For you to understand the situation more accurately, allow me to place you in the place and time it happened, and offer some details.
October 7, 2013. It was the night my friend Abdulwahab Almulla, a rebel and an artist, was kidnapped. It happened during the period when kidnappings became common, before Syrians had ever heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This was the tenth kidnapping we’d heard of. And this time, we weren’t dealing with unknown kidnappers as we were at the beginning of the previous year. The signs clearly pointed to ISIS.
In three months, many things had changed. The cameras of the media disappeared. Some men started to grow beards. Others started wearing Afghan garb. Some refused to discuss ISIS while some others exaggerated their support for this group. To learn more about this period, you need to think about what it would mean if all those around you avoided you like the plague, out of the conviction that you, as a rebel, are more likely to be kidnapped than other people; that you have to live on the run, moving from house to house and to Turkey; that your back is completely exposed, and that they probably know your exact movements with great accuracy.
A group of rebel friends, who have collective memories which protected them during the sad moments of breakdown, and who adapted to the pain they experienced with sarcasm about everything, including themselves.
They all had many questions about how we would protect ourselves, and fear for themselves as well as immense sadness for Abdulwahab Almulla. They were losing hope of ever seeing him again: absence would swallow him just as it had devoured Abu Maryam, Samar, Mohammed. . . and others.
During this period, the prisons of ISIS were as much of a mystery as the Bermuda Triangle, surrounded by speculation, suspense and secrecy.
A house in Almashhad neighbourhood where we gathered when the electricity was cut off, where we spent time chatting with friends. The question on everyone’s lips was: Who is next, after Abdulwahab? Who will be next to be kidnapped and to disappear?
This spontaneous question would turn into a painful game, one which you could call sick. We would expect the next kidnapped person to be one of our rebel friends. We would claim to be objective, and ask each other: if you were a dictator, or in the process of becoming one, who would you kidnap?
We went through the obvious names. This friend is more likely to get kidnapped because he has values, and would not remain quiet in the face of injustice. Another friend’s chances of disappearing are bigger because he is clean, and enjoys the support of the other rebels, who trusted what he said. He’s also armed and therefore poses a threat to the ISIS. I was on the list too, because what I was writing could cause me a lot of problems. And this is how we started making lists, at least in our heads, of who would be kidnapped if we were to kidnap the revolution in Aleppo.
If we were to expand the painful game to include the whole of Syria, I would have certainly begun the list with Syrian human rights lawyer and civil rights activist Razan Zaitouneh, who has been banned from travelling by the Syrian regime since 2002. She has been ruthless in defending human rights and has repeatedly called upon the rebels to report any violations, even those committed by the opposition armed forces.
This is what had happened. Five months ago Razan Zaitouneh, Sameera Khalil, Wael Hammadi and Nadhem were kidnapped from the office of the Violations Documentation Centre, in the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, by an unknown armed faction.
The statement put out by activists regarding the kidnapping reads: “Razan Zaitouneh is a lawyer, writer and activist, who has worked relentlessly since the turn of the century to defend the rights, freedoms and dignity of our people, however diverse their ideology and political prejudices were. Razan represented a new model for the educated human rights activist, and for Syrian women, in her dedication to her work, her humanity and courage. She was creative, motivated and loved life and people. She is an exemplary model for women, educated people and activists in Syria. Razan’s mother, father and sisters have heard nothing about her since she disappeared. And it is not known whether she is in contact with with Wael Hammadi, her husband, who was kidnapped along with her.
“As for Sameera Al Khalil, who was imprisoned for four years for standing up against the Assad regime: she took part in all democratic activities in Syria since the start of the century. She was active on the committees to revive civil society and in the Damascus Declaration gathering, and was among those who took part in the preparatory meetings which culminated in the signing of the Damascus-Beirut/Beirut-Damascus Declaration. She is the epitome of modesty, is dedicated to the national cause, loves people, and is eager to help others. Sameera’s husband, Yaseen Alhaj Saleh, has had no information about his wife, nor have her sisters and brothers and children. As for her elderly parents, they do not even know she was kidnapped.
“With the same dedication, Wael Hammadi had devoted himself throughout the last 10 years to opposing the regime, and had been active since the beginning of the revolution on the local coordination committees which provided relief and humanitarian aid to Syrians. Wael was arrested twice, and was tortured by the regime. His mother and siblings have had no information about him, and he does not know that his father died a few weeks ago.
“Had it not been for Nadhem, many families across the country would not have received humanitarian aid. With Wael, he coordinated the distribution of aid, through the active coordination committees network, which almost covered the entire country. The family of this disappeared poet and lawyer’s have heard nothing about him either.”
For a group of peaceful activists opposing the regime of Bashar Al Assad to be kidnapped in a “liberated” area without a serious attempt by the armed factions there to look for the kidnappers and hold them accountable, is alarming to all of us. The road towards freedom in Syria is long, and there are many on our side who do not dream of a state of equality and justice. What for many is a quest for freedom—which they are ready to kill for—is in reality a quest for authority, and they are ready to kill for that as well. And what we thought we had liberated is in reality just the first step towards a process in which we write a new social contract which will eliminate the period of suppressing freedoms and targeting people for their opinion and political activities. Perhaps we made the mistake of becoming too lenient regarding security arrangements, which we were keen to focus on when we were living in the areas controlled by the regime.
In Syria today, where arms are freely available and wielded by mad people, thugs and extremists, you need to understand that you are under threat if you truly believe in the Syrian revolution, and that your back is exposed the entire time. You should reassess your readiness to sacrifice all that is dear to you, whether that is your freedom or even your life, in order to pave the way for a Syria which is free from detention, kidnappings and secret prisons.
In Syria today, if you don’t feel threatened and worried about your safety and if your friends don’t pull you aside and express their concerns and fears for you regarding what you write, you need to ask yourself about the basic concessions you had to make out of fear and about whose plights, amongst those being treated with injustice, you have decided to ignore and look the other way.
In this article, I would like to add my voice to 46 international rights organisations, among them Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to hold the Islamic Army, headed by Zahran Alloush, responsible for the disappearance of Razan Zaitouneh, her husband Wael Hammada, Sameera Khalil and Nadhem Hammadi.
I will venture further to say that viewed from the other side, the kidnapping of those activists reflects dictatorial ambitions to kidnap an entire nation and suppress its revolution.
I call upon you all to take part with Syrian activists in the campaign to release the activists under the hashtag #Douma4, and would like to salute many of you for volunteering to add yourself to the hit-list which will targeted by all the dictators in this world.
If I were a dictator, or were planning to becoming one, I would consider all of you my enemies, simply because you can read and write, or merely because you can think.
This Post is published as a part of Dispatches from Aleppo, Global voices.