Maysa was forced to make a choice; either to divorce her husband in absentia, or to accept the forfeiture of her home. These were the only choices she was left with to survive the predicament in which she found herself.
Maysa (a pseudonym) is 39- year- old, and she used to live in the city of Ariha in the Idlib countryside, along with her husband and her three daughters. He was an army recruit with the Syrian Armed Forces, with a civilian task working in the Department of Records and Recruiting. On May 28, 2015, the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah) seized control of her city. This forced Maysa's husband to flee to the capital Damascus as he became a target for being considered a military opponent.
Ariha witnessed intense aerial bombardment after it was controlled by the opposition. The aerial campaign forced a large number of residents to flee the city, including Maysa who was displaced to the nearby city of Kafranbel.
“Missiles landed everywhere in the city as the regime air force attacked us. Whenever an area became outside the regime control, it was bombed, and Ariha was no exception. “My only option was to flee, hoping to save my life and the lives of my daughters” Maysa said to SyriaUntold. She chose to go to Kafranbel as it was her family’s hometown, and her only brother lived there. He was the last of her family, her parents had died more than ten years ago. She lived with her brother for a while.
Kafranbel was subjected to frequent shelling in the past. However, the fact that the regime lost control over the city of Idlib and a number of other nearby areas, and these areas fell under the opposition reduced the intensity of regime’s attacks against Kafranbel by the time Maysa arrived there.
After a while, the bombardment of Ariha receded and Maysa and her daughters returned to their home. Their house consists of two rooms and some amenities. “There’s no place like home,” Maysa said, with yearning visible in her eyes as she reminisced about her home in Ariha.
She was surprised to find that that her house was occupied by the family of a fighter in Al-Nusra Front. “The fighter told me that the house was confiscated because its owner, my husband, was a regime thug,” Maysa said sarcastically.
Maysa's stammered as she tried to remember. She was trying to describe the questions that raced in her mind at that moment she realized she lost her home. “Where would I go? To whom would I resort? What should I do?” Maysa was left in a state of profound weakness and loss, that humble house was all that Maysa and her daughters own.
Four years have passed since that incident, during which the Army of Conquest was dissolved. Al-Nusra Front broke away from it, changing its name to Fatah al-Sham after it dissociated itself from al-Qaeda, and then rebranded itself as as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). However, one thing has not changed; Maysa’s loss of both her home and her husband.
Maysa was not the only person whose home was seized at the time. Al-Nusra confiscated dozens of houses under the pretext of accusing the owners of supporting the regime or of apostasy, and these confiscations were always without any legal basis. There was no court’s orders, Al-Nusra was the authority now and all they did was sending agents of their Sharia Court to the homes, and writing ‘confiscated’ or ‘at the disposal of the Sharia Court’ on their walls. With this, they concluded the seizure of houses belonging to people who still serve in the regime’s army, or people who are opponents of Al-Nusra after accusing them of being apostates.
Mahmoud al-Eid (pseudonym), is 35-year-old and he defected from the regime’s army in 2014, but this did not enable him to retrieve his home which was confiscated by al-Nusra. “The motives of al-Nusra are fraud, looting and theft,” Mahmoud said with indignation,“and the evidence for this statement is that they haven’t returned my house, despite the fact that I defected from the regime’s army, which means their charge against me of being a regime supporter was not valid anymore.”
After losing his home, al-Eid today lives in very difficult conditions in his elderly parents’ home, along with his wife and three children. The house is comprised of two small rooms, barely big enough to accommodate the two families. Al-Eid says his finances are limited, leaving him unable to buy a new house – or even rent one.
When Al-Nusra seizes a house, the owner usually faces an arduous journey in the courts to try and recover his property. Most civilians have failed to recover their homes, because "the courts are not impartial, and because of the incompetence of judges in HTS courts," according to Maysa.
Jaish al-Fatah consolidated its control over Idlib on March 29, 2015, along with Jisr al-Shughour and Arih. After that, they set up their own courts in these areas which adopt Islamic Sharia, without relying on any written laws or constitution.
Anwar al-Halloum, a 40-year-old lawyer who lives in rural Idlib, criticized these courts during a personal interview with SyriaUntold. “Each judge rules according to his own interpretation of the Islamic law, which makes the court relies solely on the judges' own discretion. Rulings are more reliant on Sharia rather than on laws, and these courts are also inadequate, fragmented and decentralized. Moreover, they are affiliated to the military factions, as each faction establishes a court in its area of control” al-Halloum said. He added that “they are not impartial and are absolutely subordinate to militant factions, and their judges are incompetent. The courts have no clear laws or standard procedures that protect the rights of defendants, and they also have no role for attorneys within them.”
