Before Exile. About my Father, Fear, and the Revolution

The death of my father was the catalyst for our leaving Syria with no return, a country plagued by revolution and war that has given us nothing but pain and sorrow. I began to save up the amount needed to make the journey by sea or perhaps to get a visa to Russia and then smuggle myself to Norway, where I would repeat the story of my father’s arrest and torture.

07 August 2016

To this day, I do not know the reasons that prompted my father, ʿAdi Rajab, to leave Syria in March 2013 for Cairo by way of Beirut. A few days later, he appeared on TV as a participant in the “We Are All Syrians...Against Sectarianism” conference in Cairo. At the time, it was called the “Alawi Opposition Conference” by the media due to the fact that the majority of the participants belonged to the same Alawi sect of the Asad regime.

It was not surprising; my father’s choice to join the ranks of the revolution was not a confused one. In his youth, in 1987, he was arrested for being a member of the Communist Action Party (CAP). His ideals were bulldozed but despite the disappointment, torture, and oppression he suffered when he was young in the regime’s Military Intelligence branches, he continued his political career with no hesitation.

Living Under the Shadow of Fear

Our existence in the coastal village after the latest news was worrisome at every level. Some villagers and various members of our family treated us with hostility and we were subject to threats from the Shabiha (pro-regime militiamen and gangsters) in our area. I remember that three days passed without sleep for me, in anticipation of an imminent attack to burn our house down or perhaps to kill us. This anxiety hung over the rest of my stay in Syria; I felt that at any moment, my head, exposed, would be pierced by a bullet.

We no longer felt safe and so we fled our house in the village. We left behind stability and started to live in poor conditions in Latakia, waiting for a chance to join my father in Egypt or maybe in Sweden, as was mentioned to him after the conference in Cairo. In any case, his return to Syria was out of the question.

He was unable to go to Sweden, due to his refusal of the conditions set on him: to join the Syrian National Coalition as a member of the Alawi Opposition. He refused to join the Coalition due to its political line, and he remained in Egypt. We did not receive many updates from him, but we came to know that he slept in one of Cairo's parks for 15 days.

[Photo: Syrian Dissident ʿAdi Rajab (SyriaUntold)].
[Photo: The late Syrian Dissident ʿAdi Rajab (SyriaUntold)].
At a conference for the anti-Muslim Brotherhood “Tamarod” movement in Cairo, my father met Haytham al-Mannaʿ (a prominent secular-minded Syrian dissident). Mannaʿ offered my father work with the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB) in Cairo. My father accepted the job, as head of the Executive Office, and established departments for women and youth, gathering a number of young unemployed Syrians who had been forced to flee to Egypt for their revolutionary activities.

In the meantime, we were constantly moving from one place to the other. We did not share details of our life and would often lie when pressed for answers. My sister and I left our studies at university, and started working because of the deteriorating economic conditions in Syria.

Despite all our efforts, we were not able to escape insecurity and instability and we were constantly looking for a way to leave Syria.

Return to Syria

My father worked with the NCB for nearly a year. However, the youth started to leave Egypt in droves soon, taking boats from Alexandria to Italy to move onto other European countries. My father began to seriously consider his return to Syria, no matter the cost, due to the growing difficulties of living in Egypt. He felt helpless in his inability to support us and blamed himself for our situation at home. He wanted to return to compensate us for all that we had lost.

As such, he began to communicate with the relevant parties about his return to Syria and, a little more than a month later, he returned to Beirut. The day he returned to Beirut, members of the opposition in Cairo defined his return to Syria as "the betrayal of the martyrs, their blood, and the revolution." Many threatened to kill him on their personal Facebook pages.

My father was in communication with someone from the Ministry of Reconciliation in order to return to Syria. During this time, he was living in Beirut. He also applied for political asylum at the French embassy, but the response from them was delayed. Six months later, he was able to enter Damascus with an international organization. He stayed in Damascus for 15 days until a friend of his was able to bypass the checkpoints and take him to Latakia, where we were waiting for him.

Arrest, Again

Two days after he arrived one of his friends from Beirut contacted him: the French Embassy set a date for an interview in a month’s time and he should find a way to get to Beirut then. His friend advised that he stay in Beirut after the interview, but this was not an option: there was nothing to do for my father there, no place to live, and no source of income.

On December 16, 2014, my dad left Latakia, heading to Beirut using the same crossings that he’d entered through in Damascus. We lost contact with him two days later. On that Friday, one of his friends communicated with us to ask whether my dad had arrived in Syria. When I told his friend that he hadn’t arrived yet, I learned from him that my father had left to Tripoli from Beirut to cross into Latakia two days prior and that he should have arrived by now.

[Photo: “A Million Walled Room”, a painting by Yaser Safi (SyriaUntold)].
[Photo: “A Million Walled Room”, a painting by Yaser Safi - Beirut (SyriaUntold)].
The possibilities were endless: he could have been visiting a friend, staying in Tripoli, or his arrest at the Syrian border or at a National Defense Forces checkpoint on the way to Tartus, which is infamous for brutality. It wasn’t until evening of that day that we discovered he had crossed the Syrian border in the morning and disappeared. The next day, we heard news that he was arrested by the Military Intelligence on the border. This branch had summoned my older sister twice previously to interrogate her about our father and us.

