Syria’s mothers of the disappeared

February 10, 2015

February 10 marks one and a half years since the arrest of Syrian journalist Jihad Asa’ad Muhammad Since the Arab Spring uprising against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and throughout the civil war unleashed by the government's savage violence, Jihad was among the prominent leftist voices that staunchly supported the people's demands for freedom, dignity and social justice. Not only did his writings offer a sobering political analysis of the situation in Syria; they also amplified the voices of those marginalized by the corporate media coverage of the rebellion. Jihad's columns told a people's history of the Syrian revolution, a history that is waiting for him and the tens of thousands of other political prisoners to win their freedom and complete it.

We are republishing the following article by Jihad, written originally in Arabic in January 2012, both to honor him 18 months after his arrest and to remind ourselves of the unsung heroes of the Syrian uprising, who were the main protagonists of his writings. Umm Haytham, the woman who tirelessly searched for her disappeared husband and brothers, could be any Syrian woman struggling to find her missing loved ones. Now, after his arrest, Jihad's very own mother shares Umm Haytham's struggle. --Budour Hassan

THE PROFOUND dream from which she awoke in complete peace the morning following Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Destiny), requiring of her 10 consecutive hours of prayers and total reverence, restored to her all the determination that had been weakened by four futile months of standing for long hours in front of barred gates, high walls, and sullen faces.

On that hallowed morning, Umm Haytham rose from her slumber as tears washed over her face, neck and chest, just as her great dream had washed over her heart and soul.

She eagerly walked out of her bedroom door, calling loudly to her mother, father, sisters, children and neighbors as if to invite them to hear the happy news most of them had given up on ever receiving.

They all sat around her, waiting for her to relate what she had seen: her physically frail mother; her father, around eighty and hard of hearing; her two sons; her three sisters; five female neighbors at first, then six, and finally nine altogether, along with a few of their husbands. The Madafeh, the guest house, was jam-packed with no space left on the sheets spread out on the floor for even one new guest.

Jihad Asa'ad Muhammad
Jihad Asa'ad Muhammad

"Something has been revealed to me, and hopefully it's a good sign."

Umm Haytham then started relating the tidings, as all eyes gazed at her and mouths began to gasp. The proverbial pin was even heard to drop, when it fell from the youngest sister's barely tied hijab and onto the coffee service tray.

"I saw [in my dream] Abu Haytham, my brother Yasser and my brother Walid coming from afar, their faces shining. They stepped closer to me, greeting and embracing me. Each of them gave me a closed bag and told me: 'Don't worry, Umm Haytham. We are fine and will be coming back as soon as possible, Insha'Allah'. And they faded away."

"Good, hopefully..." they all repeated, looking around at each other, after which a lengthy concert of whispering ensued. Umm Haytham couldn't find the sort of impression she was looking for on their faces, but even so, she maintained her recently reclaimed happiness before rising to pray.

EVER SINCE that day at the beginning of September 2011, Umm Haytham has returned to knocking on all possible doors, without allowing even a touch of despondency to overpower her this time around. She went back to standing in front of the doors of the very same security branches she had often visited to no avail; she returned to standing in front of the doors of the Palace of Justice courthouses and the central prison. She renewed her contact with the lawyers who have dedicated themselves to defending the detainees and following their cases since the outbreak of the popular uprising. She asked every released prisoner if he knew anything about the fate of her husband and two brothers, not heard from since May 2011.

She sold her remaining jewelry to pay the news-trackers and those who could smuggle out information about detainees. She paid the doorkeepers and the guards; she paid the relatives, acquaintances, and friends of the officers as well as the officers themselves. She paid the travelers to Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, and those headed to Hama, Homs, and Idlib. And she is still waiting for someone to bring her a piece of news, even bad news.

Every day, Umm Haytham--a simple Syrian woman imbued with love, devotion, faith and, hope--waits with thousands of other women like her throughout Syria for news about forcibly disappeared siblings, husbands, sons, and fathers. They are subjected along the way to insults and contempt, to being expelled from offices and driven away from fortified walls and barbed fortresses. They put up with blackmailing and have to resist the dehumanizing glances, hints, and statements that belittle their femininity and question their patriotism. Despite deterrents and discouraging omens, they cling to their fragile hope. Yet they slowly wither away while their loved ones remain disappeared.

"The latest group of released prisoners, and those who preceded them, spoke about summary executions that took place in some detention facilities. They talked about heroes killed under torture or who died as a result of damp and over-crowded conditions, cold or malnutrition, all of them eventually buried in unknown destinations," I reluctantly told Umm Haytham, wanting to say more, but she shouted: "Do not continue, sir. Abu Haytham, Yasser and Walid are fine! I'm certain of this. My heart tells me they are okay." And then she burst into an uncontrollable torrent of tears while I could not help but remain silent and hold back my own.

Umm Haytham is among thousands of Syrian women, perhaps tens of thousands, who do not seek consideration or sympathy from anyone. They ask for only one thing: to know the whereabouts of their forcibly disappeared loved ones.

Hope is beautiful, a glorious thing indeed. It becomes an onerous burden, however, when it depends on the slimmest of chances.

Sorrow is more tolerable, and so is grief, even if it lasts forever.

Originally published in Arabic on the website. Translated into English by Budour Hassan; translation edited by Kelly Grotke.

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