"There is no law that permits a person or a militant group to seize the property of others. Only the judiciary of a functioning state should usually have the authority to regulate property seizures. This is not the case in the liberated areas, which are ruled by several militant factions" al-Halloum said. “If this was to be permitted to one faction (meaning Al-Nusra), others would soon follow, and this would bring about chaos and lawlessness. Thus, these seizures by Al-Nusra are a mere infringement on people’s rights and properties” according to al-Halloum.
However, Maysa did not despair. She began knocking on the doors of Jaish al-Fatah Islamic courts, in an attempt to retrieve her house. She went to the court and told the judges that she owned half of the house, and that she had a sale deed signed by her husband. Nonetheless, they refused to return Maysa’s house.
After Maysa persisted in attempting to retrieve her house, the judges reached a resolution and demanded she divorce her husband in absentia, in exchange for nullifying the confiscation of her house. She initially refused, as she has never considered divorce, but soon she was forced to accept their condition for two reasons. First, she wanted to retrieve her home, and second, she lost hope of meeting her husband again. He was in Damascus separated from her by dozens of regime and opposition checkpoints.
It was not easy for Maysa to make such a decision, but her fear of losing her home forever, and the idea of being uprooted and rendered homeless with her daughters, compelled her to agree. “I was forced to chose the lesser of two evils,” that is how Maysa summarized the reason for her decision to be divorced from her husband. She explained that she believed that her relationship with her husband could be mended one day, that he would understand her motives if he ever returns to the area. “He would understand; there’s no question about it” she said. However, convincing the judges in the Sharia court to return her house without a divorce was “an absolute impossibility” as she put it.
By the end of 2015, months after the confiscation of her house, Maysa stood inside the Jaish al-Fatah court, and was divorced from her husband in absentia as per a document signed by the judge. The judge then promptly issued another document addressed to the occupants of her house, that they should vacate immediately and return the house to its owner. He also issued a legal notice, stamped with the seal of Ahrar al-Sham, stating that that Maysa’s house shall henceforth not be subject to confiscation because she owns half of it and was legally divorced from her husband. Ahrar al-Sham was the faction within the Jaish al-Fatah that headed the security committee in Idlib at that point.
Maysa was overcome with joy upon receiving the note, and felt relief that she could finally return to her home. However, she was shocked when the family of the al-Nusra fighter completely disregarded the judge's verdict and refused to leave the house under any circumstances. As the court failed to take any action against them to force them out, Maysa found herself not only without her house, but having lost her husband as well.
“No words can describe what I endured. I felt like I was in a dream, or rather in a nightmare that I wanted to wake up. How could they have deceived me that way? What gives them the right to disregard the feelings of others and to lie to them like that? This is undoubtedly the rule of the strong over the weak and the helpless,” Maysa said.
Maysa left the area for a while, and then returned to the house to try and retrieve some of her old furniture and home supplies, after losing all hope of reclaiming the house itself. She was surprised to find the family of yet another al-Nusra fighter. When she requested some of her belongings, they said, “How can we know that you are the owner of the house and that the furniture belongs to you?!”
She entered the house and began explaining to the family where her furniture used to be. “I told them there was a cupboard in that room, and I described the linens put in it. They found what I was saying to be true, everything was the same. I told them about my happy memories in that room and how I felt homesick. That modest kitchen included many appliances that I had bought over many monthly instalments, as I did not have their full prices in cash. The same washing machine was there, and the same fridge, and the old antiques I kept in the shed above the bathroom.
Neither the memories I shared with them, nor seeing how much I missed my house convinced the new occupants that these things were once mine. They coldly told me that they could not give me anything."
Maysa left that house with tears running down her face, and her heart broken yet again. It felt as if she was robbed of her house once more. She promised herself to forget the claim over her property because it has brought her nothing but grief and pain.
Today, Maysa lives a life of homelessness with her daughters. She spends time in IDP camps in the north, and sometimes she moves into the homes of her relatives. Her only brother was killed in an airstrike on the city of Kafranbel, on December 5, 2016.
As she cleaned her dilapidated tent of leftover wild leaves which she had collected to make food for her daughters, Maysa smiled trying to hide her despair and said, “I have lost everything, and I will never go back to Ariha where my life was shattered”. Her life was shattered because of the loss of her home and because of her remorse for divorcing her husband.