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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT