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

In Syria, Wanting to Study Can Get You Arrested

A young man is seized by government forces while on his way to an exam.
By Lina al-Doumaniya

Now in its third year, the siege of Douma continues to intensify. Our world is closing in on us, and there is nothing we can do about it. We sometimes wish for death, and are barely able to get up in the morning and unwilling to go through the same daily tragedies. We often tell ourselves that tomorrow will be better, but disappointment always follows.

Life has simply stopped for a lot of people. Some try to distract themselves and to forget that outside this large prison, others continue to do things they can only dream of.

Joining armed groups has been the only outlet available to a lot of young men. They abandoned their studies to join the Free Syrian Army. Their decision to defend themselves, their families and their freedom has meant they are unable to lead normal lives like other young people.

Younger men who have grown up during the revolution do not see the point of getting an education in Ghouta (of which Douma is part) if there is no option of going to university and pursuing the life they want.

Those who try to leave Ghouta to enroll in a university are allowed to do so by government forces, which then arrest them as they come out.

That is how the conflict between my twin brothers began. Imad was reluctant to leave Douma to take his baccalaureate exams, but Iyad was excited at the prospect. He refused to believe that granting permission to leave was just a ploy by the regime. All he wanted to do was secure a future for himself and continue his studies at university level. He dreamed of becoming a pilot or a mechanical engineer.

After days of arguing, Iyad was finally able to convince my father. All three of them went to the checkpoint on the edge of Ghouta. On the other side lay freedom, but my father could not bear to hand his sons over to a monstrous regime. They argued again, and my father dragged both my brothers back home, as he refused to let them head for what he believed was certain death.

Iyad was furious with my father and would not speak to anyone in the house for a long time. Eventually, he calmed down and things went back to normal, as if nothing had happened. While we were a bit surprised at his change of heart, we were happy that he had come to his senses.

One Monday in August 2014, we awoke as usual, only to discover that Iyad was missing. We thought that he might have gone to our old apartment, on the top floor of our block. We had left it for the safety of a lower floor after it was shelled several times. He still liked to hang out there, though.

My younger brother went up to call him for breakfast, but to our surprise he was not there. We began to worry. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would burst.

We looked for Iyad at his friends’ homes and his usual hangouts, but there was no sign of him. We asked the military units in the town, and Imad went to the camp’s checkpoint, suspecting that Iyad had tried to go to Damascus by himself. Again, there was no sign of him.

We knocked on doors and searched for him everywhere. We asked about him at revolutionary prisons, Jabhat al-Nusra prisons and even Islamic State prisons.

By the time night fell, we were all exhausted. My mother collapsed and lamented the loss of her son. She began screaming, “I want my son, bring me my son! Has he eaten? Is he cold or hot? He didn’t take his hypothyroid medicine with him!”

My father held her close and said, “Maybe he felt claustrophobic in the house and left for a couple of days. He’ll be back.”

“Why didn’t he tell me where he was going?” she replied. “I’m his mother! Wouldn’t he want to see me and say goodbye first?”

She cried all night. We woke the next day to the sound of her weeping. She had gone upstairs to our old flat to check his clothes for any clues about where he had gone. My father forced her to come downstairs, and he went out to look for him again.

We remained in this state of uncertainty for a long time, knowing nothing about his whereabouts and only able to speculate about the possible scenarios.

It was useless. We tried to recall how Iyad had behaved before he disappeared, but he had done nothing unusual, except to ask my sister for his ID, saying a friend wanted to see it. We eventually discovered that some of his clothes were missing. We were saddened that he had not said goodbye to us and that he had not even left a note telling us what had happened.

One day my work colleague showed me a message on the Facebook page of an underground organisation that said a young man from Douma had been arrested at a checkpoint in Kfarsousa in Damascus. He had been charged with scouting out roads and planting mines for the Free Syrian Army. It was my brother.

The administrator of the group that issued the statement said Iyad had wanted to leave Douma to take his baccalaureate exams, just like any other young person.

Despite the government’s promise not to harm students who registered for exams, Iyad was seized and beaten by government thugs who took him to Khatib and from there to Kfarsousa.

I was shocked and began to cry. I didn’t know what to do or what to feel. Should I be happy that we finally knew what happened to my missing brother, or should I be sad that he had been arrested and I didn’t know if I would ever see him again? What should I tell our anguished mother? Should I tell her that her son was fine – but imprisoned by monsters?

How are you now, my brother? Are they torturing you? Will your slight, frail body withstand it?

Oh God, is this the punishment for those who dream of building better futures for themselves?

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists. 

More IWPR's Global Voices