‘A person who believed’: Remembering Razan Zaitouneh on her 41st birthday

One by one, prisoners exited government buses into a packed auditorium in Damascus earlier this month. Many of the detainees, formerly held by an Islamist rebel faction in East Ghouta, were set to rejoin their family and friends for the first time in years.

Jaish al-Islam, a once-powerful armed group in the suburbs east of Damascus, surrendered the city of Douma to the Syrian government in mid-April. As part of the deal, the rebels agreed to release all detainees they had accumulated over the past seven years.

For Suad Khabeia and other Syrian activists, the April 8 prisoner release in Damascus was the last glimmer of hope that they might see disappeared civil society activist Razan Zaitouneh again.

But although Jaish al-Islam had long boasted of holding thousands of prisoners, only 200 people were released before the faction’s fighters left for northern Syria alongside thousands of civilians earlier this month.

Zaitouneh, a Syrian lawyer and human rights advocate who gained international recognition for her civil society work in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, was not among them.  

“Hope has withered away for most people,” Khabeia tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani from her home in Cairo, Egypt. Khabeia met Zaitouneh at a demonstration in Damascus in 2001 and worked with her for years before leaving Syria.

Razan Zaitouneh in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Vital Voices.

Zaitouneh founded the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) in April 2011—just after mass anti-government protests began in Syria—to track and report human rights abuses in the country by all parties.

Then, On December 9, 2013, masked gunmen raided the offices of the VDC in Douma and kidnapped four of its members: Zaitouneh, her husband Wael Hamada, Samira al-Khalil and Nazim Hamadi.  

Collectively known as the “Douma Four,” the kidnapped activists were never heard from again. Zaitouneh’s family—along with many other activists and humanitarian organizations—hold Jaish al-Islam responsible for the kidnappings, a claim that the rebel group categorically denies.

Today, on what would be Razan Zaitouneh’s 41st birthday—more than four years after the disappearance of the Douma Four—Khabeia reflects on her friend and colleague’s legacy.

“I remember Razan for her moral and humane values,” says Khabeia. “For a dream that together we yearned for but which never came to pass.”

“I remember a person who believed.”

Q: Much of today’s media coverage of Razan Zaitouneh focuses on her 2013 disappearance. But, as a friend and colleague, what do you want the world to know about her life? How do you think Razan Zaitouneh ought to be thought of, to be remembered?

I remember Razan for her moral and humane values, for a dream that together we yearned for but which never came to pass.

Razan was the first woman I worked with who was a human rights defender in Syria at a time when women dared not wade into the dangers of that field.

She was genuine, focused on her goal. She piqued my curiosity right away when I met her in 2001 at a protest calling for the siege on the Jenin camp in Palestine to be lifted. She was leaning against the wall of the United Nations office in the center of Damascus.

[Ed.: In September 2001, Israeli tanks surrounded and attacked the West Bank town of Jenin, home to a refugee camp of the same name. A more significant military operation in April 2002 followed the 2001 incursion.]

Razan did not shout in bursts of emotion like we did. She was silent.

She did not miss a demonstration—not against the occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the war on southern Lebanon in 2006 or the bold protests launched on Human Rights Day in Syria [in 2004]. For Razan, the common denominator was not her political views, but her sense of humanity.

When I remember Razan, I remember a person who believed. I remember her values of freedom, liberation and social justice as well as those calcified values that she dreamed of changing.

Q: Could you tell us about a memory of yours with Razan, perhaps one that you think back to when times are difficult?

I have a lot of memories with her, seeing as we knew each other for so long. But the one that will always remain with me is the last time that I saw Razan at my home. It was late 2012. The regime was trying to storm Douma and residents were fleeing. Razan was in hiding from the regime, avoiding public places.

At that time, Razan came to Douma and visited me in my house with her husband, Wael, and a film director was with them. They were making a film about the revolution, and they came to my house despite the danger. I mention this because it shows the courage that Razan had, how she was able to come to Douma in the midst of these dangers.

I was shocked when I saw her at my door. She visited to photograph the snipers at the Medical Tower, [a hospital] that was across from my house. The filming took three or four hours, which was incredibly dangerous because at any moment the sniper could have shot us. The camera was set up on one of the balconies of my house, and they were taking long shots of the sniper.

Razan Zaitouneh (right) and her husband in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Martin Ennals Award.

That was the last time I saw Razan. I left Douma after that because my house was destroyed by a warplane and because of the heavy shelling. The film director was arrested days after he left for Damascus. But Razan decided to stay in Douma.

It was as though Douma itself called out to Razan to return, to remain. And it was there that she disappeared.

It was a difficult, risky decision for Razan to go to Douma. But she had her plans and goals to achieve. She was going to work in civil society, teaching people about the human rights concepts she believed in. She even trained local police forces and rebel fighters about human rights, freedoms and how they should treat detainees. This is who Razan was.

Q: But the revolution has certainly changed—the actors involved, their aims and methods. Can you still see glimpses of the work that Razan and the Douma Four did, in today’s Syria? How does it feel to see Douma, a city filled with memories of Razan, return to Syrian government control?

The Douma that abducted Razan is not the Douma that she was a part of. It is not the Douma that I am a part of—the Douma that belongs to the Syrian revolution.

Douma itself was abducted, along with Razan, by the extremist Islamic factions.

The people of Douma who revolted against despotism, oppression and the dictator are not responsible for kidnapping Razan. Those responsible for her kidnapping are the extreme political Islamists, the militant Islamists, the pawnbrokers working for their own agendas.

Douma mourned for Razan, hoping and waiting to hear good news about her. But sadly, Razan did not return, and the regime took control of Douma.

Still, we have hope that we can realize a piece of what Razan dreamed to achieve.

Q: I would like to talk to you about hope. Earlier this month, rebel faction Jaish al-Islam surrendered Douma to the Syrian government. As part of the surrender, the faction released hundreds of prisoners from captivity, but Razan and the rest of the Douma Four were not among them. In light of this, how difficult is it to hold on to the hope that you will see her again?

Hope has withered away for most people, even those who clung to a sliver of it. For me though, hope disappeared before the opposition left [Douma], as I’ve followed Razan’s case.

The evidence, the eyewitnesses, the recordings I’ve heard—all of it has taken me to a very dark place: that she’s gone forever.

Razan and her companions were one of the beautiful, bright lights guiding the Syrian revolution. Unfortunately, this is how she met her fate, at the hand of those who claimed to belong to the revolution.

I can’t say that Razan is still alive. I think it’s impossible that any evidence or trace of her will surface.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.