It was Mother’s Day in the Arab world on Tuesday. In a makeshift encampment near the Syrian-Turkish border, one woman sat alone inside her torn tent.
“I’m no longer a mother,” Umm Ghalib, 58, tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier. “The war stole that from me by taking my sons.”
All of her five sons are dead.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” by Houran’s Rebel Painter. Courtesy of The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution.
Six years ago, they lived together in the village of East Buwaydah in the south Homs countryside in central Syria. The oldest was a lieutenant in the Syrian Arab Army, two worked at a sawmill, one was an electrician and the youngest a university student.
Then, anti-regime demonstrations reached their town. The lieutenant defected and joined the Free Syrian Army along with three of his brothers.
Once regime helicopters began dropping barrel bombs on the village, Umm Ghalib and her youngest son, Ahmed, fled northeast to her brother’s house in nearby Hama province.
There, fighting displaced the family again, but not before Ahmed secretly disappeared. Umm Ghalib later learned that he joined the Islamic State.
The mother ultimately made her way to the Atma camp on the Turkish border in March 2016. Today, she is alone and struggles with diabetes and high blood pressure.
Here, Umm Ghalib tells in her own words how she ended up “alone, sick and waiting to die.”
Q: As a mother who lost five sons to the war, how are you feeling on this Mother’s Day?
This is my second Mother’s Day without my sons. Instead of joy, I’m filled with pain, tears and overwhelming defeat.
I’m no longer a mother; the war stole that from me by taking my sons. I’m alone, sick and waiting to die.
Today, children celebrate their mothers and present them with gifts. Mothers feel important, like they’re valuable to their children.
I feel the total opposite right now. Instead of feeling joy and appreciation, I’m heartbroken. All I have to live with are memories of my sons, which are far removed from reality.
This war prevented my sons and I from sharing our lives together. I don’t even know where they are buried. If I knew that, perhaps I could visit them and this day would become more bearable. No mind can comprehend or endure what has happened to me. But in the end, this is God’s will.
Q: Tell me about your life before the revolution. How were you separated from your sons?
I had five sons who were in the prime of their youth. My oldest, Ghalib, was 30. He was a lieutenant in the Syrian Army, and a father.
Muataz, 28, and Firas, 27, worked in a sawmill. Hikmat, 24, worked in an electricity company in Homs. The youngest Ahmed, 18, was preparing for his high school exams. He never finished school since we had to flee our village.
At the beginning of the revolution, my four younger sons demonstrated against Assad. They started pressuring Ghalib, the lieutenant, to defect from the Syrian army. They told him that if he didn’t defect, they would disown him. They’d consider him to be a part of the regime that they were fighting against.
So Ghalib defected from the army and joined the Free Syrian Army faction that had formed inside our village. Then the regime began dropping barrel bombs. Most families fled to neighboring villages and lived with their relatives.
: The Syrian regime regained control of East Buwaydeh in June 2016.]
I fled with Ghalib’s wife and my youngest son, Ahmed, to my brother’s house in Hama province countryside, which lies northeast of our town. It was under regime control at the time.
Ghalib, Muataz, Hikmat and Firas refused join us; they stayed inside East Buwaydah to defend the area.
After six months had passed, I learned that Ghalib had been killed. People around me tried to comfort me. They told me that it’s a blessing that I have four other sons.
“May God protect them,” they said.
Three months later, the town where we were staying was no longer safe. Free Syrian Army fighters had approached the area and they began shelling regime checkpoints outside the town.
Ahmed wanted to join the Free Syrian Army, but I told him that I needed him.
In late 2013, IS fighters advanced towards Khunayfis [in Hama]. We were planning to flee the village for Idlib. One day I woke up and Ahmed was nowhere to be found.
My brother and I kept asking around to see if anyone knew his whereabouts. Eventually, an acquaintance told us that he had joined the Islamic State.
Once we found out, my brother, his family and I fled to Idlib. The rest of my sons wanted me to do so because it was safer.
Q: How did you keep in contact with your sons once you were in Idlib?
We would talk every week. Hikmat came and visited me several times in Idlib in 2014. But I never saw Firas or Muataz after we said goodbye in East Buwaydah.
They would call to check in on me and ask if I needed anything.
The only thing I needed, I would say, was to see them.
Each time Hikmat came to visit, he would give me an update on his brothers. He told me that they had been split up and that everyone was fighting on a different front. He asked me to pray for victory.
After Hikmat’s last visit, in late 2014, he called my brother and informed him that Muataz and Firas had been killed by an airstrike.
I was so struck with grief that I had a heart attack and had to go to the hospital.
I still thought about Ahmed, even months after I had moved to Idlib. I refused to believe that he had joined IS.
My brother told me that I have to forget Ahmed, that I shouldn’t ever think of him.
When I asked him why, he gave me a disheartening response. He told me that Ahmed was an infidel for joining IS. If Ahmed had truly loved me, he said, he wouldn’t have left me. Ahmed should be dead to me after he joined IS, my brother said.
Hikmat continued to visit me, and he always brought money too. I used to wait for his visit and tell him, “You’re the only person I have left.” And I cried.
The last time he visited me was in November 2015. He told me not to cry if he died, but to be proud of him and the fact that he died fighting for truth.
After that, a month passed, and I didn’t hear anything from Hikmat. I started to worry and cry. I told myself that he was busy, that there’s no cell network where he’s staying. Two more months passed without a word from him. Finally, an FSA fighter contacted us to tell us that he died in a battle with the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units).
My brother tried to hide the news from me, but couldn’t because he was also grieving. He looked at me and said “Be proud, mother of martyrs. Hikmat is dead.”
I was shocked. I thought about my memories with my five sons. As I fought back tears, I gave thanks to God.
Q: Do you ever wonder about what happened to Ahmed?
I was afraid to ask about him since he’s with IS. My brother warned me not to ask about him. I still had hope that he would leave IS and return to us.
But a few months after Hikmat’s death, a relative told us that Ahmed had died at the beginning of 2016, in Khanasir, in the south Aleppo countryside.
My brother also died from a heart attack. His wife didn’t let me stay with them after he passed, so I went to the Atma camps.
I’ve been here for a year.