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Wives of the Detainees and Disappeared: Women under Suspended Sentences

Noura Ghazi speaks to four Syrian women based in Lebanon whose family members have been disappeared during the conflict.

.اقرأ المقال بالعربي

I still remember the day everyone called me crazy because I decided against traveling to Britain to complete my master’s degree—even though I had received a full scholarship. That was the dream for everyone!

I decided to stay in Lebanon when most Syrians were seeking to leave it by any means. My main goal was to establish the Nophotozone organization, my shared dream with my husband Bassel. That also happened during the rise of restrictions on civil society in Lebanon.

I had thought I wanted to live in Beirut, because it is close to Syria and I could see my family. Now, after more than three and a half years since I had been forced out of Syria, and more than a year and a half since I last saw my family due to the travel difficulties amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the complete collapse of Lebanon on all fronts, I still find it difficult to leave Beirut.

What keeps me here is the women with whom I work daily as beneficiaries of Nophotozone. I feel I belong to this communitythe community of the wives of the detainees and the disappeared. The world only recognizes refugee women in Europe, despite the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of them in Lebanon and the Middle East. These were not fortunate enough to obtain asylum in a country that respects the dignity of human beings, particularly women and children—and especially women who face detention and disappearance to which they personally, or a member of their family, have been exposed.

I am in contact with many women in Lebanon who face this suffering, and discussed concepts of justice, daily suffering and fears, and emotional lives with four of them.

My interview with each woman began by asking, “What does justice mean to you?”

Yasmine, a 47-year-old woman from Damascus, is a mother of six children between 13 and 23 years old. Her husband has gone missing since 2013. Recently, she heard that he had died in a detention center but received no confirmation or evidence. Yasmine replies: “Justice in the first place is to know what happened to our men, their fate, where they are, and why they are nowhere to be found. It means to obtain our rights as women—as refugees in a country that suffers greatly. This is in addition to the xenophobia and bigotry that we face daily. We expect just laws that protect us. We want to see explanations, acknowledgments, and apologies for all the crimes committed against us. These crimes include the forced displacement and disappearance of our husbands. I want my sons and daughters to learn like other children.”

She repeats the word justice and laughs, saying: “There is no justice. I had doubts about this before the revolution, but now I am certain.”

“We do not even have the right to express our views. Even here in Lebanon, we do not feel safe as the Syrian regime and its allies have a presence here in one way or another,” she added.

Habiba is a 40-year-old woman from Homs and a mother of five between 11 and 22 years old. Her eldest child was killed by a shell in 2012 when he was 15. Her husband was forcibly disappeared in 2012. She said, “Justice is a very broad concept that primarily means equality in everything including rights, duties, work, and freedom of expression.”

Habiba agrees with Yasmine about the current lack of justice: “Where is justice when I play the role of father and mother and bear all responsibilities alone? I cannot express my feelings so as not to bother anyone and not be judged by family and society.”

Raghad is a 37-year-old woman from the southern countryside of Damascus. She is a mother of five children between 8 and 18 years old. Her husband has been missing since 2014. Recently, she was granted a divorce in absentia and married another man.

She currently suffers due to both her recent marriage, and years of hopeless waiting for her  first husband’s return. She sees that justice is in the absence of injustice, and that this injustice is practiced against women—not only by the system that forced the disappearance of their men but by society and families at large.

Raghad believes that justice becomes a reality when “humanity is our priority, we are sensitive towards each other, women are free to make their own life decisions, and no one is in charge of them, or their lives and choices.”

She sees that a wife of a forced missing person is the one who suffers the most in this conflict at all levels. What secures the minimum standard of justice is granting the rights to whom these rights are due. All victims must receive compensation for the injustices they suffered.

Amal is 45 years old and from Qaboun in Damascus. She is mother of four: 3 boys, and a girl, ages between 10 and 27 years old. Her eldest son went missing when he was 18 years old, along with his father (her husband) in 2012.

Amal agrees with other women that justice means “equality, especially between women and men, Syrians and Lebanese, rich and poor.” She also stresses that there must be an end to domestic violence by analyzing and addressing its causes. Single mothers must be the first receivers of support.

Amal also discusses another challenge: her everyday hardships. She wishes that waiting in vain could be her only concern, but she has to worry about daily life challenges, particularly the deteriorating situation in Lebanon. She experiences constant fear of being unable to secure resources for rent or food, in addition to the fear of being evicted or deported from Lebanon.

Raghad experiences the same daily fears, in addition to employment. For an uneducated Syrian woman in Lebanon, it is particularly challenging to find a job, and she had to accept low wages and long hours, only to return home after shifts to do the housework and take care of the children.

Recently, her health has prevented her from working: a key reason behind her second marriage, especially after she lost hope that her ex-husband would reappear.

Habiba points out that the daily suffering is not only about the difficulty of finding a job, but also “in the position of society that watches and judges us as single wives.”

