'Areas in Berlin Where Syrian Refugees Live Have Become Places of Fear'

After fleeing Syria’s civil war and resettling in Germany, refugees from Assad’s reign of terror are still persecuted by his agents

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Locals drive a scooter through the neighborhood of Sonnenallee, Berlin.
Locals drive a scooter through Sonnenallee, Berlin.Credit: Ben Kaden
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Sonnenallee is a street that once separated West Berlin from East Berlin. After the Berlin Wall fell, it attracted thousands of young people, artists, hipsters, restaurateurs and café owners who breathed new life into it.

Twenty-five years later, the population of this lively street began to change. When Germany decided to absorb around a million Syrian refugees, many of them were sent to Sonnenallee, which had already been nicknamed “Arab Street” because of the Lebanese and Turks who began living there back in the 1970s. Now, it is called Little Syria.

New restaurants have names like “Damascus,” “Aleppo” and “Sham.” Cafes selling knafeh and baklava soon began to open, pushing out the older entertainment spots, as well as the German population. The latter sought refuge from their new neighbors, who don’t speak their language, have a foreign culture and seem threatening.

Hermannplatz at the corner of Sonnenallee and Neukoelln, Berlin. When Germany decided to absorb around a million Syrian refugees, many of them were sent to SonnenalleeCredit: imago images/Travel-Stock-Image via Reuters Connect

Nor is it only Germans who bypass Sonnenallee these days. Feras Fayyad, who has lived in Germany for six years, is very wary of visiting the area. “It’s a bit scary to walk here for a person who is known as a member of the opposition to the regime,” he said in an interview with the BBC, referring to the Syrian regime.

Fayyad is a screenwriter, author, director and film editor. In 2017, he made the documentary film “Last Men in Aleppo,” which was nominated for an Oscar in this category. In 2019, he made “The Cave,” about a Syrian doctor who worked in an improvised hospital in the Syrian town of Ghouta. That film earned him the prize for “most valuable documentary of the year” at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival.

But before Fayyad became a well-known figure in the international film world, he served a terrifying stint at a prison run by Syrian intelligence. He was sent to the prison, known simply by its number, 251, after being arrested for filming the Syrian civil uprising that began in 2011.

Anwar Raslan, right, stands in the courtroom before the pronouncement of the verdict at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, last month.Credit: Thomas Frey /AP

His chilling testimony about his horrific experiences in prison, where he was raped with a baton by a jailer, starved and hung by his limbs before finally being released with no charges, was the first of more than 24 such testimonies heard in a courtroom in the city of Koblenz that was trying the case of Anwar Raslan, a Syrian colonel and member of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate.

Raslan, who was in charge of the prison, presided over the torture of more than 4,000 inmates, as well as rapes and 27 murders. He eventually deserted and fled to Germany in 2013, and apparently felt so safe that he opened a Facebook account. Through this account, he was identified by one of his victims, who had also found asylum in Germany.

Two weeks ago, Raslan was sentenced to life in prison. He is the most senior Syrian official to have been tried in a foreign court to date for crimes against humanity. But Raslan isn’t the only Syrian “refugee” whose hands are stained with blood.

A doctor named Alaa Mousa, who worked at the Mezzah military hospital in Damascus from 2011 to 2012 and then at a hospital in Homs, is now on trial in a Frankfurt courtroom. He is suspected of systematically torturing prisoners and regime opponents. In at least one case, he poured alcohol over a prisoner’s penis and set it on fire. In other, he injected a patient with lethal drugs.

Mousa moved to Germany in 2015 and worked there as a doctor until 2020, when he was arrested thanks to investigative reports by Al Jazeera television and the German newspaper Der Spiegel. The reports were part of a project to find Syrian war criminals who had moved to Europe.

According to the report, Mousa remained in contact with the Syrian Embassy in Berlin and sought its help in fleeing the country when he realized that his identity had been discovered. Der Spiegel reported that embassy officials had already planned his escape route, but the police managed to thwart his departure and arrest him.

It turns out that even after they manage to escape to Germany or other European countries, Syrian refugees live in constant fear of the long arm of the Syrian regime. For instance, Fayyad said that after testifying in the Koblenz court, he was assaulted and stabbed one night.

Other witnesses say they have received phone calls in which the caller threatened to harm them or their relatives who remain in Syria. And in at least one case, one of the witnesses had to enter the German government’s witness protection program.

The fear also exists on the street, where Syrian refugees sometimes run into one of their former torturers or the thugs that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime employs against demonstrators. Today, these thugs walk around freely, with no fear.

Human rights groups that work to help the former Syrian refugees estimate that some 1,000 Syrian war criminals live in Europe today, mainly in Germany. Some of them hold regular jobs or have opened businesses, benefiting from all the freedoms Europe offers.

“Germany, especially areas like Sonnenallee where Syrian refugees live, has become a place of fear,” one refugee said in a media interview. “Not only do you not know who you’ll run into on the street, but you can no longer be sure who your friends are. The Syrian regime recruits informers among the refugees to report to it on their activities so it can take revenge on their families.”

The refugees are now hoping that the trials the German government is conducting against Syrian war criminals will persuade them to leave the country and return to Syria, or at least flee to other countries. But until that happens, fear of the Syrian regime will continue to hang over the victims’ heads.

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