She was waiting for her 14-year-old son, Khaled, to return from school as government forces began to raid homes in her town. He came home and took his place at the dinner table with his family of six.
Unbeknownst to them, members of the Abu Obeida bin al-Jarrah Brigade, which is believed to be the first military formation in the Damascus countryside, had been spotted by the regime hiding in the orchards near the family’s house.
It was 9 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2011, more than eight months since the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. Um Khaled recalls hearing the sound of shelling, as regime jets began targeting rebel fighters stationed nearby.
Security forces began to sweep the area and make arbitrary arrests. Um Khaled’s son, Khaled, and her husband were among those taken away. Since then, a cloud has hung over her family.
“I was washing the dishes after our meal when I heard my son screaming from outside: ‘I swear to God my dad and I don’t know anything,’” Um Khaled says.
“I looked up and opened the window. My husband and son, along with others, were all cuffed and were being taken to a bus full of detainees. I screamed very loudly when I saw the shabiha run over detainees [with their cars] and beat them up.”
Um Khaled screamed and cursed. A soldier shot at her window, silencing her as she fell to the floor distraught.
“I called out to my son with every fiber of my being. My voice had a chill that even my neighbors said their skin crawled when they heard it. The regime forces were able to shut me up then, but I’m sure my voice haunts each and every one of them until now.”
Umm Khaled Regains Her Strength
Um Khaled, who began suffering a stress-induced illness after the arrests, talks about a friend of her son’s who was recently released by Syrian intelligence. He told her that Khaled and his father were being tortured, and that the government forces forced the 14-year-old to torture his own father by pouring boiling water over his head.
The news made Um Khaled determined to get better. She heard about Um Sleiman, a woman who helps get minors released from prison. She visited her at her home. “I went into Um Sleiman’s house with a hope I feared would not come true,” she says.
Um Sleiman, in her 40s, has dedicated herself to the revolution. One of her tasks is to document all the names of minor detainees and send them to the relevant authorities, be they human-rights NGOs and committees, lawyers or judges.
But Um Sleiman has never been successful. “Um Sleiman never got a detainee out of prison. She tries knocking on different doors but to no avail,” Um Khaled says. “Yet she is persistent, regardless of the many disappointments she faces.”
Um Khaled was inspired by Um Sleiman’s persistence and helped her fill out an official release petition for her son.
Khaled is Free
Um Khaled’s perseverance paid off: the government accepted her petition and freed Khaled after he spent half a year in jail.
Um Khaled’s joy at the release of her son had eased the pain of being without her still-jailed husband, but Khaled’s return would bring new problems.
He was in a poor physical condition. Prison had left its mark on the 14-year-old, most visible in his nightly outbursts. “As soon as the clock strikes midnight and people go to bed, Khaled would take off all his clothes and began to scream until all the neighborhood can hear him,” his mother says. “For three months or more, we had to live with his condition until he recovered after long days of therapy.”
His recovery has also been hampered by the army’s ongoing siege on Ghouta.
“Khaled’s health significantly deteriorated under siege,” she says. “We can’t get the medication he needs.” Along with Khaled’s condition, the mother of four worries about her other children, who go to bed hungry every night.
Before the revolt, the family depended on their small plot of land to make a living. Now, facing many obstacles, Um Khaled has had to take up work as a nurse in one of the field hospitals in Douma, and Khaled works as a night guard in one of the Free Syrian Army prisons.
“I never expected this to happen in my home,” she says. “I still dream of a dinner table where my whole family gathers together under one roof, as we did before Khaled and his father were arrested.”