Yasmin Fedda and Eric Steuer first met when their mutual friend, Bassel Khartibal, disappeared in Syria — or more accurately, was disappeared in Syria.
“Forcible disappearance, It’s a war crime,” explains Fedda, director of the new documentary Ayouni. “It means someone’s been taken, whether they were kidnapped or arrested. And then whoever’s captured them — whether state forces or the Army or police officers, or armed militias — they disappear the person. They don’t admit they have them. You don’t know where they are. You don’t know what’s happened to them. There’s just complete silence.”
Ayouni — the Enlish translation is roughly “my eyes” — focuses on Khartibal, an open internet activist, and Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who became an activist against the Syrian government’s oppression.
The two men are among the 100,000 people the Syrian regime and other armed groups have disappeared in the Civil War-torn country over the last decade, Fedda says.
The film follows Machi Dall’Oglio, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio’s younger sister, and Noura Ghazi Safadi, Khartibal’s widow, as they seek information about the men they lost — and keep their memories alive.
Steuer knew Khartibal through their work at Creative Commons, the internationally active culture non-profit that provides free licenses to encourage creativity and sharing. He wrote in a Wired article in 2017, two years after Khartibal’s death, that the young man he knew was a hacker who wanted to protect Syrian architecture, and celebrate the country’s hip-hop scene.
“Bassel wasn’t particularly radical, but he believed the Syrian people should have a basic understanding of the technology and tools that many of us take for granted. ‘Authoritarian regimes feel the dangers of technology on their continuity,’ Bassel wrote to a friend in a letter from prison. ‘And they should be afraid of that, as code is much more than tools. It’s an education that opens youthful minds, and moves nations forward.’”
Syria’s Assad regime saw things differently.
“Merely showing people how to use a smartphone… made Bassel a threat in the eyes of the state, and he was jailed in March 2012,” Steuer wrote for Wired.
He tried to continue his work from behind bars, but was transferred to an undisclosed location in October 2015, and was never heard from again.
Dall’Oglio, meanwhile, had set up an interdenominational monastic community in the mountains near Damascus, Fedda said.
“What was really interesting about him in his monastery is he would get people together to talk… people who maybe didn’t agree with each other, didn’t know about what other people thought. And he would create a space of discussion,” she explains on the podcast.
She made several films with the priest before he was kidnapped in 2013 while walking in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. What happened to him remains unknown.
As PBS’ Frontline has detailed, the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began just over a decade ago when, after the Arab Spring, a group of Syrian schoolboys painted messages on a wall opposing him. The government’s secret police reportedly found, beat and tortured them, sparking a civil war that continues today.
Assad and his allies have tried to put down the revolution through airstrikes and chemical weapons attacks t, and the Russian-aided bombing of hospitals, Frontline reports.
Syria is set to hold a presidential election next month, but the election is likely only an attempt to solidify Assad’s power, according to the BBC, which notes that he won the last presidential election, in 2014, with 92 percent of the vote.
You can watch the trailer for Ayouni, and rent or buy it if you like, below. You can also watch the film here.