Freedom and the Spectre of Death

Eight days later, I was at home by myself. The electricity was cut and so I decided to lie down and rest a little. As I closed my eyes, thinking, I suddenly heard someone trying to open the door, succeed and put the key on the table near the door as was my father’s habit. I yelled out to him, and jumped up towards the door.

I couldn’t make out his features at first due to the lack of light. I tried to hug him but he didn’t let me, so I lit a candle and approached him. His face was covered with bruises from the beatings that he had taken in prison, the cold had him shivering.

I made him a cup of tea and turned on the heater. He sat next to me, trembling, and told me what happened, how he was arrested, the beatings he was subjected to, where he was held, the diseases in the cells of the branch, the young men he saw there, the people who knew him and those whom he knew. Nothing was strange to him, as he had already experienced the regime’s prisons.

His health began to deteriorate slowly. He had chest infections, a mild concussion, and general weakness. He was introverted, refusing to go out. This lasted for a month and a half until one of his friends, in early February, took him to a hospital.

I wasn’t home then, I was working at a bar in the city, as usual. Normally, he would wait for me to come home, preparing a simple meal and making up my bed, before he went to sleep. When I returned that day, at 2 o’clock in the morning, I did not find him waiting for me. I woke my sister up and asked her where he was. He had been at the hospital since 9 o’clock, and his initial diagnosis was renal failure caused by a sustained period of bleeding in the kidneys and that he must be monitored. This was the result of the beatings he had sustained during his time in prison.

The long journey of his treatment began and lasted nearly five months, without the approval of the NCB to continue his work in Syria, without a response from the French Embassy, without his acceptance of a new Syria from which he had disappeared for two years, without his "comrades", without friends, without people, without even the youths in our village.

On June 22, 2015, his heart stopped at the hospital after he had slipped into a coma for a week. There could be no attempt at resuscitation, one of the doctors said. His heart was fighting for life, but the condition of his body was deplorable.

On that day, I was waiting for my cousin to go to the blood bank, as we were both a blood match with my father. At 8:30 in the morning, I was told to go to the hospital. When I got there, they were wheeling away the medical equipment. He was dead.

[Photo: A painting dedicated by artist Abdun-Naser an-Naji to Hasan Hasan, a Syrian-Palestinian actor who was killed under torture in the regime prisons in December 2013 (Abdun-Naser an-Naji's Facebook page)].
[Photo: A painting dedicated by artist Abdun-Naser an-Naji to Hasan Hasan, a Syrian-Palestinian actor who was killed under torture in the regime prisons in December 2013 (Abdun-Naser an-Naji's Facebook page)].
A Funeral Without Mourners

Not many people attended the burial, and even those who attended kept a distance, expecting a presence from the security forces, vigilant for anything that may happen.

The next day, headlines reading “(Minister of Reconciliation) Ali Haidar Tortures An Opponent to Death” and “Alawi Dissident Killed Under Torture in Regime Prisons” spread through the media. At the funeral, people were whispering and sharing strange looks, while we were unaware of what was going on.

Someone from the Military Intelligence branch called my sister, to ask whether our father was currently detained and she responded that no, he was not in prison. The caller only wanted to make sure that we were aware of the news , even though he was aware that my father had been released from the branch in Latakia eight days after his arrest.

Ali Haidar tried to communicate with us to have us appear on the regime’s media apparatus to challenge this news which painted him as being complicit in the murder of my father, but we refused to appear on any media, belonging to the regime or otherwise. Each party issued statements of condolences to us, expressing concern at what had happened. On the third day of the funeral, nobody came.


The death of my father was the catalyst for our leaving Syria with no return, a country plagued by revolution and war that has given us nothing but pain and sorrow. I began to save up the amount needed to make the journey by sea or perhaps to get a visa to Russia and then smuggle myself to Norway, where I would repeat the story of my father’s arrest and torture.

We then received a call from someone we didn’t know at the time, who persuaded me and my sisters to send some papers in order to apply for a French visa. He expressed his desire to help us, motivated by his memory of my father. Four months after he contacted us, the French Embassy in Beirut invited us for an interview in four days time.

Our last days in Syria were very strange. Although war is being waged at all levels, and although you will pray to leave constantly, there will come a moment when you want to stay but are unable to.

I bid the village goodbye, which I had not visited except for my father’s grave. I sat in front of his grave, cried and told him that we would be leaving with probably no return. On November 30, 2015, a few friends attended a farewell gathering at our home waiting for our taxi to arrive. For the first time since the winter before, it was pouring rain. We put our things in the car, said goodbye to our mother, who burst into tears as we left.

We had made a deal with the taxi driver to avoid being stopped at any and all checkpoints possible. Crossing into Lebanon from Latakia, there were over 20 checkpoints which were bought off with money or a pack of cigarettes.

We entered Lebanon, leaving everything behind us, especially our father, who was abandoned by his friends and "comrades" and murdered standing in the face of oppression. We left behind a dream of freedom and salvation, a dream to hopefully become reality one day.

[1st Image: "Artodissey", a painting by ʿAula al-Ayyubi - 2012 (ʿAula al-Ayyubi's Facebook page)].


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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad