I can never forget my mother’s voice coming through the walls from the living room, screaming his name: “Ehab … what?!! He’s been shot …,” crying loudly and trying desperately to hear something else through the telephone line coming from his office at the central police station in Damascus. In seconds we were all there, trying to dial the hospital’s number to hear that he was still alive.
It was Friday, 16 March, 2012. The best thing about Fridays is the late family breakfast, or ‘brunch’ in European culture. My father would make the best breakfast ever and we would all sit there eating and chatting.
That day felt good. There was nothing suspicious about it. My sister was describing the day before, with the big march in Damascus supporting President Assad on the same date as the anniversary of the Syrian revolution, 15 March.
Anti and pro-government demonstrators were marching, demonstrating their stands and supporting their sides – of course each limited to their own area, either government-held or opposition-held. I didn’t go. I decided not to get involved in politics but to stay focused on what I believe in. I care for the well-being of people and not of opportunist leaders.
My sister told us about Ehab, my cousin, how he was standing there in his long black coat, with red cheeks, his hazel eyes covered with dark black sunglasses and his easily recognisable loud smile. He looked great and in a good health, she said. He was no longer the young boy from the hilly little village on the Mediterranean. He had become a lawyer and a police officer at the central police station, and he had a high rank and a good reputation in “modern city society”. I found it amazing how ideology-driven societies are very similar, like a ‘copy – paste’. George Orwell wrote about ‘Big Brother’. Children chant for a leader while others are condemned as ‘thought criminals’.
Ehab with the lights of Damascus city at night
All these thoughts were wandering through my mind while my sister was describing the pro-Assad march. Why did we have to go through all of this? At that time big cities like Damascus and Aleppo were still untouched and life felt more than normal. We simply couldn’t see what was happening in other cities like Homs and Daraa. We didn’t see it coming. Maybe we didn’t want to see it coming.
There was discussion about the new government, about changes in the constitution and the introduction of new articles giving more rights to the people and showing democracy in the liberal state of the Syrian Arab Republic.
As they say, you only understand someone’s tragedy if you face a similar one, and unfortunately we did. We all got ready in a minute, squeezed into one car. My father didn’t allow me to drive. I wasn’t in the right state of mind. I was so unfocused, between trying to face the tragic reality and convincing myself that he was doing fine, that he might be injured and at the emergency room, but not dead. My mother didn’t stop crying all the way there. It felt like hours. Time was passing by so slowly, and the road was endless. I was hoping not to get to the hospital. I didn’t want to face it. Yet, I was the first one to run out of the car, leaving everyone in the parking lot and running to the emergency room.
Tens of men were standing outside with indescribable faces. A few had on long dark coats, and were smoking cigarettes passionately as if they were their last ones. Others were putting on military uniforms and holding old rifles. They looked tired, as if all the energy had been sucked out of their bodies. Their rifles were as powerless as they were and I was saying to myself: no wonder soldiers get killed on the battle field.
Inside was his elder sister, weeping and crying like a little baby. I knew then that was gone, that there was no chance of seeing him alive again. God had taken his final decision. Everything was so tragic after that single moment, with mixed feelings of sadness, love, hatred, and blame for those who had led us into all of this. Everyone in the family loved him so much. He was the one to bring everyone together and make us all laugh. We didn’t know how to inform his mother, who was sitting there in the little village, feeling proud of the children she had raised and what they had become.
They were eight children. Their father passed away when the youngest was one-and-a-half years old and the eldest was nearly 19. Their mother raised them on her own; they all went to school and received higher education. Education is the only means for poor people to become respected in their societies. They grew up, got married and had children of their own. They received their degrees and made her proud. She finally started to relax and enjoy being the beautiful woman, the mother of eight successful children.
We had to drive a long way to Lattakia the next day, to the funeral. He was lying in the ambulance driving ahead of us. We were in a convoy of about 50 cars driving from Damascus, between cautious and fast. Everyone was trying to be as careful as possible since there had been reports of ambulances being hijacked. The rebels needed them to transport and treat their wounded. If they took them to city hospitals, they got arrested.
After four hours’ drive we arrived at the hilly village. His pictures decorated the narrow mountain road from the main entrance to the village to his family house. The village was proudly wedding the groom; but this groom was a martyr. He was carried on shoulders all the way to his mother’s house. She didn’t have the chance to see his face before he was gone for good. The last time she had visited him in Damascus was two months before. The coffin was closed and wrapped in the Syrian flag. This is how they honor martyrs. The ceremony was over. He was back to earth now. She got to keep the flag, handed over to her by a high-ranking police officer. These are the rules. Even though these were the most painful moments in my life, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking: why did we have to go through this? For whom are we dying and losing our beloved ones? What is the cause we are fighting for? I felt so lost in my thoughts.
That evening, after the prayers and all the ceremonies were over, women started to come, gathering in a separate section from the men. At night, all the relatives and close friends met for dinner to support the close family. Everyone was so mired in grief, with rivers of tears running down their faces. My aunt, his mother, was inviting us to the dinner table, saying: you came a long way today; come and eat something. You need your energy for the coming few days.”
She was the grieving mother, yet she was standing there so strong, trying to hide her pain. She would let it out when she was alone in her room holding his passport-size picture tight to her chest and smelling the scarf he left at home when he was there last time for the funeral of our grandmother three months before.
I can never forget her face, red cheeks and deep blue eye. She has the genes of my grandfather. She’s hurt, she lost her closest son but she had to stay strong for the rest of her children, as she did before when their father passed away. She had faith and believed in destiny. “This is God’s will and we all have to trust that God is choosing the best for us”.
We were talking and trying to recall the events. How did this whole thing happen? Many reasons and stories made the rounds. Everyone was contributing to the conversation, which kept getting louder and louder.
Her voice came calmly in the middle of everything and suddenly everyone was quiet: “He’s gone; blaming others won’t bring him back. It has happened and we have to live with it now. We can’t keep killing each other. We don’t do revenge, this is not our culture”.
My morning view from the balcony overlooking the graveyard covered by trees
I always remember him with a big smile on his face, so I smile back. I wanted to visit him at the family graveyard, but I couldn’t. I still refuse this idea maybe, and I like the picture I always visualise in my head. I can overlook the graveyard from the balcony of our house there. It is a beautiful view. It brings comfort and peace of mind. He is in a better place, they say. The last time I saw him was 16 days before. We had family dinner for my 30th birthday. I was back from a business trip and brought lots of cheese from Paris airport. I wanted to invite him for dinner at home on Thursday the 15th but I didn’t. I wish I had.
This is not just my story, it is the story of every house in Syria now; every wall holds a portrait of a family member with a black ribbon in the top corner. Every destroyed house tells stories of the last joyful moments under their roofs, of the loud laughter and of tender mothers putting their children to bed. The war is bad; it takes away people we love, so it must stop.
I’m writing this on the third anniversary of the death of my beloved and closest cousin at the age of 32. He was my childhood friend and the elder brother whom I never had. This day is also the third anniversary of the start of the uprising in Syria, the revolution, the war. Since then more than 150,000 people have been killed, kidnapped, arrested, tortured to death, slaughtered. Nine million have lost their homes, between the refugees and the displaced. There has been the wholesale destruction of human heritage going back thousands of years, of human history, of infrastructure and of people’s souls. Humanity has lost its humanity in the Syria War.