April 29, 2018
One by one, prisoners exited government buses into a packed auditorium in Damascus earlier this month. Many of the detainees, formerly held by an Islamist rebel faction in East Ghouta, were set to rejoin their family and friends for the first time in years.
Jaish al-Islam, a once-powerful armed group in the suburbs east of Damascus, surrendered the city of Douma to the Syrian government in mid-April. As part of the deal, the rebels agreed to release all detainees they had accumulated over the past seven years.
For Suad Khabeia and other Syrian activists, the April 8 prisoner release in Damascus was the last glimmer of hope that they might see disappeared civil society activist Razan Zaitouneh again.
But although Jaish al-Islam had long boasted of holding thousands of prisoners, only 200 people were released before the faction’s fighters left for northern Syria alongside thousands of civilians earlier this month.
Zaitouneh, a Syrian lawyer and human rights advocate who gained international recognition for her civil society work in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, was not among them.
“Hope has withered away for most people,” Khabeia tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani from her home in Cairo, Egypt. Khabeia met Zaitouneh at a demonstration in Damascus in 2001 and worked with her for years before leaving Syria.
Zaitouneh founded the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) in April 2011—just after mass anti-government protests began in Syria—to track and report human rights abuses in the country by all parties.
Then, On December 9, 2013, masked gunmen raided the offices of the VDC in Douma and kidnapped four of its members: Zaitouneh, her husband Wael Hamada, Samira al-Khalil and Nazim Hamadi.
Collectively known as the “Douma Four,” the kidnapped activists were never heard from again. Zaitouneh’s family—along with many other activists and humanitarian organizations—hold Jaish al-Islam responsible for the kidnappings, a claim that the rebel group categorically denies.
Today, on what would be Razan Zaitouneh’s 41st birthday—more than four years after the disappearance of the Douma Four—Khabeia reflects on her friend and colleague’s legacy.