You may have heard that the United Nations stopped counting the death toll in Syria on January 7th, 2014 because the work was too dangerous. More likely, the United Nations stopped counting the death toll because the Syrians who were doing that work — documenting the martyrs and human rights abuses with the Violations Documentation Center —were kidnapped on December 9th, 2013. The kidnapping of Syrian revolutionary lawyers and poets Razan Zeitouna, Samira alkhalil, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hammadi in the liberated town of Douma was a major setback for the revolution. If non-violent revolutionaries cannot work with protection of the local militia in areas where Assad’s army are not in control, then the Revolution itself is under attack.
Syria existed under an Orwellian dictatorship for the past 40 years, and people like Zeitouna, Al-Khailil, Hamada, and Hammadi were apart of the undercurrent organizing, resisting, and documenting state crimes for well over two decades. The Syrian regime caked its exterior with attractive labels like “secular” and “democracy” while underneath the make-up were the diseased pustules of an oppressive regime: a secret police that sewed distrust amongst civilians and punished even private remarks criticizing the government, a president who inherited his throne and won elections by 99.7%, and an entire generation of missing Syrian’s snatched in the ‘80s roundup of possible intellectual enemies to the state. The fervor to which the government kept a clamp on independent thinking climaxed in 1982 with the month long massacre in Hama where the military indiscriminately killed between 10,000 and 40,000 people in response to some civilians organizing their own political beliefs. While western intellectuals will later explain the first 8 months of the Syrian Revolution as some sort of imperialist conspiracy, Syrians themselves had been waiting and ready to voice their dissent en masse for decades.
In an Orwellian reality, it is a radical act to speak publicly, as human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouna did. Her work in Syria focused on defending political prisoners, and in 2001 she founded the Human Rights Association in Syria. When the popular grassroots movement for human dignity and civil freedoms swept Syria in 2011, Zeitouna co-founded the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an organization with chapters all across Syria that work to document human rights abuses and distribute humanitarian aid. An unwavering force, Zeitouna snuck herself into Ghouta after the August 2013 sarin gas attacks to gather evidence for documentation, and can be seen here giving testimony in English on living under siege in Douma. Zeitouna recognized the Assad regime as the main aggressor responsible for perpetrating terrorism in Syria, but also worked to document human rights abuses committed by the opposition. She made a point to educate as many members of the armed opposition as possible about International human rights law in an effort to curb abuse.
In an Orwellian society, it is a radical act to organize against the political party of the state, like Samira alKhalil did. During Hafez Assad’s reign, AlKhalil was active in the ‘Damascus Declaration’ and ‘Revival of Civil Society’, salons of Syrian intellectuals who boldly challenged political discourse at the time. For her involvement, alKhalil was imprisoned for four years from 1987-1991, spending time in Syria’s most notorious prisons. Alkhalil worked alongside Zeitouna in the Violations Documentation Center, separated from her husband in exile Yasin al Haj Saleh.
Nazem Hammadi and Wael Hammade worked with Zeitouna and Alkhalil in the Violations documentation Center, focusing on facilitating humanitarian relief between the Local Co-ordinating Committees. Relief work is inherently stressful and dangerous— one relief worker said “If you go to sleep at the end of the day happy, you’re not doing your job right”. Very often, relief workers like Hammade and Hammadi are targets and die in the line of work.
The work of Douma4 carries on the spirit of the Syrian Revolution, and their kidnapping is a signal that the revolution is under attack. Jaysh-al-Islam, a non-FSA milita group, has control of Douma. Their leader, Zahran Alloush, is therefore responsible to answer the question: Where are Razan, Samira, Wael, and Nazem, and why couldn’t you ensure their protection? Join Amnesty International and people of conscience around the world in tweeting at him “Where are the #Douma4, @Zahran1970?”