After three years and seven months spent working tirelessly to find and secure the release of Syrian revolutionary activist Samira Al-Khalil, her husband, prominent political writer, intellectual, and dissident Yassin Al-Haj Saleh began penning public letters to her. A former political prisoner (1980-1996) of the Hafez al-Assad regime, Al-Haj Saleh went into hiding following the onset of the Syrian uprising, and was forced to remain 'underground' for nearly two and a half years before finally escaping to Istanbul, Turkey. In 2017, he relocated once more to Berlin, Germany, though never ceasing in his search for information about the fate or whereabouts of his wife. On July 9, 2017, Al-Haj Saleh published the first in a series of letters to Samira on Al-Jumhuriya—an online periodical established in March 2012 "by a group of Syrian writers and academics, both inside and outside the country."
Samira Al-Khalil was forcibly disappeared on the evening of December 9, 2013, alongside renowned human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, political activist Wael Hamadeh, and lawyer and poet Nazem Hammadi. Abducted from the city of Douma—located approximately ten kilometers northeast of Damascus—this group of human rights defenders became widely known as the "Douma Four." Prior to their disappearance, they had monitored and recorded human rights abuses perpetrated by both government forces and non-state actors via the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which Zeitouneh co-founded in June 2011. Samira had also been leading An Nisa' Alaan (Women Now)—a community center working to assist women in Douma and the broader Eastern Ghouta region to initiate small income-generating projects that would help them to support their families. Referring affectionately to her by her nickname, Al-Haj Saleh wrote on his website in May 2014: Sammour doesn’t harm, and hasn’t harmed, anyone in her life.
The MENA Prison Forum collaborated with Lebanese actor and film director Rami Nihawi to produce a reading of each of Al-Haj Saleh's first five letters to Samira in their original Arabic. Yet Al-Haj Saleh has since continued to write to his wife, reminiscing on old memories, sharing his political and philosophical reflections, and expressing his grief for her absence. He wrote his fourteenth letter to Samira on the sixth anniversary of her abduction, telling her: In the past, perhaps the quest for knowledge took me far away, made me restless. But the quest for knowledge is what you’ve become synonymous with, Sammour. Your name has become the name of what I want to know.
Sammour, the bloodshed hasn’t stopped for a single day during the three years and eight months of your absence. The conflict today, however, is defined by fragmentation, zones of influence and multiple parallel wars. Sammour, we demanded political pluralism, and we got warfare pluralism. Instead of pluralism in our unified country, today we have pluralism of the country.
Russia is on the coast, and has military bases in more than one part of the country; its war is directed against the opposition at large. Iran is in Damascus, and Aleppo, Qalamun, Daraa and other areas, either directly or through Hezbollah; its war is to prop up the regime and control the country in many ways, including acquiring real estate and land in Damascus, Homs, the coast and other areas. Turkey is in Jarablus and al-Bab, and has its own war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). And America is in al-Raqqa and the Jazira, and has its war against Daesh; it is besieging al-Raqqa, mainly through Kurdish forces. Before the siege of al-Raqqa, the US changed its military rules of engagement to be more tolerant of ‘collateral damage’ among civilians. In June and July alone, between 1,300 and 1,500 of the remaining residents of the city – estimated at 40,000 – were killed. With this proportion of ‘legitimate’ civilian casualties, this is a terrorist war in every sense of the word. By all definitions, terrorism includes the targeting of civilians, or indifference to their lives, in the pursuit of political aims.
Al-Hasakah and Qamishli are under the control of the Syrian branch of the PKK in Turkey. The regime is still present in both cities. Deir al-Zor is divided between the regime and Daesh, and it seems the Russians are now pushing to control it.
Where is the regime? Bashar al-Assad is still there, but his regime is rotten from the inside by criminal gangs, competing interests, and forces of hungry looters, which it has unleashed but now seems unable to control.
In East Ghouta, it doesn’t seem unlikely for Jaysh al-Islam to U-turn and come to an agreement with the regime in which it gives up the arms it has stocked, and with which it has killed many people in Douma and East Ghouta, in return for entering the networks of interests and influence in the area.
Idlib, to which the inhabitants of many cities (Daraya, al-Qaboun, Barzeh, Zabadani and al-Waer) were transferred, is increasingly falling under the control of al-Qaeda. A few weeks ago, Jabhat al-Nusra – now called Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham – defeated Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib, and it now enjoys almost exclusive control there. This is a hub of continuous war that might be activated soon and last for a long time, snatching its share of victims and destruction.
