Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Friendship Torn Apart in Syria

Detention by the security forces scars individuals and their relationships.
By Rafea Salameh
  • Women shopping at a local market in Aleppo’s al-Shaar neighbourhood. (Photo: Hussam Kuwaifatiyeh)
    Women shopping at a local market in Aleppo’s al-Shaar neighbourhood. (Photo: Hussam Kuwaifatiyeh)

Wearing the dress my friend bought me, I pick up my phone and select her name, but do not dial her number.

I log on to my computer and stare at an image I downloaded off the internet. It is a painting my friend drew depicting a beautiful ghoul swallowing her up. I think about the frightening ghouls who terrorise my remaining friends and me.

My female friends are all that remain of my old life here in Damascus. Our male peers have been stolen from us. Some have joined the army, while other have sought refuge elsewhere.

My girlfriends are my sisters. We share everything – disappointment, fear, tears, memories, and on some rare occasions, a stolen dance.

My girlfriends’ mothers are my mothers. They call me when they are cooking my favourite dish. It is their way of showing me how much they care for me.

A friend of mine is going through an abusive relationship. Not with a partner but with members of our ironically-named “security” forces. They lied to her and asked her to accompany them to their offices for a short visit. She was reluctant to go, so they dragged her along.

“She will be back in half an hour,” they told her parents. That too was a lie.

Her sister broke into tears and begged them not to take her, but sometimes tears result in harsh punishment and only make those you are appealing to become more violent.

Another girlfriend of mine was approached by security forces and told to call a mutual friend and bring her along to see them. She did as she was asked. Neither of them came back home.

How can you refuse their demands? Who can you trust? Can you even trust a friend who calls you and says she needs you?

How can we survive among everything bad that is happening to us? Especially when some of it is done to us by our loved ones?

Although I don’t know where she is, I know how my friend will be treated. They will go through every tiny detail of her life, with no respect for her privacy. They will search every corner of her room, and mock her childhood rag doll. They will turn her house upside down in an attempt to find something – anything that will prove how smart they are and how evil she is.

The truth is my friend is not evil, and they are not smart. My friend is just a very nice but very unlucky person, and they are a group of men who wield great power.

Those men will threaten to beat her – indeed, they might do that – and my friend will find herself denouncing anyone and anything she loves or hates.

The more those men threaten us and our loved ones, the more insecure we become, until all of a sudden we realise that George Orwell’s fictitious world has become reality. All of a sudden, something dies inside you.

Our security forces have forbidden my friend to let us know where she is, and they have forbidden us to ask after her. Questions can get you into trouble. Questions can open Pandora’s box.

This abusive relationship my friend is enduring will lead to the ruination of our friendship.

My dear friend, some day you will question everything that we, your friends, did or did not do to you. You will retrace your life, searching for the reason why you were arrested. Fear will cripple you and destroy your ability to care.

Every time you are stopped at a checkpoint by a soldier asking to see your ID, you will wish your life – and ours – was over.

When you come back home, you will stare at your reflection in the mirror, trying to recognise yourself.

You will search for a way to escape your long and abusive relationship, and you might conclude that the only solution is to escape from the body you seem to be trapped in. Suicide may seem the only thing you can control.

You will scream and cry until you fall asleep, but when you wake up you will search for a dress I once bought you, and a painting of a beautiful green-eyed ghoul that you once drew.

You will pick up your diary and start writing in the hope that it will ease some of your pain.

At some stage, you will discover that two of your friends are missing, and this knowledge will haunt you, for you know the nature of the abusive relationship they are suffering.

You will pray that, like you, they emerge from this abuse stronger than they were before, and you will take it upon yourself to find a way to protect yourself and your loved ones from a similar haunting fate.

Rafea Salamah is the pseudonym of a Damascus Bureau contributor. She is a 30-year-old journalist who lived in Damascus before the revolution, and is currently working on a documentary film. Other work she has been involved in includes organising awareness campaigns on civil law and honour killings. She has been detained four times.

This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.