Skip to main content

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.

Losing a generation of Syrian children
Israelis watching the war next door
Assad's wife ventures out to the opera
Syrian Rebel Leader: Defect, or else

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.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT