Umm Ayman recalls fearing that her son might be killed by Syrian government forces as fighting consumed her hometown of Daraa. She never imagined that 21-year-old Ayman would simply go missing.
Through more than four years of fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel groups, more than 240,000 people have been killed, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. In addition an estimated 30,000 Syrians have gone missing – although many of them are believed to be in government prisons.
Explaining that government officers raided their home on February 27, 2013, the 48-year-old mother recalls the soldiers arresting all of the males in the house. “They searched the house and took all the men who were present – my two sons, Ayman and Yaman, and my nephew Khaled,” Umm Ayman told Syria Deeply. “I was standing there incapable of doing anything.”
Two weeks later, Yaman and Khaled were released, but Ayman never came home. The two boys recalled not seeing him since the day of their arrests.
“I did not believe them. I thought that he had died and that they didn’t want to tell me, but they swore they didn’t know anything,” Umm Ayman remembered.
A few months later, in July 2013, a man called Umm Ayman and said his brother had been held in the same cell with Ayman in the Mezzeh military airport in Damascus, but that he had since been transferred to the Sednaya prison near Damascus.
“I was so overjoyed! My son was alive,” she remarked, explaining that she travelled to Damascus the following morning to apply for a visitor’s permit to the prison. After waiting several hours, she was eventually given a permit that allowed her and one more immediate relative to visit Ayman the following day.
“I was so happy that I opened my purse and gave him a tip,” Umm Ayman recalled. “I called all my friends and relatives and told them that I was finally going to see my son. I was very emotional and cried all the way back to Daraa. When I got home, I prepared food, clothes, medicine and everything I thought he might need. I could not fall asleep that night.”
The next morning she and her other son Yaman took the bus to Damascus, where they arrived before sunrise. “They informed us that visits didn’t begin till 9 a.m. – it was about 7 a.m. when we arrived at the prison’s entrance,” she explained. “At around 9:15 a.m., an officer came out and called all the families waiting to visit their relatives inside. There were six families. Time passed very slow as we waited and I cried the whole time.”
Security officers searched them carefully and forbade them to bring anything inside other than the clothes they were wearing. After three hours of waiting, an officer called Umm Ayman. “I jumped out of my chair,” she said. “‘That’s us,’ I told him. ‘I’m his mother.’ The officer looked at me without any emotion. He said, ‘Your son’s not here. Look somewhere else.’”
As Umm Ayman tried to argue, pointing out that she had been given a visitor’s permit at the same prison just a day earlier, an officer grabbed her and forcibly escorted her out.
“I’ve been searching for him since that day,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I checked with every Syrian intelligence department. I visited every prison in the country. I paid bribes. No one has been able to tell me where he is.”
“All I want to know right now is whether my son is dead or alive,” Umm Ayman concluded. “I want this agony to end.”
Yet the Syrian government isn’t the only party in the conflict whose detainees have gone missing. In Islamic State areas, the situation is no better.
Displaced from her homeland and living with her husband in Urfa, Turkey, 25-year-old Roua says that her brothers went missing during an August 2014 ISIS attack on her hometown of al-Mayadeen, located near Deir Ezzor. “ISIS was fighting with the local Sheitat tribe and we expected a massacre,” she told Syria Deeply, speaking of the day her brothers disappeared. “And a massacre is what happened.”
Her brothers Ahmed, 24, and Abdullah, 17, were both at her house hoping to flee to Turkey to seek refuge with her and her husband. When her husband got home from work, they packed their bags and set off. “On our way, we were stopped at an ISIS checkpoint near Kharita, in the countryside of Deir Ezzor,” she noted. “They asked for our ID cards. When they saw that my brothers’ cards were issued in Aleppo, they said they were ‘outsiders’ – even though the address was in Deir Ezzor.”
The ISIS fighters took her brothers from the car and ordered them to drive on. “I asked them, ‘Why are you arresting them? They didn’t do anything!’” she said. “One of the fighters threatened to arrest us also if we didn’t move on.”
As her driver accelerated away quickly, she saw her brother Abdullah being dragged and blindfolded. “I begged the driver to stop, but he refused,” Roua said, as she broke into tears. “I looked back and saw them start to behead Ahmad.”
After all this time, however, she still holds out hope that Abdullah survived. “We don’t know whether he’s dead or alive,” she said, sobbing deeply. “We have tried everything. We called everyone we know in the armed groups and all the village tribal chiefs. No one could help us.”
Top photo: The Syrian government forced shop owners in Damascus to paint pictures of the Syrian flag on their store fronts in 2014. (Syria Deeply/Sarah Salem)