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Omar Abou Nabout: Like father, like son

Abou Nabout in the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs; Credit: Omar Abou Nabout

On October 18, 2023, the specialized unit of judges in Paris, France, investigating war crimes, took a significant step by issuing international arrest warrants against four high-ranking military officers from the Syrian regime. This action was inspired by the persistence of Omar Abou Nabout, who filed a complaint in 2017 with a Paris court on behalf of his father, Salah Abou Nabout, who was killed in Syria. 

Driven by a desire to see those responsible for his father’s death held accountable, Omar, who is currently 27 years old, closely monitored the case’s progress and actively brought it to the attention of the French judiciary, eventually leading to the initiation of a judicial investigation into the incident.

Ultimately, the investigation revealed that these attacks were not accidental, but deliberate and targeted civilians and non-military sites using barrel bombs (barrels filled with highly explosive material and scrap metal). Among the casualties was Omar’s father, Salah, a French-Syrian citizen, who tragically lost his life when a helicopter dropped barrel bombs on his home in Daraa on June 7, 2017. Salah’s home was being used as a school by a humanitarian organization at the time of the attack. 

Shortly after the arrest warrants were issued, Syriawise spoke to Omar Abou Nabout from where he is living in France.

Syriawise: Who is Omar Abou Nabout?

Omar Abou Nabout: I am a French-Syrian national born in the Tareeq al-Sadd neighborhood of Daraa city. During the Syrian revolution, I was a teenage activist working in media to convey the revolution’s message to the world. Since leaving Syria, I have studied political science, international relations, and political geography at the Sorbonne University. I have worked in the French Foreign Ministry and am currently a student at the Graduate School of Public Administration in preparation for the competition for senior officials in the French Republic.

Syriawise: Tell us about your father. What was the most important thing he taught you when you were growing up?

Omar Abou Nabout: My father, Salah Abou Nabout, was a French-Syrian who studied Arabic literature at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Damascus. He was known for organizing poetry evenings and was active with some political parties. Due to harassment by the regime, he decided to travel to France because of his great interest in French culture and philosophy. He studied French literature and lived in France for about twenty years, eventually obtaining French citizenship. He was arbitrarily arrested in Syria in March 2013 and subsequently disappeared. It was then that my family and I decided to travel to Jordan to seek assistance from the French embassy. Thanks to the help of the French embassy and the Red Cross, we were able to locate his prison, Adra Prison in Damascus, and he was released in November 2015.

“My father also taught me self-reliance and raised me with a strong emphasis on ethics, family bonds, and love for both relatives and friends”

Syriawise: Your father refused to leave his house and was killed when a barrel bomb was dropped on it while he was inside. He must have known there was a good chance he would be killed if he stayed in Daraa. How do you want your father to be remembered?

Omar Abou Nabout: My father loved knowledge and instilled in me a love for learning and seeking knowledge. Before he was martyred, my father left me with the last message to continue my education. My current academic pursuit is also to fulfill his wish and make him proud. My father also taught me self-reliance and raised me with a strong emphasis on ethics, family bonds, and love for both relatives and friends. He taught me patience, perseverance, and resilience in life.

Abou Nabout, UN Headquarters, Geneva; Credit: Omar Abou Nabout

Syriawise: Recently, international arrest warrants were issued against senior Syrian officers involved in crimes against Syrians. This was the result of much work that was done by yourself and others in the first step towards achieving justice for your father and many others who were killed in Syria. What is the next step?

Omar Abou Nabout: After my father’s death, I requested the police investigator to ask the Prosecutor General of the French Republic to open an investigation into my father’s murder in Syria. After a short period, the prosecutor agreed to open an investigation based on the principle of jurisdiction in France, due to my father’s French nationality. A memorandum was sent to initiate an investigation against an unknown perpetrator in the section for crimes against humanity and war crimes at the Paris judicial court.

“It was a tough task collecting information from Syria, Jordan, and other countries and I did it quietly as I wanted to carry out the mission without any obstacles”

It was a challenging phase, especially in the beginning. In 2017, I was 21 years old and didn’t speak French well, and I was in a new society and culture, even though France is my country. I had a lawyer, but he was not active. That’s why I decided to communicate with the judges myself to pursue the case. I distinctly remember my first appointment with the judge; I had to have an interpreter. In the second appointment, I was able to speak with the judge on my own. I was determined to hold the criminals accountable. I initially worked on gathering evidence, finding witnesses, and information with the judge and the investigation team. It was a tough task collecting information from Syria, Jordan, and other countries and I did it quietly as I wanted to carry out the mission without any obstacles. At that time I also made a short film titled “War Crime” in which I talked about the details of my father’s murder and presented it at many events to shed light on this crime.

The judicial work related to war crimes and crimes against humanity is a long and ongoing process that takes several years. It requires courage and patience to continue until the end. My goal was to see the war criminals convicted.

After several years, I got to know the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. Its role at the time was that of a local expert assisting the investigation team with information. I then agreed to appoint the center as a participating civilian party in the case to have a more significant role in collecting evidence, information, and witnesses. This had a significant and fruitful impact. Additionally, the prominent lawyer Clémence Bectarte played a central and vital role in the case.

“The future of Syria depends on its youth. These young people will play a significant role in building a rule-of-law state in Syria and dismantling the Assad regime’s authoritarian rule”

Syriawise: Your short film “War Crime” was screened at Amnesty International headquarters in Paris. Could you tell us briefly what it is about?

Omar Abou Nabout: I produced my short film “War Crime”  (Crime de Guerre) in 2018 to tell my story and my father’s story. It was shown at several film festivals in France, universities, and cultural centers. My goal was to convey an image to the French people about those responsible for war crimes in Syria. Given that the story is both Syrian and French, it received significant interaction from the audience. I remember one of the attendees saying after the film’s screening that every French person should watch this film because it is a French story.

Abou Nabout talking about his short film at the Sorbonne University; Credit: Omar Abou Nabout

Syriawise: What is your vision for the future of Syria?

Omar Abou Nabout: The future of Syria depends on its youth. These young people will play a significant role in building a rule-of-law state in Syria and dismantling the Assad regime’s authoritarian rule. Syria is one of the greatest and oldest civilizations in the world and its people are productive, active, and enduring. They will not leave their country languishing under oppression and violence. They will rebuild Syria politically, economically, and socially.

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