Shedding new light on the Douma4 case

Aous Al Mubarak (Original title: One year of their absence and some of what has not been said)

If only we had anticipated their kidnapping before that morning. Why did it only occur to us as we made our way to their office? We were hoping they would agree to move to a protected location. It only dawned on us that we were too late when we arrived and found the office door open. No-one answered when we knocked. I sensed that what we feared on our way there had happened. When the lack of any response made me feel anxious, I went in to the office with my friends — two members of the Free Syrian Army. A child had arrived before us. He too was waiting for someone to answer the door. When we saw the first signs of disarray, we knew they had been kidnapped. My friends became unsettled. “You’ve got a Druze and an Ismaili with you,” one of them said to me, fearing for both of their safety. “Now’s no time for us to look around.” He requested that we leave immediately before the kidnappers came back. The kidnapping couldn’t have happened long ago, we thought. That was what the state of the office suggested. After taking them to a safe place in the city, I returned to the office. Inside, I found a group of people, some of whom I knew. When I came in they were asking the child who he had seen outside. When he told them I was one of those people, I could see they thought I was one of the kidnappers!

A threat left on Razan's door shortly before the kidnapping of #Douma4, it reads: "In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful Forewarned is forearmed, You have three days to clear off and leave Douma, for after that I will kill you, I will kill you, I will kill you Razan Zaitouneh, will kill you."

A threat left on Razan’s door shortly before the kidnapping of #Douma4, it reads:
“In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
Forewarned is forearmed,
You have three days to clear off and leave Douma, for after that I will kill you, I will kill you, I will kill you Razan Zaitouneh, will kill you.”

Afterwards, we learnt that the kidnapping had taken place at night. Most of us were more afraid than angry, especially those of us who had been involved in the work the abductees were doing. As usual, I was the first to become agitated and get angry. Most people there told me to calm down so we could think about what to do next. After that, we stayed in the office for a few days trying to gather any information that might be useful. Difficult hours passed as we received phone calls and military and civilian visitors.

On the first day after the kidnapping a child who used to visit the office came in. He said he had seen Razan from a distance, being led blindfold out of a building along with a man and two women — he probably saw Nazem from behind and mistook him for a woman because of his long hair. Then, according to the child, they were taken away in a black Kia with the words Douma la tamout written on it (Douma will not die — the slogan of the Lions of Ghouta brigade Liwa’ Usud al-Ghouta)

Later, the Military Police arrived. They accompanied the child to the place he said he’d seen Razan and carried out an inspection. They didn’t tell us anything important, only that there was a cellar nearby and they would make inquiries about the owners. They never told us the result. Personally, I was convinced the child had been telling the truth. I’m sure the slogan written on the car was just an attempt to deceive us — anyone who knew the abductees and happened to see them in the car was supposed to think the kidnappers were Lions of Ghouta Brigade members.

I believe the strict discipline observed during the kidnapping is one of the most important clues, and could help reduce the number of suspects. The kidnappers only took the abductees and their laptops. They didn’t take their mobiles or the equipment in the office — an attractive prize in view of the fact that Ghouta was under siege; even the five million Syrian pounds that was in the office at the time remained untouched.

The following night, I got in touch with a man one of my friends told me had important information. The man said he had spoken with Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) commander Islam Alloush and managed to pry a confession out of him: they had taken our friends, but only for questioning; it was just a matter of a few days. When I told Douma Martyrs’ Brigade commander Abu Subhi Taha, he asked me if there was a recording of the conversation, but there was no recording. He told me he would “look in to the matter.” Apart from that, I wasn’t sure I could trust the man who had given me the information. All I knew was that the friend who put me in touch with him assured me he was trustworthy.

Two days later Razan’s sister told me she had heard the abductees were being held in a cellar near Douma’s al-Tubbi Tower. I told the Military Police and they raided all the cellars in the area around the building, but they didn’t find anything.

