Razan Zeitoune: A woman practicing justice
NOW speaks to friends and fellow activists in the wake of Zeitoune’s disappearance
Inside a building in Damascus, as a door opened slowly, a woman in her thirties peered out behind it, as cautious as I was. You couldn’t go wrong in such situations. Then a blond, cat-like woman suddenly peeked through the door, and for a moment, I thought about turning around and leaving, blaming myself for entering the wrong building for the second time in a row, scolding myself for not verifying the address she’d sent me. But before I could move, the woman called my name, and I entered the house. I had not met her in person before August 2011.
She is stubborn, yet kind-hearted: these are the first impressions you are left with after meeting Razan Zeitoune. As you spend more time with her, these impressions are reconfirmed day after day. She is even more courageous and patient than you’d ever imagined.
A few days ago, masked men kidnapped Zeitoune and her team – Wael Hamadeh, Samira al-Khalil, and Nazem Hamadeh from the Violations Documentation Center in Syria – in Douma in Damascus Province.
Zeitoune, a prominent Syrian activist, was known by her friends as “the bravest of all Syrian women.” Syrian writer Yassine al-Hajj Saleh once remarked that “if the revolution had to be represented by a single person, I would say it is Razan.”
Her activism began at an early age. Following her graduation from law school, her cases focused on detainees, their families, and documenting regime violations. And after the Syrian uprising first broke out in March 2011, Zeitoune was eager for systemic change for the country’s political life.
Mona, a mother who transformed her house to accommodate people fleeing from security services, recounts Zeitoune’s long-held activism: “I have known Razan for more than 15 years. She was very sick at the start of the revolution and I asked her to take some rest, but she told me, ‘I have spent my whole life waiting for this day and you want me to rest?’”
Since the uprising began, Zeitoune had grown used to moving from one house to another in an attempt to mislead security services looking for her. “Razan is a [woman] stubbornly calling for the truth. She is transparent to the point of fragility when she comes face-to-face with oppression. Those who know Razan would say that the revolution is everything to her,” said one activist close to her.
True to this characterization, Zeitoune and a group of legal experts and activists founded the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which soon became a media and relief network encompassing all Syrian provinces, cities, and towns. She also organized protests, worked with the local committees, coordinated with FSA members, and held workshops about prisoner rights, the law, and other issues. Majida, a young woman who started working with the Committees about two years ago, recalled that Razan was a tough, decisive person to work with yet kindhearted in everyday life. “She loves the revolution and the people; she never turned down anyone requesting help, and always worked beyond her limits,” she said.
After Damascus was besieged by the regime and its partisans, Zeitoune shuttled back and forth from FSA-controlled areas including Douma, Arbin, Saqba, Saqba, Masraba, al-Meliha, Hammouriyyeh, Harasta, and Hazza. Eventually, she resettled in Douma, launching the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, an initiative that has kept Zeitoune busy since the beginning of the conflict.
Osama Nassar, a young man who accompanied her since they arrived in East Ghouta, told NOW about Zeitoune’s deep and varied interests in judicial institutions, the police, prisons, and rebel groups. “Razan works along all fronts and has decisive – often annoyingly harsh – stances on many issues,” he said, “but she would not have kept working were it not for this harshness.”
On August 21, 2013, the Syrian regime bombed East Ghouta using chemical weapons, leading to the death of up to 1,400 civilians. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria, which Zeitoune launched, documented the attack and most of its victims. At the time, Zeitoune wrote a piece for NOW describing the incident: “I am trying to replay that day in slow motion in the hope of bursting into tears as any ‘normal’ person is supposed to do. I am terrified by this numbness in my chest and the fuzziness of images running around in my mind. This is no normal reaction after a long day of tripping on bodies lined up side-by-side in long and dark hallways,” she wrote. “Bodies are shrouded in white linen, and old blankets show only faces that have turned blue, dried foam edging their mouths, and sometimes, a string of blood that mixes with the foam. Foreheads or shrouds bear a number, a name, or the word ‘unknown.’”
Manhal Barish, a former member of the Local Coordination Committee, recounts a conversation with Razan from this time. “She told me once, ‘Manhal, I want to interview you.’ When I asked her why, she said, ‘We have to document before we are martyred.’ I answered: ‘You do mean before we die?’ But she merely laughed it away.”
The FSA and Islamist brigades never managed to end the regime’s siege on East Ghouta, and food and medical supplies were not allowed into the area. Zeitoune and her team experienced the siege in all its manifestations. In her penultimate piece for NOW, she compared the siege to a life of imprisonment. And, over the next few months, Zeitoune and her team faced daily threats and accusations of treason. But over time, she became a target of both the regime and Islamist rebel groups. Rima Fuleihan, a writer close to Zeitoune, told NOW: “Things have become extremely difficult in East Ghouta for a peaceful civil activist because of the military situation in the area and the presence of extremist forces who do not want her or her work.” Yet as Fuleihan noted, “in spite of everything, Razan was adamant about staying until the fall of the regime and she would not leave no matter what.”
Other than documenting violations, Zeitoune and her team also helped activists establish private institutions that support small enterprises and initiatives. Along with an organization known as the Syrian Women for Development, she worked on cultural projects and opened a public library and reading room in Arbin and Hammouriyyeh. Just before her kidnapping, Zeitoune’s group was also preparing to open a library in Douma in addition to several other projects empowering women.
When asked to describe Zeitoune, Samar Yazbeck, a writer who worked with her on the library project, recalled the following: “She would teach [you] patience and silence and how to think of the future Syria where the descendants of killers and victims co-existed. She would teach [you] how hatred could make you more tolerant and forgiving, the kind of forgiveness that is purely based on punishment. If the Syrian revolution was meant to have an icon, then Razan’s picture would be in the front row. The fact that she and her companions were kidnapped is the most blatant proof that the essence of the revolution has been stolen, that the revolution has been diverted away from its national objective.
“This is how I would describe Razan Zeitoune: a woman practicing justice, combining the toughness of steel with the fragility of a butterfly, carrying both weights and struggling to make sense [of her own position].”