A Syrian Woman Who Lost Five of Her Six Brothers to War Is Campaigning for Justice for Detainees

One family’s tragedy has led them into a struggle uniting the relatives of the disappeared

A Syrian Woman Who Lost Five of Her Six Brothers to War Is Campaigning for Justice for Detainees
A Syrian army defector briefs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in Washington, D.C., on July 31, 2014. (Erkan Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

I lost five of my six brothers within the space of two years. Every day since, I have carried enormous pain with me — the pain of terrifying loss, of uncertainty and waiting. I worry that I am passing the pain on to my children. That there will be generations of Syrians who carry the trauma with them.

My brother Zouheir was killed when a sniper opened fire on peaceful protesters. My brother Obeida was shot dead while he was working as a first responder, saving lives, in the aftermath of bombings. My brother Tishreen was killed in his home when a sniper’s bullet entered through a hole in the wall and killed him on the spot. When my youngest brother, Bashar, was 19, he was abducted by the Islamic State group while working as a first responder.

The fifth brother to be taken from us was Okba. I tried to save him. We waited during the bombing for him. We visited authorities, we wrote letters, we spoke to anyone who might have seen him or stayed with him in detention. Nothing.

We still do not really know the truth of what happens inside the Syrian regime’s detention centers. Day after day, we find ourselves unable to save our detainees.

I am from Deir ez-Zor in Syria. My siblings and I were raised by parents who taught us to be brave and bold in our beliefs in human rights and freedom of expression.

Despite the widespread oppression in Syria, my family had always been politically active and we were raised to be activists. Following protests against the regime in Deir ez-Zor in 1980, security forces arrested more than 800 people. Many of our relatives were forcibly disappeared. My father was arrested in 1981, when I was just 1 year old, and released six months later. My uncle was also detained for 4 1/2 years because of his affiliation with the Communist Party.

In 2000, when Bashar al-Assad came to power, he promised in his speeches to radically change the situation we were living in and give us more freedom. Encouraged by this apparent shift in rhetoric, my brothers began to express their political views at public events. They soon discovered very little had changed.

Tishreen was first arrested that same year. His captivity lasted one year and three months. He was detained for criticizing an imam’s Friday sermon for deifying the president. When he left the detention center, he was fired from his job. Nor did state security agents stop at that: They followed him in every subsequent job he began and asked the employer to fire him or ignore his application. This pattern of harassment and intimidation is a deliberate policy pursued by the regime to silence dissent. His next detention lasted 3 1/2 years. We lived waiting for his release.

When Syrians took to the streets at the beginning of the revolution in 2011, the Assad regime stepped up its arrests, seizing protesters and those who spoke out on their Facebook pages against years of dictatorship or organized people to come together for a different Syria.

All my family members were involved in the movement. Our hearts longed for change. We carried the values that our parents passed on to us. Initially, the demonstrations took place in small numbers and were suppressed by the security forces. The day after a mass anti-government demonstration in Deir ez-Zor on April 23, 2011, security forces raided my brother Qutaiba’s home and took him to the local branch of the Political Security Directorate. He stayed there for 10 days, during which he was tortured.

The day after Qutaiba’s release, Tishreen was detained for three days. Three days doesn’t sound like a very long time, but he was subjected to severe torture and excessive cruelty. He came out swollen, from his head to his feet. It was horrible to see the footprints on his back and his tortured, wounded body. I began to realize, more than ever, that we were right; we desperately needed a revolution.

He was let out after we carried out a two-day sit-in to demand the release of the detainees.

One day later, my 17-year-old brother Zuhair was arrested. He was a third-year high school student at the time. He was furious after seeing the bruises and torture marks on his brother’s body and planned to carry out a small protest with his friends. As he passed by a security patrol, he shouted, “Freedom.” For this, he was detained for 10 days and subjected to the cruelty and criminal brutality of the regime.

On the same day, Obeidah was also detained by the regime for one month because of the demonstrations he was participating in with all his brothers. When he was released, he continued his peaceful activity and worked as a paramedic during the siege of the city.

Zuhair’s initial arrest did not dampen his desire for freedom; it increased it. On Jan. 10, 2012, he left his exam hall and joined with fellow students and teachers to call on a visiting Arab League delegation to support demands for freedom.

