “I don’t want to get acclimatized, because we’re going back to Syria,” said Kheder, 32, who hails from Albukamal in the east.
He’ll never forget the euphoria of his hometown’s first anti-Assad protests nor would he regret participating, even if it landed him on the regime’s wanted list.
“I didn’t open the Zaman al-Wasl database because I already knew, but all my friends sent me screen shots of my name,” Kheder said.
It prompted him to search the names of his brothers, friends and nostalgically, activists he knew were killed in the 7-year-old war.
“Seeing my name was a badge of honor. It only made me more determined to go back, but not while Assad is in power,” he said.
“I’m wanted by Assad? Well, he’s wanted by me.”