Why I chose to stay: Mother of detained sons stays behind in destroyed Homs district after surrender

At a protest in Homs city against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, one young man in the crowd named Yasser was among those arrested in early 2013.

Yasser’s younger brother, Waleed, 19, had trouble coping with his disappearance. Time dragged by with no news of Yasser, then aged 25. Waleed started a Facebook page where he vented his own anger about “the cruelty and brutality” of the Assad regime, their mother, Umm Yasser tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Rateb.

Waleed, in his final year of high school at the time, was arrested while sitting in an internet café in Homs.

Their mother, now 46 and a widow, is living alone in the Waer district of Homs city, where she says she will stay until receiving news of her sons.

She has lived through some of the most intense fighting of the war, including hundreds of airstrikes and a crippling encirclement.

Last year, negotiations between regime forces and opposition authorities in Waer gave her some hope, as an initial framework for a ceasefire deal included the release of more than 7,300 regime-held detainees.

Graffiti in Waer, Homs in April 2016. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Homsi

But Waer’s opposition negotiators ended up dropping the prisoner-release condition in the final agreement reached in March, after months of intensified regime bombardment left the district in ruins.

Now, as her neighbors all leave Waer aboard evacuation buses—the seventh round of evacuees just headed north to Idlib on Sunday—Umm Yasser is watching them go, staying behind in the last place she saw her sons.

“I decided to stay behind, and never leave without my sons.”

Q: Why did you decide to stay in Waer instead of being evacuated?

I was born in this neighborhood. My house contains all the memories that still bind me to my sons. I have nothing left now but those memories—both happy and sad.

Leaving [Waer] would mean that I’ve given up on my sons, who are still detained inside regime prisons, and accepting evacuation to save only myself.

Staying behind in Waer means clinging to the hope of receiving any news about my sons. If there is any information on them still being alive, leaving would mean the death of any of the hope left within me. It would mean surrendering to the reality that has been imposed upon us.

Q: Can you tell us more about your two sons? What were the circumstances of their arrests?

At the beginning of the revolution, when my sons were attending the peaceful protests against the regime, I was very anxious about them. Yasser [25 years old at the time] attended a protest calling for freedom, but he was quickly arrested by the regime alongside a number of other young men. That was in early 2013.

My younger son Waleed couldn’t cope with his brother’s arrest. He was an avid Facebook user, so he launched a Facebook page where he published posts about the brutality and cruelty of the regime.

We did not expect that Waleed would end up like his brother Yasser. But regime authorities snatched him from a local internet café about seven months after his older brother’s arrest. Waleed was just 19 years old, a university student. They put him in prison just for expressing his opinion online.

Q: As the mother of two long-term detainees, what is your opinion on the agreement between opposition and regime forces to evacuate residents of Waer? What about the omission of a widely requested clause to release up to 7,300 regime-held detainees as part of the agreement—was this fair to you and your sons?

At the initial agreement [in late August 2016], I was very happy because it included a clause calling for the release of civilian prisoners who came from Homs city. Hope returned to my life and a smile returned to my face.

I started planning what I would do when I next saw Yasser and Waleed. The prisoner clause was my one hope to know how they were doing—were they still alive?

But my joy soon disappeared. My sadness returned when the regime rolled back on its promises and closed the checkpoint [out of Waer], renewing the siege on our district. There was a military escalation and increased bombing on Waer.

The [opposition] negotiating committee couldn’t do anything but drop the prisoner clause. They informed us that they had removed the clause to protect the lives of civilians still living in Waer.

[Ed.: Syria Direct spoke in March with one of Waer’s opposition negotiators, who said the clause had been dropped due to “enormous pressure” on civilians in Waer throughout the siege and a heavy airstrike campaign on the district. “We had two—and only two—choices in front of us: Either the bombing continues or we accept forced displacement. And so we chose the latter in order to save the lives of innocent children and civilians.”]

This dampened my hope of ever seeing my sons again. I was overcome with sadness. Everything turned to black as the agreement was carried out and the first convoy began leaving [Waer] toward Jarablus. I told myself that I wouldn’t be defeated, and I wouldn’t lose confidence in God. I decided to stay behind [in Waer], and never leave without my sons.

Dropping the prisoner clause means dividing the detainees from their families. The evacuation from Waer and the surrender of the district to the regime is meant to put pressure on the regime because it is the last rebel-held enclave in Homs city.

But the regime employs the politics of bombs and starvation, and denies food and medical supplies. This exhausted us and made us accept the agreement, even if it was unfair.

Q: Do you expect to receive any regime help in locating or communicating with your two sons? What are your hopes moving forward?

I hope that I can try, with the regime’s help, to get any information about my sons.

Someone who is drowning clings onto anything to stay afloat. Maybe staying here under regime control will be in my favor.

I hope to God that happiness can return to my family, that Yasser and Waleed can return, and leave the regime’s prisons in peace. I hope that all detainees can return to their families, and that God can part the black clouds casting shadows over every house in Syria. 

Alaa Rateb

Originally from Homs, Alaa Moved to Jordan in 2013 due to the security situation in Syria. She volunteered with Syrian refugees before joining Syria Direct.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.