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

Syria: Waiting for a Cup of Coffee

Story of a life shaped by government repression.
By Mayada Issa
  • A woman sells bread on the streets of Aleppo. (Photo: Hussam Kuwaifatiyeh)
    A woman sells bread on the streets of Aleppo. (Photo: Hussam Kuwaifatiyeh)

Ziad al-Sayid Issa was born in 1958. He was my father’s cousin. His path of suffering began in late 1979 when a group of security officers raided our neighbourhood in Idlib.

Two of my relatives, Hikmat and Yasir – may their souls rest in peace, were killed in that raid. The officers didn’t stop there – they rounded up all the young men, collected their IDs, and ordered them to report to headquarters the following day.

Ziad, who was the youngest of his siblings, decided to run for it.

His enforced exile began in Baghdad, which he reached mostly on foot. He lived there for four years, and then moved to Jordan, where he married a Syrian woman who had also fled from her home country.

In Jordan, Ziad worked as a truck driver, but money was tight so once again he had to move. He travelled to The Netherlands and applied for political asylum. While Ziad was waiting for his residence permit to come through, the then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad announced an amnesty for anyone still on the run.

Tired of travelling, and eager for the warmth of his parents’ home, Ziad decided to return to Syria. This was a tragic mistake, as the amnesty offer was a lie.

The moment he set foot in the airport, Ziad was escorted away by political security officers for what they said was just a “cup of coffee”. He spent five months in their headquarters, followed by two years in Palmyra prison, still waiting for that cup of coffee.

Palmyra prison was a blot on humanity, so notorious that the very mention of its name would strike fear in the heart of any Syrian. Anyone unlucky enough to be sent there suffered a terrible fate.

By some miracle, Ziad was released alive from Palmyra prison, but when he returned to Idlib, he was a broken man. When we asked him about how he got out, he simply said, “They couldn’t prove I’d done anything and didn’t need to hold on to me any more.”

Once settled in Idlib, Ziad reopened his father’s old grocery store, where he sold olives, olive oil, dairy products and other local produce. But he had changed. He could no longer concentrate and found it difficult to handle his accounts, so he relied heavily on my father. I remember the look of sadness on my father’s face every time he came home from the shop.

“I’m worried Ziad might make accounting mistakes and accuse me of wrongdoing,” he’d say.

When my father passed away, Ziad was left to struggle on with no support.

In 2011, when the Syrian revolution erupted, Ziad was over 50 years old. Still, he participated in every demonstration that took place.

At the time, women like me were a little reserved about taking to the streets, so we would drive cars alongside the demonstrators. I remember seeing Ziad marching for hours under the scorching sun. He looked so exhausted that I used to ask him to join us in the car. He’d ride with us for a short while, but once he was no longer gasping for breath, he would ask to be let out of the car so that he could rejoin the crowd marching on foot.

The government responded to the Idlib demonstrations with harsh crackdowns, and some people began carrying weapons on the marches. It was at this stage that Ziad left Idlib and went to the countryside, where he joined rebel forces.

I met Ziad one year later in Turkey. I had recently moved there, and he was helping his family relocate. They settled in Reyhanli, and Ziad returned to Syria to join the rebels. He said he belonged with them.

About a year after that, I heard that Ziad’s eldest son Mohammad had been martyred. He had given up his life for the revolution. Ziad was proud of his son’s sacrifice.

On March 25 this year, I received news that Ziad himself had been killed He was shot by a sniper near a checkpoint in Aleppo’s Qalaa neighbourhood.

Ziad al-Sayid Issa was my father’s cousin. His struggle against injustice began in 1979, and like so many others he was martyred in the Syrian revolution. His two remaining sons have followed in his footsteps. They are Ziad’s legacy, and they continue to fight injustice.

Mayada Issa is the pseudonym of a Damascus Bureau contributor living in Idlib, Syria.

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

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