Today marks five years since my close friends and relatives, Razan Zaitouneh and Wael Hamada, were abducted along with Samira al-Khalil and Nazem Hammadi by masked gunmen in the Damascus suburb of Douma. For five years we have waited for their release, clinging to rumours that they’re still alive, and hoping that they will soon be free.
For people across Syria, the Douma Four, as they are now known, are household names, heroes of the 2011 revolution. That year, they helped found the Local Coordination Committees – media teams and groups across the country that reported on the uprisings, wherever they were.
From day one of the revolution, the Assad regime was desperate to disconnect towns and cities, to disconnect people from each other and prevent them from knowing what was going on. The Local Coordination Committees undid that. In a divided country, they brought Syrians together and told them the truth. It was their creation, along with Razan’s co-founding of the Violations Documentation Centre, that made the Douma Four the enemies of all those who opposed a free and democratic Syria.
The Four knew how dangerous their work was but they considered the risks worth taking. For Razan, the one I am closest to, speaking out against injustice was what she devoted her entire career to.
I met her prior to 2011 when I was subject to a travel ban in Syria for my work on gender equality. I consulted her for legal advice and she would always laugh off my worry, she kept trying to make me feel better about the situation.
She had had her own run-ins with the Assad regime. For her work defending political prisoners, she was targeted by the security services and often questioned by them, though she never feared them.
I remember in early March 2011, before the revolution had begun, there was a demonstration by the families of political prisoners outside a court in Damascus. The secret police arrived and began arresting the families, dragging them into the court. Among the arrested was my friend’s mother and so I ran to the protest, to try and find out what had happened.
No one knew what to do. One mother was shouting for her son and asking why he had been taken but no one replied. Then Razan swept out of the court and started telling people, “you, your mother is okay, your child is fine, I just spoke to your husband.” She was sick with flu but it didn’t lessen the power she embodied that day, the way she was determined to make sure everybody was alright.
Although people often think of Syrian society as dominated by men, in 2011, Razan was the name dominating the news, the name inspiring young Syrians to push for human rights. When she was forced into hiding in early 2011, I remember watching her sit on the couch with her laptop communicating with citizen journalists across the country, tweeting, writing about what was going on, reporting to human rights organisations. She, and the rest of the Douma Four, became my idols.
Their aim was to show the world that Syrians still believed in democracy, despite what the regime said. I remember Wael had so much faith in our people, he would tell us, “trust the people, the revolution won’t come from activists alone, let’s trust Syrians and work with them.”
That’s what drove them back to Douma. In 2012, when the regime lost control of the area, they decided to go there because they wanted to work directly with the people, to spread knowledge of human rights and document the violations of armed groups there. They worked with militants to draw up a kind of ethical charter that would guarantee the freedoms of civilians and continued to be outspoken about their violations.
A year later, it seems the armed groups were tired of their dissent. On 9 December 2013, I received a phone call from a friend who asked me, “have you checked Facebook?” I asked her what was wrong and she told me, “just go online, go online”. We couldn’t talk over the phone because just mentioning Razan or Douma would put you at risk.
I logged in to Facebook and saw posts by friends saying the Violations Documentation Centre in Douma had been attacked by masked men and that Razan, Wael, Samira and Nazem were missing. I was in Damascus, just 20 minutes away by car but I couldn’t go to Douma because it was under siege by the regime. The first thing that came to my mind was that the regime had done this – we were used to detention and kidnapping from them. It wasn’t that common for us to suspect other actors.
The amount of solidarity pouring out from across Syria was overwhelming. People were asking, “where are the Douma Four, they’re our revolutionaries, where are they?” My phone was constantly ringing. We thought it would only be a day and we’d know what happened to them but as the days passed, we realised we might never know. Most people think the armed group Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam) took them, but it’s impossible to know for sure.
Their loss is still felt across Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been held by the regime and armed groups. The Douma Four represent us – me, my friends, the people who believe in freedom for this country. They didn’t give up on Syria, they stayed and took the risks of working with communities they didn’t have strong relationships with, of documenting human rights violations of all actors in the conflict.
I often think, who is the Razan Zeitouneh of next generation? Who will be the next Samira, Wael, Nazem? Who will inspire them to push for a better Syria? My country needs people like the Douma Four, brave activists who are willing to sacrifice everything for the common good, for universal freedoms. The Douma Four changed the lives of so many people in Syria; they made me a better person. It’s hard to have hope after five long years, but I pray that this is the year they come back to us.