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Syria 'fixers' cash in on despair of prisoners' families

This file handout satellite image received via Amnesty International on February 7, 2017, shows the military-run Saydnaya prison, one of Syria's largest detention centers located 30km north of Damascu
This file handout satellite image received via Amnesty International on February 7, 2017, shows the military-run Saydnaya prison, one of Syria's largest detention centers located 30km north of Damascus. (Photo: AFP)
BEIRUT — Syrian mother Umm Saeed was so desperate to find her two jailed sons she even sold the family furniture to pay "fixers", but a decade of deceit has left her no closer to the truth.اضافة اعلان

"Had they asked for my heart, I would have handed it over," the 63-year-old mother told AFP by phone from central Syria, using a pseudonym for fear of reprisal.

But "they lied to me".
In war-torn Syria, where tens of thousands of people have disappeared into a murky web of regime jails infamous for torture, a booming trade has emerged for "fixers" offering to help families locate or save their loved ones.

Policemen, lawyers, businessmen and even lawmakers, with security and judicial contacts, demand steep fees to dig up information about a disappeared son or brother, allow a visit, reduce their sentence, or obtain their release.

Some efforts are successful, while more often scammers pocket the money and stop answering phone calls.

It's normally families who seek out the so-called fixers, but sometimes they receive cold calls persuading them to pay up for a photo or voice recording, only to vanish with the money.

AFP spoke to members of eight such families, most of whom asked that their real names not be used.
Umm Saeed said her two sons were detained in 2012.

"Whenever someone told me about a potential middleman, I would go to them," said the mother, who suffers from heart problems.

She paid a lawyer who asked for the equivalent of more than $3,000 but "did not provide the slightest bit of information".

Another man claiming to be a policeman was paid with a mobile phone after saying he could get her permission to visit Sednaya, a notorious prison in Damascus.

But when she showed up at the jail which Amnesty International calls a "slaughter house", she was told the pass was fake and sent away.

"I sold my home furniture and my daughters' gold. I have nothing left," she said.

Diana Semaan, a researcher at Amnesty, said the government's policy of silence on the fate of detainees had created a "black market" for information.

"Families, desperate for information, end up paying huge amounts of money, sometimes their entire life savings, to intermediaries and 'middlemen' close to the Syrian government," she explained.

Suaad, 45, said her family in northern Syria had paid 20 million pounds to various brokers over the years to try to find her brother since he disappeared in 2013.

In April, someone contacted the family asking for payment to release him.

But after they raised the cash, "he told us my brother had died three days earlier", Suaad said.

Two weeks later, another person rang, offering a phone call with her brother.

When the call came, there was no audible voice on the other end of the line; all they got for their money was static.

Another mother, 56-year-old Umm Yahya, said she had managed to visit her son just once, six months after he was detained in Idlib, northwest Syria, in 2012.

"I barely recognized him. His weight had dropped from 110 (240 pounds) to less than 50 kilos," she said.

She has heard nothing since.

Her family has over the years poured a small fortune into the pockets of possible intermediaries, selling two plots of land and a house in Idlib to cover the costs, but to no avail.

Her husband has grown increasingly reluctant to squander the family's savings. Two years ago, a lawyer asked for $10,000, but her husband refused.

"If a hundred more people turned up, even if there was just a one percent chance of success, I would do it again," said Umm Yahya.

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