The author of this piece is the niece of Syrian 2011 Sakharov Prize Laureate Razan Zaitouneh, who was kidnapped on 9 December 2013 in Douma, a rebel-controlled area of Syria. A lawyer, journalist and activist, Razan Zaitouneh bravely denounced human rights violations by all sides in the Syrian conflict right up until her abduction with her husband Wael Hamada and two colleagues, Nazem Al Hamadi and Samira Al Khalil, from the office of the Violations Documentation Centre, which she founded. The Douma 4 are still missing and there is no news of them.
'WE DESERVE FREEDOM AS YOU DO!' she wrote in all caps the first time I interviewed her for a school assignment. I was fifteen years old then; we had been reading a book in my French class, the title of which I can no longer recall, and were later tasked with an assignment that required talking in depth about someone remarkable. I knew right away that that remarkable person would be my aunt, Razan Zaitouneh.
She told me about her childhood, her inspirations, her beliefs and her career. She also described some of the arbitrary laws citizens were subjected to in Syria and the consequences of having opinions, including political imprisonment, torture, unjust trial and forced disappearance.
We were using an instant messaging system to conduct the interview, and yet, I could feel her passion through the words on the screen. I could feel her pain and anger when she told me, not for the first time, about her recently deceased and very dear friend who had been released after 29 years of unlawful imprisonment, only to be denied travel outside the country to receive the medical treatment he needed. As she described it, he moved from a small prison, only to die in a larger one.
'They feel afraid of the words,' she said in her explanation of the oppressive government, 'they feel afraid of their own people'. I understood the power of words, but not quite in the same way that I do now, and certainly not in the way she does. She was banned from leaving Syria because the government feared those who sought justice, those who used words to expose the volatile way in which the Syrian people are treated. People were being punished for daring to show their intelligence, for speaking.
I was born and raised in Canada, a country that prides itself on being 'free'. I never had to fear my own voice; in fact, I prided myself on it, seizing any opportunity to use it, whether through speech or song. I never had to fear being unlawfully detained or beaten. I was taught that the police were bound by laws meant to protect me, that they themselves would lay their lives on the line to protect me if ever I were in danger. This was not the case for my aunt. She did not have the right to speak, though she fought for it daily. And the authorities were not there to protect her, but rather to oppress her, to silence her. Even as she uncovered the injustices for the outside world to see, she had to be careful. Her life was in constant danger; even her beloved cats were targeted on occasion. But rather than be deterred by that danger, it encouraged her further. She fought harder; she exposed more stories of injustice. And although many of those stories had to be published anonymously, her voice became louder; her cause became stronger.
It was unfathomable to me that our lives could be so drastically different. It's still unfathomable to me that so many basic human rights are denied across the globe every day.
I thought she was a hero all those years ago, and then the revolution broke out in 2011, and I could see her heart, courage and strength grow. I became so much more in awe of her than I thought possible. I learned the true meaning of hope from the woman I had known my entire life, though our interactions were mostly via phone and the internet. An aunt who encouraged my dreams no matter how difficult they were to achieve. A woman with whom I share a love of music, cats and justice. An irreplaceable, incomparable part of my life that has been absent for over a year.
I have always known of the danger that followed her work, that regardless of how bad it might get she would continue to stand up for and with those that needed her. Despite that knowledge, I never imagined a world where I would spend every minute of every day wondering where she is.
The concept of being forcibly disappeared was foreign to me then, but far too familiar now.
On 9 December 2013, my aunt Razan, her husband - my uncle - Wael Hamada, and two of their fellow activists and friends, Samira Al Khalil and Nazem Al Hamadi, were forcibly disappeared. They were taken by armed cowards for choosing to expose the human rights violations in their country to the world. We have not heard from any of them since.
Oppressors know there is power in words, which is why they condemn free speech and enforce silence. If we are ever to find ourselves in a world that allows every person the dignity and freedom they deserve, we must break the silence; we must overcome our fears. It is that silence and fear that drives tyranny, after all. It isn't violence that will empower the oppressed, but peaceful resistance and the use of our words.
As Razan often said 'we want justice, without hatred, without revenge'.