Earlier this month, Amnesty International documented the names of more than 65,000 Syrians, more than 58,000 of them civilians, who were “forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime” between March 2011 and August 2015.
One of those cases is the husband of Umm Alaa Qasim, a freelance truck driver from Latakia. He vanished in September 2013 while out delivering a shipment to a regime institution destined for Damascus.
A mother of three, with two sons fighting in the Syrian Arab Army, Umm Alaa describes to Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani the months she searched for him, and the answer she finally found after being taken, blindfolded, to the place he spent his last days.
Q: How did your husband disappear?
My husband was a truck driver. He moved about continuously between the provinces. One day, on September 11th, 2013, he left carrying a load for Damascus. That was the last time I saw him. Afterwards I learned from some witnesses and from his colleagues that he had disappeared near a-Nabek [a city approximately 63km northeast of Damascus city].
Q: How did you learn he had disappeared? What was the reason behind his disappearance?
I would call him every day to make sure he had arrived. That day I called and he didn’t answer—a strange feeling came over me and I knew that something had happened. I called him several times, every time I got closer to losing control over myself—then his phone was shut off. I started crying uncontrollably because I knew I would never see him again.
The next day my husband called me from his phone, told me he was fine and that he would contact me and put my mind at ease. He called me several times; it was obvious that he couldn’t speak freely. He said he needed some money to come home. Then, after around 20 days, someone else called me and demanded money to free my husband. At this point I realized he had been kidnapped, and that this was blackmail.
Q: How much did they demand? Did you ever think to tell the authorities?
They demanded SP5 million (around $26,000). I didn’t have that kind of money. My husband’s work was our only source of income. They gave me three days to get the money together—an extremely short period of time. I tried to get the money, but people’s financial situation is generally bad. I was able to only get together a million (around $5,300).
After some time they called me. They didn’t tell me what group they belonged to but said the amount of money I got together didn’t satisfy them. I begged them to take the amount that I had and not to harm my husband, but all that talk was in vain, as if it blew away with the wind.
Of course I informed the authorities about his disappearance and gave them all the information on the vehicle. The merchant responsible for the goods got in touch with me and then charged a lawyer to search for the missing goods. After that, I didn’t hear a thing from my husband. No one has called me since. Every day I felt that the distance between us was great and that learning anything about him was like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Q: What did you do after that? Did you ever learn who kidnapped your husband?
Five months passed from the time he disappeared. During that time I never stopped searching. I hired a lawyer to follow his case and resorted to all the available legal roads to search for him—all in vain. The only thing I noticed was that the kidnappers stopped trying to contact me since the trader who was responsible for the goods began to ask about them.
Something that caught my attention was that the load that my husband was transporting was supposed to be delivered to a state institution. I was not summoned by the state for questioning on the goods. A week after the trader reported the missing goods to the state, a security branch informed me that they had found the truck on the side of the highway, broken and looted.
At that point I became convinced that the group that kidnapped my husband was [part of] the regime. The same thing happened to two of my cousins. The kidnappers demanded SP6 million ($32,000) for one cousin, which a merchant paid. He returned with my cousin, his car and the goods five days later. They demanded SP1 million ($5,300) for the other one—a trader was also charged with delivering the goods and my cousin came back fine.
So after figuring that out I began to search in the regime’s prisons and security branches.
Q: Did you ever find out where he was?
To be honest, I became desperate and paid a lot of money in the form of bribes to officers and soldiers in order to learn merely where he was, but all in vain. I felt that I was easy prey for them to get money and bribes, but someone who’s drowning will grasp at straws…
A lot of people promised me that they had seen him or knew where he was. The only sin my husband committed was that he didn’t have money. A year and a half went by until I managed to reach a high-ranking officer, whose identity I can’t even hint at. He demanded SP8 million ($42,000) to tell me where my husband was.
I had no choice but to sell my house. I ended up staying with my married daughter. Afterwards, I went to Damascus and paid the required sum. A soldier took me to one of the security branches, blindfolded. I didn’t know which branch it was. They gave me my husband’s identity card and his papers after saying: “Your husband died his first month in jail.” I felt that I had paid the price of my husband’s murder with my own hands, while kissing the hands that killed him.
Q: Did your husband have anything to do with the revolution or are any of your children?
Quite the opposite, actually. My husband said from the beginning that what’s going on will bring destruction to the country. Maybe he was predicting the future.
As for my sons, my first son was serving in the army when the revolution began. His period of service is over now but he hasn’t been discharged. The second son has become our sole breadwinner after his father’s disappearance. Unfortunately, he was pulled from his work to fight in the reserves. Until now I haven’t told my sons that their father is dead. I can’t do that. I’ve left them to live with some hope.
Q: Why didn’t you leave the country?
How can I leave the country? To whom will I leave my sons? I prepare myself mentally every day to learn that one of my sons has been killed. They’re not defending the country, they’re defending Assad, their father’s murderer—and they’re forced to do it. We’re the fuel for this war. Our only sin is that we’re from this country.