As we approach the five-year anniversary of the start of Syria’s violent civil war, Syrian researcher and human rights activist Reem Zaitouneh explains how her world changed in 2011.
I never dreamed about saving the world when I was growing up. Five years ago, I was a wife, mother and student, living a comfortable life in a major city – there are a million people just like me in every city round the world. I had no interest in politics, I had two small children and I was trying to finish my degree and hoping to have my own law practice one day so I had enough to think about! I was just busy with everyday life – with trying to get the kids to sleep so I could write my final essay.
My older sister, Razan, was always extraordinary. She was a fearless human rights lawyer and journalist. After the Revolution began in 2011, she managed the Violation Documentation Centre (VDC) in Damascus – an organisation I now work for myself but I didn’t back then. We were always worrying about Razan, even before the real troubles started in Syria. We all knew she was being watched by the government but she didn’t care, she was busy being a lawyer.
My whole world changed
My whole world changed so quickly in the winter of 2011 that I didn’t believe it at first.
The government started arresting people we knew – friends who were lawyers and teachers, people we had dinner with, whose children played with my children. One day they were there and the next day they just weren’t. It seemed impossible that people we knew could vanish like that.
One day my sister called me and said: “Everyone is being arrested – everyone related to anyone of interest is being arrested too – you need to take your kids and your husband and you need to leave as soon as you can.”
Our passports had expired. We just forgot to renew them, as you do. We went to the passport office and that was when we discovered we were on a secret list of “people of interest”. They wouldn’t renew our passports but they didn’t arrest us. I try not to think about what could have happened to us if they had.
Fleeing to Lebanon
After a long discussion, we decided we would move to Lebanon before it was too late. More and more Syrian people started arriving in Lebanon as the bombing started. Some of them were so badly injured, it took all their strength to escape and they died on the ground just over the border.
One day, my husband was out running an errand when he came across a pregnant woman giving birth right in front of him in the street – she had just arrived in Lebanon and there was no-one to help her. My husband took her to the hospital and got her the help she needed. This was the turning point for us. After that, we couldn’t stand by and watch helplessly any more.
Helping other people
My husband and his friend started an organisation to help people like that woman get medical treatment. My husband is not a doctor but we have a saying in Arabic that when you need to do something, you just have to create a miracle.
That same day, I started to work for the VDC, the organisation my sister worked for in Syria, documenting all the people who disappeared and making sure someone was bearing witness for them. The VDC works closely with human rights organisations like Amnesty International to tell these people’s stories.
When I document the cases of these people who have disappeared, I’m not just recording a name and some details, I’m recording someone’s life. I feel as if a little part of them is alive in me, that I can feel their emotions and some of the horror they are going through. It takes a toll on me sometimes but I can’t forget their stories or their pictures and I can’t forget the suffering of their families. It is my life’s work to make them come to life – to make them real to people around the world – until, hopefully, with international pressure they will be released and be alive themselves again.
In 2013, I established the VDC’s online medical room, which provides counselling and treatment to people inside Syria remotely via the internet, as well as advice to doctors on the ground there. The medical room is also for Syrian refugees who are not able to find a doctor or seek advice in their new countries.
My sister has disappeared
I am not an extraordinary person, I’m just doing what I can to help like so many others because it needs to be done. My sister, Razan, was forcibly disappeared in 2013. I haven’t heard from her since. It hurts every single day not knowing. I still feel like one day I will wake up and it will all have been a terrible dream and then Razan and I will go walking in the streets of Damascus, laughing and eating pies like we used to when we were kids.
There are thousands of people like her who have disappeared in Syria, but also thousands more like me: ordinary people who liked watching football and going out to dinner with friends, who had small children and worked normal jobs. One day they were there and the next day they just weren’t.
They need you to know this has happened to them because they need to know that somewhere in the world, someone is paying attention and has noticed they are gone.
Reem Zaitounah is a researcher for the Syrian Violations Documentation Centre (VDC).
First published by The Huffington Post.