Instead of the Arab League delegation, regime forces emerged out of the cars that were supposedly transporting the visitors. They were shooting to kill. At the moment the bullet went through my brother’s body, I was in the hospital working. Somehow, I knew, and at the same moment I felt something break in my heart, and I started calling his name. Zuhair and I had always been close — I was 15 years older than him and would look after him when he was little, and our relationship remained strong as adults. On that day, 19 young people, mostly university and institute students, died.

As part of their efforts to cover up their crimes, the intelligence forces asked us to sign a false statement declaring that armed terrorists killed Zuhair. After we refused, the Air Force Intelligence Directorate arrested and forcibly disappeared my 36-year-old brother Okba while he was on his way to work at the end of March 2012.

I paid a lawyer, and entreated a lot of people for news of Okba or where he was being held, but I never received any reliable information. I met people who had been detained with him. They’d seen him when they were all being transported between branches and said he was being moved to Damascus, but after that there was no trace.

I tried to convince my family that we had to get the children out of Syria, but my parents refused because they were hoping that someday Okba would come back. We could not leave our home because we didn’t know how he would find us once he was released. We waited in danger and tried every possible way to find information.

I stayed with them to help. We received news from here and there. A woman who had connections with the security forces told us that Okba was in Damascus and was transferred to the field court. Another woman, the mother of a detainee, said he was at Mezzeh airport with her son. But without any confirmed information, we remained confused and bewildered.

The last we heard of Okba was that he was transferred to the Mezzeh Prison, at the military airport there. I watched his two daughters grow up without knowing their father, without knowing if he would be back or not.

In May 2012, my father was arrested. The officials gave no reason. He was a teacher in a public school, so we never thought he would be a target. It might simply have been because he was asking about Okba. A force with four armored vehicles raided our home in the village of Muhasan. Four armored vehicles to arrest a 70-year-old man. We could not follow up on his situation because the army then stormed the city of Deir ez-Zor for the second time.

Eventually, my mother grew worried about her grandchildren and feared that it would be her fault if anything happened to them, so we all left our home in June 2012. Only Tishreen and his family remained behind.

The regime remained in control of most parts of the city of Deir ez-Zor. After its forces committed a massacre in September 2012 in the al-Joura and al-Qusour neighborhoods, in which nearly 1,000 people were killed, residents in other parts of the city barricaded themselves in to prevent further atrocities against them. These neighborhoods then became targets, as Assad’s forces used sniping and artillery shelling to push the people to surrender.

More than two months later, my father called to let us know that he had been released. No reason was given for the decision. He emerged from prison exhausted. He had been transferred between detention centers multiple times, from Deir ez-Zor to Aleppo, then Damascus, then back to Aleppo.

I was close to Obeidah and he used to tell me his secrets. He told me about a girl he fell in love with, but he asked her to forget him and go out of town with her family. Although she initially refused, my brother’s insistence disheartened her and made her decide to leave.

My mother had bought him some gold jewelry to offer to his future bride. Yet, on Oct. 13, 2012, while I was in Damascus looking for any sign of my other brother, Okba, I received news that Obeidah had been killed helping one of the wounded protestors. I did not get to see him, and we could not give him a funeral like his brother Zuhair. It took us months to even find out where he was buried. I could neither cry nor sleep.

Ten days later, Tishreen was shot dead by a sniper while he was in his house.

In 2014, when my youngest brother, Bashar, was 19 years old, my mother wanted to arrange for him to get married. She was still sad because she did not get to arrange the marriages of Obeidah and Zouhair. He disappeared in mid-May, and we did not know if he was killed or captured. We later heard he was slaughtered by the Islamic State, which had taken over the city, and his body was thrown into the river, but there were other conflicting stories. We still have not found out the truth about what happened to him.

This is how pain enveloped us. We hardly recovered from one shock when the next one hit us.

At that time, I felt lost and useless. I no longer had feelings for anyone around me. There was something inside me that wanted to explode. Yet all those feelings later turned into strength, and I had to do something for my brothers and for the sake of my children’s future. I had to resist.

Stories of torture flooded social media and the testimonies that came out of detention centers were heartbreaking.

Late in 2014, images taken by a former military photographer who had fled Syria, who went by the code name Caesar, were published. Families began to recognize their children in the photos. The images documented the extent of the torture and mistreatment the men, women and children had suffered at the hands of the Syrian regime. They showed emaciated bodies, bruises and other evidence of severe physical abuse. Many of the victims were identified by their families and friends.

The publication of these photos drew widespread condemnation from the international community, as well as calls for those responsible to be held accountable. The Syrian regime denied the photos’ authenticity. Yet they provide compelling evidence of its complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

We still had hope that Okba would return to us one day. But after the danger to us increased because of the Islamic State, we decided to leave for Turkey in February 2015.

In the middle of March, at around midnight, I received a message and a photo from one of the activists from my city asking if I could identify the person in the photo. I did not need much time to work out that it was my brother Okba. He had died under torture in detention, with a number on his forehead. But he was not a number. He was Okba.

I used to be the only sister with six brothers. They pampered me. How beautiful is the sacred love that binds siblings! Now we were alone. Qutaiba and I grieved every day. Only the good memories of them offered us consolation, and hardly a day elapsed without their souls passing by me.

How could I tell Mom and Dad? That night, I could not sleep. We lived in Derik Camp in Mardin Province in Turkey, and I had to go to their tent and tell them the news. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I went out at 7 a.m. looking for Qutaiba. I called to him to fix something for me, and he came to my tent. I told him the news, and he sat in shock. My mother, who always sensed everything about us, stepped in and asked, “Tell me who’s dead. Don’t be afraid. I’ll be patient.”

I told her about Okba, and she said, “Thank God, he rested!” and she went away to tell my father. Despite the horror of the photos, knowing he had died brought a kind of peace or tranquility to our hearts. His torments had ended.

Every time news of one of her sons reached my mother, we would find her patient, in pain without crying, always remembering the characteristics of each one of them, laughing and then crying when she remembered a joke they had made. She wasn’t just our mother; she was a friend and sister to all of us. She used to discuss everything with us and had insight and understanding about how to solve our problems when we turned to her for help.

After arriving in Europe, I became even more active, and I met mothers who had devoted their lives to learning about their children’s fate. I met incredible women who have been through the same pain and uncertainty, and we are now dear friends, colleagues and an inspiration to many people. They all followed my path in search of the truth, in search of justice, so that their own tragedy would not be repeated in other families. Together, we are a powerful movement, which we have named “Free Syria’s Disappeared.” There is solidarity in working together.

Along with other victims and family groups, I have urged the U.N. to establish an international institution to uncover the fate and whereabouts of Syria’s disappeared and give much-needed answers to families like mine. Finally, our efforts are being heard: The issue has been discussed at the U.N. General Assembly and we are hopeful that this request may soon become a reality.

I have the right to know how my brother died. I have the right to bury him in a manner worthy of his dignity. His daughters have the right to know that their father committed no sin except to demand a measure of freedom. It is their right to lift their chins and say, “This is our dad, and this is his tomb. He chose freedom.”

Many individuals, activists and human rights organizations have sought to hold the Syrian regime accountable for these violations, including through legal proceedings. One such case is that of Obada Mzaik, a Syrian-American who filed a civil lawsuit against the Syrian government, alleging that he had been arrested and tortured in the same detention center in which my brother was killed.

The systematic use of torture and forced disappearance by the Syriam regime is well documented in numerous reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others. Despite this, the Syrian regime has continued to enjoy impunity. Because Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has no jurisdiction over the crimes committed in Syria unless the United Nations Security Council refers the situation to the court. However, Russia, as an ally of the Syrian regime, has repeatedly vetoed resolutions aimed at referring the Syrian conflict to the ICC.

Despite these challenges, efforts to hold the Syrian regime accountable through other legal means have continued, with a number of states initiating proceedings against Syrian officials under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Last year, the first senior Syrian regime official, Anwar Raslan, was convicted of crimes against humanity at a court in Koblenz, Germany, marking a milestone in efforts to hold the Syrian regime accountable for violations.

It is time for accountability. Obadah Mzaik’s case is now my case. He was arrested and tortured at the same time and place where my brother Okba was tortured and killed. This similarity made me seek in every way possible to use this case to lobby for the release of all detainees in Syria, to uncover the fate of the disappeared and to recover the remains of those who died so they can be buried in a decent manner.

Okba’s case, and other European cases, will not bring the comprehensive justice that Syria needs. They will not bring the peace our country is crying out for, but a ruling by a U.S. court against the Syrian state would be a hugely significant step nonetheless, because it would confirm the key role played by Syrian Air Force Intelligence in state-sponsored torture, and hopefully open the door to more cases. As families, we are left with imperfect routes to justice, but still we must take them.

I spend a lot of time remembering joy-filled moments with my brothers. Gaps in memory are mixed up with questions. Justice, however, is one way of answering the questions and helping to process our pain.

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