The war is not over; it turned into parallel wars. The situation in many areas in the country is also likely to escalate and persist for a long time.
Where is the revolution? The people? Sammour, at least half a million people have been killed according to one British newspaper, but this number has increased by tens of thousands since it was first reported more than a year ago. There are six million refugees outside the country; five million of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq; and 937,000 are in Europe, almost half of them in Germany. There are more than seven million internally displaced people, in areas close to or far from their original places of residence. The movement is generally from areas that were outside the regime's control (the regime purposefully made life impossible in those areas) to areas under its control where people are safe from bombardment and siege, even though life is becoming increasingly difficult. The electricity is often cut off, as is the water supply; the people have less and less ownership over their cities and lives - even less than they used to have before the revolution. They are living in an aggravated state of alienation. Alienation is not only the fate of the refugees scattered all over the world (two years ago there was one Syrian refugee in Hong Kong! Who knows, maybe now there are two), but also many of those still inside Syria.
Syria, which had no ‘interior’, and which developed a vibrant ‘interior’ through demonstrations and revolutionaries in the first two years of the revolution, is now a country of multiple interiors and exteriors. Much of Syria’s ‘interior’ is outside of it, and much of Syria’s ‘exterior’ is inside it. Today there is a Syria in Turkey (comprising more than 12% of Syrians); there is a Syria in Lebanon and in Jordan (the two brotherly and neighborly countries in which Syrian refugees receive the worst treatment); one in Germany; one everywhere. And, at the same time, there is Russia inside Syria, and Iran inside Syria, and the global Jihadist International inside Syria, and America is becoming an elephant inside our small Syria. And there is Turkey, and the PKK, and the civil, civilian, and civilized Israeli neighbor is also an insider now. There is even Bashar al-Assad inside Syria!
Sammour, today about 80% of Syrians live below the poverty line, and at least 160,000 displaced people from Damascus, Homs and their suburbs live in tents in the north of the country. About a quarter of a million refugees live in camps in Turkey (the total number of refugees in Turkey is around three million).
The exact number of detainees and abductees is unknown, but it is tens of thousands or even more than one hundred thousand. A few months ago, Amnesty International issued a report on Saydnaya prison, where it estimated that some 13,000 detainees were hanged between September 2011 and the end of 2015. This number doesn’t include those who die of hunger and diseases in Saydnaya, which the report called a "human slaughterhouse," or in the different intelligence branches.
Sammour, the fate of the revolution is the fate of those who were killed; those whose houses were destroyed; the detainees and the tortured; the internally and externally displaced; the impoverished; those who live in tents and slums. The Syrian working community that started the revolution has been crushed in order to crush the revolution, and its remains have been scattered everywhere.
In the Syrian diaspora, in the Syrias scattered near and far, many of those in a somewhat better situation are trying to do something. Some suffer, especially the young, from the various crises of the uprooted community, and they stumble, a little and a lot, facing these crises. They themselves dissolve when they fail to solve their problems: being far from their country, the disintegration of families, circles of affinity, and expectations are added to the destruction of many social environments in our country. This has pushed many young men and women into troublesome and unstable situations with little help from anyone.
However, there are also those who study in universities or develop their skills in various professional and cultural sectors, and are fluent in foreign languages. Perhaps in a few years we will see the positive effect of this, which would partly compensate for the misery of our country. This is similar to what we did in prison when we tried to learn, to change ourselves to compensate for what was lost in our life.
But Sammour, ever since the prison days I became aware that nothing can be compensated; nothing can be replaced. What is true of prison is even truer of this absolute siege of the revolution and the total destruction of the country. You know this very well, Sammour; in your diaries you said that the prison you experienced with your comrades was a “joke” compared to the siege. Today, you are the one who knows best that the siege is a joke compared to the siege within the siege, the double siege, of which you are a hostage. Your absence cannot be compensated, Sammour; nothing can make it up.
It’s not in my heart to say to your besiegers: “Impose your siege, with no escape route!” And I don’t think Mahmoud Darwish would have said it if he had a beloved one in your place, and he were in my place, and the situation were the same.
But, like him, we try to nurture hope, or invent it.
And my only hope, Sammour, is that you are in good health, and that your power of mockery remains as strong as ever. That is the only (im)possible compensation for me.