At the time, I didn’t think all of those leads would eventually prove useless. We thought at least one of them might help us find the abductees. Whole days of severe nervous tension passed, with a few obnoxious people making comments about “Razan’s unacceptable behavior.” That was what had caused the kidnapping, they said.

A few days later, I had a meeting with a commander from the al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigades, who used to come to the office to talk to Razan as a civilian. He told me that he had also been a target and would have been kidnapped along with Razan, but when one of the Brigades’ commanders heard, the kidnappers were warned to keep their distance. The Nusra Front was the guilty party, he said; he also linked that to the kidnapping of Doctor Ahmad al-Beqaai who was taken along with Maghawir Forces commander Abu Zaid Ghanmeh – and to the kidnapping of al-Hajji Osama, the man responsible for the Damascus Military Council’s arms depots, and his assistant. It later transpired that the latter four abductees really were kidnapped by the Nusra Front faction, and were subsequently released.

Due to the lack of a trustworthy investigative committee and the reluctance of the man from the al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigades to testify, it was impossible to verify any of these leads. There was no way to pursue them that could guarantee the abductee’s release. The problem was further compounded by the fact that many people could benefit from finding out who the kidnappers were and keeping their identities secret in exchange for money. Despite this, supporters of the cause inside and outside the Eastern Ghouta refused to despair. There are many things that could be said about that subject but I don’t want to repeat what has already been published. Nevertheless, I cannot refrain from mentioning how truly heartwarming it was to see demonstrations in Douma and Saqba calling for the release of Razan, Samira, Wael and Nazem. It was the most damning condemnation possible of the kidnappers’ actions. The same goes for the statements made by a large number of civil and military organizations expressing solidarity with the abductees and condemning the crime of their kidnapping. Additionally, many statements were made and civil actions were taken in other parts of Syria and abroad.

Later still, it was revealed that online accounts belonging to the team had been opened from a satellite internet device belonging to Jaysh al-Islam. This new piece of evidence, provided by Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a well-known writer and the husband of Samira al-Khalil, was the first helpful lead in finding out who the kidnappers were, or at least who helped them. The importance of this discovery may be that it doesn’t need to be investigated on the ground; seeing as none of the parties capable of doing anything on the ground have taken the case seriously.

A few days before Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s announcement, a member of the Islamic Front, which includes Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and other groups, paid us a visit, saying he was one of Razan’s relatives. He said he had told Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush he intended to look into the case of the abductees and that Alloush had not objected. He asked us to do whatever we could to help him and seemed surprised when he learnt that there were four abductees, not just Razan. He put the matter down to his having been stationed in Adra al-Omalia with Ahrar al-Sham when the kidnapping took place, and that he had only returned a few days ago. As for Jaysh al-Islam, he completely ruled out any involvement on their part. We informed him that the abductees’ families had filed the case in with the Unified Judiciary of the Eastern Ghouta and that if the judiciary would allow it he could continue his investigations with them.

Of course we didn’t trust him at first, but when he told us his investigations had revealed new evidence, incriminating Jaysh al-Islam leadership, we felt compelled to re-evaluate his intentions. The most important discovery he made was the identity of a man who had sent two others to post a warning letter on the door of the office and open fire in the air outside. When these three men were questioned one of them admitted that they had left the threat after being encouraged by one of their sheikhs, but denied any involvement in the kidnapping.

In spite of all the denials by Jaysh al-Islam leadership of everything that has come to light, the lack of any force that can put pressure on them, and the amount of time that has passed since the kidnapping — which has led many people to believe the abductees have been executed — we should most definitely not give up. Even though they have been absent for a year, they are still present with us. We must continue to do everything possible to secure their release. Rebels who weren’t scared by the bullets of Assad’s gangs won’t fear the brutality of the new dictators and their short memories. They won’t be terrified by the danger of kidnapping or death. Their voices will continue to sound the slogan the team hung on the door of their office: I call anyone who violates my rights an oppressor.

Translated by Ullin Hope