“We are subject to various types of sexual harassment and extortion. We do not feel that CSOs are offering anything to our children or us. We cannot prove the death of the breadwinner—the father—due to his forced disappearance and the failure of the authorities to acknowledge his fate. Hence, we, along with our children are denied access to most support provided by CSOs,” Habiba added.

After confirming facing the same hardships mentioned by her peers, Yasmine added that those who often access support do so thanks to favoritism and non-professional personal connections.

“Everything is an issue: from water to electricity to bread,” said Yasmine. Her heart aches over her sons and daughters who were robbed of their childhoods and have to work and bear tremendous responsibilities at the expense of their educations. She also complains about the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), saying that their monthly allowance to every refugee amounts to only $6.

All interviewed women sighed when asked, “What if your husbands were still around?” They all confirmed their husbands would be bear the responsibility of providing for them and their children. They would not have to work in these harsh and humiliating conditions and be subject to exploitation and extortion. Perhaps, they could then move to another country, or their children could complete their schooling. They would feel safer because of his support, and they and their daughters would not have to struggle as much against sexual harassment.

Raghad, for example, would not have considered remarrying and suffered from the ensuing marital issues. Habiba would have felt that there was a real shoulder to lean on, and she would have focused her role as the mother in her family.

Amal said, “People think that my son’s absence is more difficult than my husband’s, but I assure you it is the opposite. The absence of my husband broke my children and me. If he were present, he would have comforted me during my grief over my son’s disappearance.” Habiba, too, emphasized that the absence of her husband broke her—she did not have any assistance when her son was killed.

The ladies welcomed the question about their personal and emotional lives as females, even insisting that this issue is important and should not be discussed with shame. They asserted that they suffer a lot in that regard amid loneliness.

Yasmine begins to complain that she is unable to enjoy her life as a female. She feels that she is only a mother, and when her emotional needs arise, she tries to suppress them. These needs did not arise during the first three years after the disappearance of her husband, but ater a while, she began to feel tormented. Even if she wanted to enter into a relationship with a man, she could not, as she was afraid of religion and society. She also could not trust to have a relationship with a man lest he would tell anyone. “Who will want me?” she asks in reference to her age. The only available framework for any relationship is marriage, and she does not want to marry again.

Habiba is trying to compensate for her emotional deprivation by relaxing and venting whenever she has the opportunity. She refuses to remarry because she loves her husband and cannot be emotionally attached to a man and while physically with another. Her piety and religious adherence prevent her from entering into an “an illegal affair,” as she put it. Like Yasmine, she would not trust another party if she were to have an affair. She also said that marriage is critical for women’s psychological stability and balance. “Could you imagine our suffering? It is another injustice against us and a major violation of our rights as women. Sadly, no one feels what we go through—not even our family and children,” Habiba added.

Raghad said that, at first, she felt as if she lost her femininity; she did not even look at herself in the mirror. But two years ago, she met a man—a cousin—who helped her restore her femininity. As she did not want to get into “an illegal affair,” she resorted to a legal separation from her husband, in absentia and recently re-married. She currently faces harassment from the family of her ex-husband, who refuse her new marriage and threaten to take her children, house, and furniture. Her children—especially the girls—are not happy with her marriage either, even though she does not want to give them up. She is the second wife to her present husband, who has children from another wife. Unfortunately, this is the only option she has. She says the motivation for her second marriage was not only to meet her emotional needs but primarily because she wanted to financially and socially secure herself and her children.

As for Amal, she does not think about her needs as a woman at all. She says she would not seek those needs outside of the framework of another marriage, especially with her grief over her disappeared son. She thinks that it is good for her not to think of herself as a female, which is better than to live the torment of deprivation every moment to no avail. Moreover, she pointed out that most of her friends who remarried are unhappy.

As I listened to the women, I reflected on their experiences in light of my current situation. In many ways, my experience contradicts their tragedies. I have no children from Bassel, and this leads others around me to constantly say to turn the page of my story with him and start a new one. Perhaps, but for me, Bassel is a cause, and causes remain in the present and the future and never turn into a memory and a past. I often respond by asking: “If it were my brother who disappeared (God forbid!), would you ask me not to remember him?” The reply I usually get is one of deafening silence.

At the end of the interviews, all the women stressed that supporters, those concerned with the Syrian conflict, and the media should give special attention to the wives of the detained and disappeared, especially in Lebanon. They are in an “exceptional situation,” as they put it. There should be special allocations to support and empower them psychologically and socially. They need educational opportunities for their children and small projects. Special attention should be given to them in terms of psychological and social support and rehabilitation.

They also highlighted the need to prioritize fully find the truth about their lost loved ones with all evidence, along with secure special protection for families including assurance that they will not be deported. The situation in Syria is not safe, especially for them, because they are subject to arrest with their children. They need compensation and reparations for the hardships they have experienced, especially with the societal challenges that come with being single mothers. They must be treated as human beings—as women and not just as mothers.

The names of the women in this piece have been changed to protect their identities. 

Noura Ghazi is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on enforced disappearances and detention across the region.


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