With his gaunt frame, haunted face and copious tears, Mazen al-Hamada became a poster boy for the suffering of Syrian torture victims. After escaping from Syria to the Netherlands, he traveled widely, sharing with audiences across the United States and Europe stories of the horrors he endured in a Damascus prison.
And then, mysteriously, inexplicably and perhaps suicidally, just over a year ago he returned to Syria, to risk once again the cruelties of the government he had so strenuously denounced.
Hamada has since disappeared, leaving friends and family to agonize over what prompted a man so scarred by his experiences to return to the arms of his tormentors — and what they fear is another stint in the nightmare of Syria’s prison system.
Was his increasingly erratic behavior a sign that trauma had driven him to make irrational decisions? Could he have been lured back to Syria, as those who knew him suspect, by pro-government Syrians keen to silence a potential witness to war crimes?
Or had he simply become so disillusioned with life in the West that he was prepared to risk going home? Had he felt betrayed by the world’s indifference to his country’s plight, its failure to stop the bloodshed?
The answers go to the heart of the tragedy of Syria, the beautiful, tormented country where the Arab Spring protests a decade ago went most disastrously awry. Interviews with those Hamada knew and testimonies he left behind reveal a portrait of a man so haunted by the horrors he endured that he was unable to adapt to a new life in Europe, or to accept that there would be no retribution, no accountability, no justice for the suffering he had seen. [Continue reading…]