When news of her abduction was confirmed, Samira al-Khalil was unanimously referred to as “Yassin al Haj Saleh’s wife.” Al Haj Saleh is widely regarded as one of the most influential Arab writers and dissidents as well as a prominent intellectual voice of the Syrian revolution. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that most would primarily identify Samira as his wife. While there is no disrespect in this, it must be stressed that Samira al-Khalil is much more than just Yassin’s wife. First and foremost, she is and has been a freedom fighter and a persistent, loving revolutionary in her own right.
It is perhaps her tendency to keep a low profile and avoid the limelight as much as possible that makes many people oblivious to the efforts and hard work that Samira has put in before and during the uprising. As is the case with so many Syrian revolutionaries, it is only after their arrest that we get to appreciate and honour the enormity of their sacrifices.
Born on 2 February, 1961 in al-Mukharram village in the Homs countryside, Samira al-Khalil became an active member in the Party for Communist Action, which was founded in 1976 and immediately banned by the Syrian regime for being a “secret organisation that aims to change the social and economic structure of the State.” As part of its vicious crackdown against leftist dissidents during the 1980s, Hafez al-Assad’s regime arrested hundreds of activists from both the Party for Communist Action and the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau) in a bid to smother the last remaining voices of dissent after it had crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in the Hama massacre in 1982.
In September 1987, Samira al-Khalil was arrested along with a number of her female comrades including Lina Wafai, Wijdan Nassif, Hind Badawiyeh, Fatima al-Khalil, and others. She spent nearly six months in the notorious military security branch in Homs, known for its horrendous conditions and abundant torture practices, before being transferred to the women prison of Douma, where she remained until her release in November 1991.
Fast forward to December 2013: Samira is currently imprisoned in Douma –again– but this time by a group that pretends to fight against the Syrian regime, the very regime that imprisoned Samira for 4 years (and her husband for 17).
Long before those groups had attempted to hijack the revolution and impose themselves as the new tyrants, however, Samira –as well as thousands of unarmed Syrians– took to the streets to demand freedom, dignity, and social justice. She took part in the protest outside the Libyan embassy in solidarity with the Libyan uprising. She also protested during the Syrian uprising. She was separated from Yassin for almost two years after he was forced into hiding to escape arrest at the hands of the regime. The couple was reunited again in May 2013 in the rebel-held city of Douma.
‘Sammour’, as she is lovingly called by family and friends, stayed in Douma even after Yassin moved to his hometown of Raqqah and then to Turkey. During the seven months she spent in Douma, she wrote vividly and poignantly about daily life and struggle under siege, likening life under siege to life in prison. She detailed the regular aerial bombardments, electricity blackouts, and the chemical attacks on Eastern and Western Ghouta on 21 August. Sammour rarely spoke about herself, but rather focused on the courage and perseverance of the residents of Douma, the women, men, and children who embraced her and treated her as one of them despite being different. On her Facebook page, Samira daily recounted the moving stories of hope, survival and communal solidarity amidst inhumane conditions, of shells ending kids’ games, and of families trying to make ends meet under terrible circumstances forced on them by the regime.
On the evening of 9 December, 2013, Samira was kidnapped along with Razan Zeiotouneh, the indefatigable human rights defender and co-founder of the Local Coordination Committees (LCC); Razan’s husband and activist Wael Hamada; and poet Nazem al-Hammadi. The four were kidnapped from their house, which also served as the office of the Violation Documentation Centre (VDC).
Though the “Army of Islam” denied responsibility for kidnapping the four activists and pledged to find their whereabouts, it is the main suspect in carrying out –or being an accomplice in– the abduction. The Army of Islam is the most powerful and dominant brigade operating in Douma and Damascus countryside. It has previously threatened Razan Zeitouneh and opened fire outside her home in an attempt at intimidating her into leaving Douma.
