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The Detainee, the Stranger’s Son

By: Mona Alfreej, activist and director of a feminist organization.

I always felt excited when women talked about their relationships with their mothers. Whenever they mentioned their mothers, I made sure to share my own experiences with mine. However, some of them seemed incredulous upon hearing about her, which saddened me. I would often reflect alone on what I had said about her, realising that I had not done her justice and that she deserved more praise.

My mother got married at the age of 14, a common practice for many uneducated girls from rural areas² during that time. My father was 16 years older than her. She had 13 children with him, a mix of boys and girls. Sadly, she became a widow at the age of 38. As a young woman, she found herself as the sole provider for six daughters and seven sons within a community that considered her children as the offspring of a stranger.

After my father passed away, my mother refused to remarry and declined any assistance from his brothers. As we grew older, she explained that she wanted us to live a decent life, one where we wouldn't experience any humiliation nor hear insulting words. She insisted on providing us with a good education, particularly the girls. Her determination stemmed from a desire to compensate for what she missed in her own life. She was unwavering in her insistence that we do not marry before completing our education. She made sure that no one in the family pressured us when choosing our life partners. In comparison to women of her generation, she was remarkably open-minded. Perhaps it was her experience of deprivation or her strong-mindedness that helped her face social challenges better.

Numerous memories of my mother, that remarkable woman, remain etched in my mind. While it’s true that all mothers are great in the eyes of their children, women who lose their husbands and exhibit strength in facing challenging situations seem even more extraordinary than men in similar circumstances. This is because widowed men rarely remain single, as society often supports them and seeks suitable new companions for them. Conversely, a widowed woman contemplating remarriage may face a war waged at her by society. For all that I've mentioned and more, I regard my mother as a truly great person.

I will never forget that day in 1983, when I was in my third year at primary school. I returned home from school one day to discover that my 17-year-old brother had been detained. I was very eager to share the details of my school day with my mother, but I found her behaving unusually. My eldest sister instructed me to go to our room and focus on my homework. Meanwhile, my mother, engulfed in smoke, fervently prayed aloud, seeking God’s guidance. I overheard her pleading to know the whereabouts of my detained brother and imploring divine punishment upon the security forces and the entire regime. In addition to her prayers, she engaged in phone conversations with unknown individuals, repeatedly stating, “I just want to know where they took him.”

After I kept asking my sister over and over again to tell me what had happened to my mother, she finally said that the security forces had raided our house in the morning and took my brother Abdulaziz. They didn’t mention a reason or where they were taking him. Since that day that my brother got arrested, we had to deal with my mother frequently being away. She travelled to different cities, starting from Raqqa, then Deir Ezzor, Homs, and Damascus, trying to find out where they took my brother.

She would typically return home from her trips while we were asleep at night, and she would often leave again either before we woke up or as we were getting ready for school. Having already been deprived of a father since our early years, we missed her a lot. Her absence caused us a pain that we couldn’t express, except by asking, “How long are you going to be away?” or “When are you coming back?”

Despite her strong demeanour in front of us, the sound of her constant prayers and tears deeply hurt us. We were mere children, and we only understood the meaning of political imprisonment through conversations with our older siblings, my mother, or their friends. We came to know that my brother Abdulaziz was a political prisoner because of poems he had written. These poems opposed the policy of oppression, tyranny and injustice imposed on the people and promoted ideas that went against the aims of the Ba’ath Party and its “revolution”.

Abdulaziz was arrested because of a report from one of his classmates, who was also his study partner, as they prepared for exams together. This person stole the poems written by Abdulaziz, took pictures of them, attached the photos to the report, and sent it to the Military Security Branch in Raqqa. His uncle was an officer in one of the security branches in Raqqa. A few days later, a unit from the Military Security raided our house and arrested my brother.

My mother used to describe how the security forces violently raided our home in a way she had never seen before, “armed men raided the house, asking for Abdulaziz, the seventeen-year-old. They entered the room where he was studying, dragged him to the car parked in front of our house in one of Raqqa’s poor neighbourhoods. People gathered outside their houses, curious about the reason for the security car in the neighbourhood”.

