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In Syria, searching for loved one taken away

updated 12:16 PM EDT, Wed March 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writer: Relative taken away in Syria by armed men for unknown reasons
  • Many are taken this way, writer says. Since Syria uprising, detention centers are full
  • Writer fears his torture (says death would be better); friends sympathize, can't help
  • Writer bought 'proof of life' from an informer, but doesn't know if he'll be seen again

Editor's note: The writer is a former official who worked for the Syrian Foreign Ministry. CNN has agreed to the request not to name this former official for safety concerns.

(CNN) -- As we walked down the aisle, he whispered in my ear to look at my nephew who was bending down and trying to scoop up another balloon in his already-full arms, with a look of determination and mischief.

I bit my lip to avoid laughing; I knew he would definitely make me laugh at some point during my wedding ceremony.

My wedding wasn't as grand as they usually are in Aleppo but it was still the highlight of my life. For some reason, that moment is the only memory that comes to my mind these days. It makes his absence even more unbearable.

It was midday on New Year's Day. He was drinking tea and watching TV. There was a noise of heavy footsteps on the stairs. So many Syrians live in fear of that noise; his heart must have skipped a beat. There were eight of them brandishing Kalashnikovs. They stormed through the door and blindfolded him. He was led downstairs and taken to a place nobody wishes to pass by, let alone visit.

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I don't know if the torture started in the car or once they reached the "security offices." But I do know that these men are trained to do one thing: to torture people until they have no idea why they are subject to the state's "investigations."

Before the revolution, "investigations" were conducted for very limited reasons. You may have made a joke in public about the president, his immediate family, his extended family, one of his neighbors, his best friends or his dog. Worse, you may have written an article or a blog that criticized the regime. Invariably, detainees confessed to insulting the "integrity of the state."

When the revolution started two years ago, the detention centers were soon filled to the brim with "terrorists" who dared to go on demonstrations.

But he didn't make a joke about the president, his family or his dog, nor did he take part in any "terrorism-related," activities such as demonstrations. All he did was work in the souks, the old markets of Aleppo, waiting in vain for the tourists to come back.

My friends looked at me with shock when I said I'd rather he was dead than arrested. What my friends don't know is that a quick death is a Syrian dream. You only need to look at the online videos showing the effects of torture to understand that a speedy death is a positive alternative. I would prefer to hear he is dead because, while death is hard to cope with, waiting for it to happen is even harder.

This scenario is repeated every day in Syria. Young men and women are taken away and tortured. Those actively working against the regime are killed and those who aren't become an excellent source of cash for members of the security services. Desperate families will give up everything to find the ransom money that will win the release of a father, a brother. It is a blossoming trade: human trafficking Syrian-style.

I know enough of what happens behind the doors of the Syrian security centers that I don't have to add the journalists' standard disclaimer that "It has not been possible to verify this story independently." Because I just paid one of them -- the security people -- to confirm that his limbs are still functioning and his skin hasn't been burned.

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Some of those detained and tortured never make it out alive or even dead. Three of our neighbors arrested at the same time were killed after their ordeal, but their bodies were not returned to their families. As a Syrian detainee, your wish-list should include not only a quick death but also a dignified burial, or some sort of opportunity for your family to say goodbye. Many Syrian families never receive the bodies of their loved ones, so they cannot bear witness to horrific torture or so a funeral doesn't turn into another demonstration.

My friends tell me to feel lucky! Because I know his whereabouts, in a notorious "security branch," and because the right amount of money to the right thug at the right time might secure his release.

I refuse to feel lucky, I refuse to get used to his absence and I refuse to think positively. I've always enjoyed analyzing what's happening around me, events and motives and consequences. Now, for the first time, I don't want to analyze, reflect or imagine because that would lead to endless painful questions. What did he think about when they stood him in the street blindfolded and facing the wall until the car arrived to take him away? Did he think of the children? His mother? Me?

Instead, my energy turned to finding out information. I started roaming the streets, thinking about people who might know someone who knew someone. With luck and some money I learned that he was accused of supporting terrorist activities. Then I began trawling through old contacts saved on my phone, even the ones that are only there because I never got around to deleting them.

"Sorry dear, I left that post long time ago." The response from a former colleague at the school where I had worked.

"Don't worry, I shall make it my case and take care of him! You just don't worry." Another former colleague from whom I never heard again.

"Can I offer you any financial support towards the ransom you'd be paying?"

I sigh and laugh at how understanding we are of this regime. And I will pay as much as I can -- or cannot -- afford to secure his release. So, family and friends focus on one goal: Identify the individual who can help free him in return for money.

To begin with, we have paid an informer to bring us "proof of life." An answer to a question only he would know. It was the hardest question I've ever had to ask. His favorite song? What was the name of his childhood sweetheart?

We know he is alive. For now. But we still don't know if we will ever see him again.

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