On his Facebook page, Yassn al Haj Saleh has accused the Army of Islam and its leader, Zahran Alloush, of abducting the four activists or abetting the kidnappers, stressing the fact that ever since the incident, the brigade has failed to investigate it as it promised to do.
Each of the four disappeared revolutionaries, particularly Razan and Samira –two women and partners in the struggle– share a story that, in a way, personifies Syria’s excruciating path to freedom.
Razan Zeitouneh has been a human rights lawyer who, for over 13 years, has relentlessly advocated for political prisoners while accompanying their families in the process. Since the eruption of the Syrian uprising, she supported her compatriots’ struggle for freedom and dignity in all possible ways. She helped found the Local Coordination Committees, a countrywide decentralised network of grassroots activists that organises protests, disseminates information, and coordinates relief work. In April 2011, Razan helped establish the Violations Documentation Centre that monitors human rights violations in Syria and is arguably the most reliable Syrian monitoring group. Razan’s activism was not limited to advocacy; she also participated in demonstrations in Damascus and its suburbs and was the target of arrest attempts by the regime which forced her to work mainly underground. Looking for her, the regime’s intelligence officers arrested her husband Wael Hamada for a few weeks during the early stages of the Revolution. Razan’s brother in Law, Louay Hamada, was also arrested for a second time by the Syrian regime on 15 October, 2013, after previously spending nine months in regime jails between September 2012 and May 2013.
Following the liberation of Douma from regime forces, Razan moved there. She continued to document regime atrocities and write from the besieged cities of Eastern Ghouta, maintaining uncompromisingly strict standards of consistency and reliability and working tirelessly in a patriarchal, war-torn zone.
Razan’s vehement support for armed resistance against the Syrian regime did not stop her from reporting abuses and violations committed by rebels and from demanding they act in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. She even conducted workshops to inform rebel commanders about their duties in armed conflict, including their obligation to respect the rights of prisoners of war.
In August 2013, Razan, Samir al-Khalil, and other women in Eastern Ghouta founded a women’s coalition and Local Development Foundation and Small Projects Support Office, emphasising the importance of creating a balance between relief work and civil activities, especially activities that aim to empower women.
Regardless of the party that abducted Razan, Samira, Wael and Nazem, their kidnappings represent a massive blow to the revolution, a setback to the liberation struggle in Syria in general, and in Eastern Ghouta in particular. Samira and Razan were not “moderate” activists as the simplistic media narrative suggests. They are indeed secular unarmed women, but they are also radical revolutionaries and believers in justice, and it is that radical belief which has given them the courage that allowed them to work under siege, bombardment, and (at times) intimidation.
Many opponents of the Syrian revolution unashamedly gloated at the abduction of Razan, Samira and their comrades, using the incident as yet another opportunity to slam the uprising. Those who uttered phrases such as “we have told you so” and “this was never a revolution in the first place” have missed something, however: It is true that Fascist groups such as the Islam Army and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria expanded and dominated rebel-held territories. But This was due, in large part, to the utter failure to provide effective support for grassroots activists and non-sectarian armed battalions. They also ignore that the longer the Assad regime stays in power, the stronger such organisations become. They also ignore the reality that the regime and its Takfiri “opponents” are mutually –even if not deliberately– dependable.
The abduction of the activists in Douma and the citizen journalists in Aleppo and Raqqah and Idlib leaves us with little space for hope. Those who started the uprising, documented regime crimes, risked their lives, and kept their faith even after the uprising was militarised are being hunted down by both the regime and Islamist extremists, while Syria’s political opposition is completely and utterly incompetent and corrupt. Just as the regime terrorised thousands of activists into exile, it is true that ISIS, al-Nusra Front, and Army of Islam are doing the same in the areas they control.
Dispersed and fragmented among prison cells, refugee camps and exile, Syrian revolutionaries are left with no option but to fight the two arms of fascism and tyranny that are strangling Syria right now: the Baathist regime and Islamist extremists.