My mom was extremely worried about my brother’s fate, how they treated him, whether they would harm him, where he was, how he slept, and what he ate. She felt that he was too young to go through the experience of being detained and imprisoned.

For a year, my mom had to stay away from us for extended periods of time; she was able to see us for just a few hours every now and then, until she discovered the location of my brother’s detention. He was held at the Palestine Security Branch, which we later found out to be one of the worst branches of the Syrian security apparatus.

A constant state of sadness prevailed in our house, leaving no room for joy. My mother, who used to be the source of happiness in all our lives, became melancholic and sorrowful. On top of my brother’s ordeal, she had to deal with thirteen orphans and their never-ending daily needs, education, food, medicine, not to mention the teenage issues, which she handled with patience and wisdom. All that perseverance made us wonder later on how she could deal with us in that way, although she was not educated herself nor did she have knowledge of how to handle teenagers and the hormonal and psychological changes they go through.

I believe that no one can forget their detention experience, no matter how much time passes, especially for a child who hasn’t reached the age of eighteen. My brother still narrates the story of his arrest with profound pain, even though he has been released.

When I asked him to tell me about his arrest, he said: “The reason for the arrest was writing poems. I was arrested because of a report from an informant who was one of my classmates. We were studying together, and while preparing for exams, he stole the poems, took pictures of them, attached the photos to the report, and sent them to the Military Security. I was later arrested from home in a raid conducted by the security forces. I was sentenced to three years in prison, with the deprivation of civil and military rights for fifteen years.

“When I came out of detention, people came to welcome my safe return. Most of them were women and relatives. I didn’t have many friends; my friends could be counted on one hand. People looked at me with a mixture of pride and fear. They were hesitant to approach me and talk to me because they suspected that security informers would be around and see them. The days of torment by security branches didn't end at my release. They would occasionally summon me to the Military Security Branch for interrogation and questioning about my activities, whereabouts, and who came to visit me. They were never tired of asking about trivial details. I couldn't escape those visits to the security branch except by joining the mandatory military service.” My brother continued recounting his story with pain and concluded by saying, "Actually, my sister, life is a hard journey for people like us, people who don’t like the rules that are created to restrict people’s freedom, not to make their lives better as governments claim. "

My mother, a widow for over forty years, cared for sons and daughters holding diverse opinions and affiliations. One of my brothers was a Salafist, the other a Nasserite, while I, in opposition to everything, disliked this society and the restrictions it imposed on women. My mother had to be wise and vigilant, managing every detail in a small city that judged every action of hers and prohibited her from thinking about herself. After losing her husband and raising a large number of sons and daughters, she had no personal rights in a society that denied a woman her emotions if she lost her husband.

We didn’t understand the extent of the suffering that this great woman endured as she smiled during our graduation days, birthdays, and weddings. We didn’t pay attention to what she needed. We thought that her role in life was raising and taking care of us, believing that her happiness was confined to seeing us grow up around her.

We didn't think about what she wanted or how she could bear everything she endured without any psychological support to overcome all the hardships and worries she had on her mind, even though we used to see her lose sleep for many nights.

My mother’s situation, although she was exceptional in her patience and dedication, reflects the condition of many Syrian women who sacrificed themselves and their feealings for their sons and daughters in societies that deplete women’s spirits and consume their energy through constant oppression and control until they die.

The suffering of Syrian women is neither old nor new, nor is it over. It has persisted since the days of the elder Assad, as many lost their sons, daughters, and husbands, cried through long nights, and kept waiting even for a piece of news that would ease their pain. The same situation continued with the younger Assad. Prisons were filled with our youth. Mothers still wait for any news that can give them a glimmer of hope of seeing their children again.

¹ The Stranger: in certain Syrian communities, when a woman marries a man who is not a relative or from a different town, she is occasionally labelled as 'the stranger' by her husband's family or community.

 ² In the region of Deir Ezzor.

By: Mona Alfreej, activist and director of a feminist organization.



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