April 13, 2018
As the battle front shifted in recent days in a ravaged eastern suburb of Damascus, relatives of four human rights activists abducted there in late 2013 saw cause for hope: Might the transfer from opposition to government control of Douma provide clues to their fate?
The abduction of the two men and two women known as the Douma 4 — by Islamist rebels active in the area, their families say — was an ominous milestone in Syria’s cataclysmic war. It signaled the rise of armed Islamist groups that came to dominate the opposition while casting aside, often brutally, civilian activists who had helped coordinate the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s iron-fisted rule.
And the kidnapping was a high-profile reminder of the thousands of other Syrians who have disappeared, sometimes without a trace, over more than seven years of war. Relatives said that since the abduction on Dec. 9, 2013, they have had no solid information about the four: Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamadeh, Samira Khalil and Nazem Hammadi.
Rumors materialized and then dissolved. Enticing stories told by Islamist defectors could never be confirmed. “From time to time, we hear yes, they are okay, they are there, or they were given to the regime,” said Khalil’s husband, Yassin al-Haj Saleh. “We don’t really know if the information is true. It’s possible,” he said.
On Monday, as news of the prisoner releases circulated, the relatives grasped at every report.
“Yesterday, they released about 200 detainees,” said Zaitouneh’s sister, Reem Zaitouneh, who lives in Canada. “We are trying to get the names. We are trying to reach some people there. We hope they can find some news,” she said.
Her sister, a human rights lawyer, is a singularly revered figure in opposition circles, a woman who had defended dissidents in state security courts in the years before the revolt and then recorded war crimes and other violations by the government as well as its armed opponents after the uprising exploded into war.
She was a founder of the Violation Documentation Center as well as the Local Coordination Committees, a network that coordinated and documented anti-government protests and tallied the costs of the conflict.