After two arrests, a son transformed joins Syria’s rebels

Um Joseph was sitting at home in regime-controlled Hama city on the evening of July 15, 2013 when her 18-year-old son called her. One day before, he left for Hama’s countryside to fight against the regime with a brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Joseph joined the FSA earlier that July after being arrested twice by both security and intelligence forces the same year. The first time, security forces accused him of going to an anti-regime demonstration. He was detained for a week until Um Joseph bribed them with SP50,000 (approximately $590).

One month later, the Air Force Intelligence Directorate arrested and held Joseph for 10 days for delivering basic supplies and aid to displaced people from neighboring Homs. His mother went into debt to pay the SP10,000 needed to release him.

Joseph, who worked at a sweets shop, decided to join FSA after the “torture” and “humiliation” he experienced in prison.

When he called her for the last time at 7:23pm, Joseph told his 43-year-old mother, “Mom, you’ll have to continue by yourself. I’ll see you in heaven. They’ve surrounded us, Mom.”

The line went dead and after 20 minutes Um Joseph received another call. “They died, they’re all dead,”a member of the regime-affiliated shabiha militia told her.

 A photo of Joseph, deliberately blurred because his mother now lives in regime territory, from the slideshow he gave his mother the last time he saw her. 

Before Joseph left to fight, he made his mother a slideshow of his pictures and told her to stay strong if he died. He made her promise to welcome his death.

“It was as if he knew I wouldn’t be able to visit his grave,” said Um Joseph.

Three years later, Um Joseph describes Eid without her only son, which like so many others in Hama province, she says, is now “a time for mourning for everyone who has lost a loved one.”  

Q: How did you hear about his death?

Joseph called me from his cell phone at 7:23pm on July 15, 2013 when I was sitting at home. He told me, “Mom, you’ll have to continue by yourself. I’ll see you in heaven. They’ve surrounded us, Mom. Don’t forget our promise.”

The line went dead for 20 minutes and then the shabiha [regime-affiliated militia] called. Their laughs and cheers rang in my hears as they told me: “They died, they’re all dead. This is what happens to anyone who opposes us.”

Q: What was the promise?

Before he left Hama, he made me promise that if he died that I would stay strong, welcome his death with ululations and cheers and continue on the revolution’s path until I met him in heaven.

It was heartbreaking. He’s my only son. I couldn’t do anything except thank God that He is just and life in heaven is more beautiful. As I promised Joseph, I began ululating and cheering. One day, God willing, I will follow in his footsteps.

Joseph had a feeling that he would die. He made a slideshow of himself and told me to save it because “one day you won’t see me or be able to visit me.” It was as if he knew I wouldn’t be able to visit his grave.

Q: Did you learn more details about his death?

After several days, the fighting calmed down in the countryside and I went to the place where Joseph and his friends were killed.

I didn’t find his body but I found burnt pieces of his necklace strewn on the ground. When I asked people in the neighborhood what the shabiha did to his body they told me that they pulled out his eyes and ran over it with their tanks.

Q: Describe Eid without your only son.

The Eid chants stirred up the pain in my heart.

Joseph was a gentle and compassionate flame. I can still feel the touch of his hand on the morning of Eid. He used to help me prepare cake. The smell of his cologne lingers in my nose. I remember the food he loved.

Now, I feel like there is no Eid. The full moon is dead. The crescent of my life disappeared and he doesn’t rest in his grave.

I remember the mothers who share in my pain, whose tears stain their cheeks.

Q: Describe Eid in Hama specifically.

Before the war, Eid was a joyous occasion. We were a family of four and we prepared for Eid weeks beforehand.

Happiness, brotherhood and harmony connected us all. We don’t feel joy anymore. Our families have split. Our loved ones are outside of Syria or in heaven.

The celebrations are tinged with heartbreak. Every household has someone who has been arrested, killed or is missing. When you enter a house you find the tears of a mother or an orphan or a widow who lost her husband in the prime of her youth.

Eid has become a time of mourning for everyone who has lost a loved one, a relative or a son.

This is Eid in Hama.

Q: What do you want to say to mothers of lost ones in Eid? What do you hope for?

To every mother who has lost a child, to every mother of a hero, don’t forget your pain or fear. Justice will be served.

If my son returned I would tell him not to hesitate to fight injustice. 

I hope that you don’t forget the bereaved and that you walk in the promise to drive darkness from our country. Our true Eid will come when we greet a liberated Syria and when joy and laughter from the heart return. 

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.