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Mothers of missing Syrians look for answers

Thousands of Syrians remain missing, either abducted by armed groups or held in government prisons, leaving their anguished families distraught.
Free Syrian Army fighters man a checkpoint to prevent kidnapping, activists said, in Kafranbel, Idlib province February 7, 2014. Picture taken February 7, 2014. REUTERS/Fadi Mashan (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTX18FIK

DAMASCUS, Syria — Jamal, a 25-year-old student at the University of Damascus, is accustomed to spending most of his holidays at his brother Hossam’s house in Adra al-Omalia, 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) northeast of Damascus, where he would play with his three nephews and savor the cooking of his sister-in-law. However, when Jaish al-Islam fighters stormed the town of Adra al-Omalia on Dec. 14, 2013, his brother’s entire family was abducted by the fighters.

Jamal lives with his mother and sister in Mezze 86, a popular and mostly Alawite district that is very difficult to enter, given the prevalence of the Popular Committees that prevent anyone who does not reside there from entering. Al-Monitor arrived at the outskirts of the district with Jamal in a taxi. He gestured to a member of the Popular Committee, “Habibi! How are you? These are our guests.” And with that, we entered the Mezze 86 district.

Umm Hossam, 59, welcomed us in her modest home. Umm Hossam is always smiling, despite the large photo of Hossam and his children placed in the center of the house, along with the photo of his father and a dark black ribbon.

“My son has never fought in this dirty war. He was an ordinary citizen who went to work and took care of his house and his children,” Umm Hossam told Al-Monitor with a heartache that she could barely hide. After a moment of silence, she said, “My 30-year-old son has nothing to do with this war. He was never involved in politics and only wanted to live and secure the future of his children. Apparently the sectarian curse was stronger than him and many others.”

Jamal said, “Horror prevailed that day.” He told Al-Monitor, “Once we heard the news that Jaish al-Islam fighters stormed the town of Adra al-Omalia, I rushed to my brother's house, but he called me and told me to go back home since the militants had reached their neighborhood.”

“Hossam told me that the militants were getting some men out of their homes and executing them on the spot,” Jamal said. “Some of these men were army members and security officials and some of them retired. For a whole day, we maintained contact with him over the phone while he was locked inside his home with his family. We could hear the gunfire and the cries of his wife and children over the phone. I do not know where he got his strength, the last thing he said to us was that the militants entered his building and were searching houses on the first floor, and then we lost contact with him.”

Jamal said some families were able to escape from the town since their neighborhoods were far from the incursion, but his brother's family failed to do so because they lived in areas near rebel control.

Umm Hossam's tears started streaming down her cheeks while Jamal talked about his brother. With a trembling voice, she said, “I do not know where he is today, how he lives, how his children and his wife are. Every night I hug their photo soaked in my tears. I talked to every possible person who may help me know the fate of my son. The Ministry of National Reconciliation only told me that the government is working to free the kidnapped and knows their fate, but would not help me. I contacted a number of sheikhs in Damascus, and after three days one of them told me that my son and his wife and children are alive and kidnapped by militants, and that he cannot say more.”

Hossam family’s anger at the regime for not caring about the fate of its children was clearly voiced by Hossam’s sister Samiha, 22. “The regime does not care for us Syrian nationals; it cares more for Iranians and Lebanese nationals. Even if it did care for us, it gives top priority to army officers and soldiers,” she told Al-Monitor. “Even when we protested in Umayyad Square, the media did not care about our actions and our protest was subject to media blackout. I cannot imagine my brother and his family being massacred at the hands of these criminals, just thinking about this makes me mad,” Samiha said.

The regime authorized the protest by the families of the kidnapped in Umayyad Square as an attempt to contain the anger of the communities supporting the regime. It is forbidden, however, for the families of detainees in the regime’s prisons to stage such protests.

Umm Omar, the mother of a young 20-year-old man who was arrested by the regime on Nov. 10, 2013, also lives in the Mezze 86 district. Although the majority of the residents of the district are Alawites, a number of Sunni families live on the outskirts of this district, including Umm Omar.

“Sometimes I am scared to say that my son is detained by the regime, fearing for the safety of my other sons, especially since I live in an area where regime forces are heavily deployed,” she told Al-Monitor, continuing in a low voice, “My son was arrested at the checkpoint controlling the entrance to the district due to reports sent to security forces that he was against the regime.”

Umm Omar brought a photo of her detained son and sat down on another sofa. “This is where Samer used to sit. This was his favorite place next to the TV.” She clasped her hands and shook them in anguish. “I want to know where he is, in which security branch. My heart aches every day when I wake up and don’t see him in his bed. I paid 50,000 Syrian pounds ($284) to an officer to tell me where he is, but I later discovered that he was a liar.”

Although most of Umm Omar’s neighbors are pro-regime, she denied the possibility of any of them being behind the arrest of her son as they have shown sympathy and offered to help her throughout this ordeal. “These people are good, we share the same problem. They also have children missing. Some of them are threatened with death threats at any moment. Sometimes we face harassment by some neighborhood youth who throw stones at our glass windows and puncture the tires of my husband’s taxi car,” she added.

Just like Umm Hossam, Umm Omar resorted to the Ministry of National Reconciliation in an attempt to learn more about the fate of her son, who has been missing for a year. “After trying to communicate with the Ministry of National Reconciliation for over a month, I was able to schedule an appointment with the National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haider for this Thursday [Dec. 18] with the help of one of my neighbors. I will go to the meeting hoping to get some news about my son.”

Although Umm Omar and Umm Hossam are from two different sects, they share the same grief and sorrow as they pray for their missing loved ones. Umm Hossam still hugs the photo of her son every night, while Umm Omar does not leave the couch where her son used to sit, in the hope that they will return.

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