ISTANBUL — As the battle front shifted in recent days in a ravaged eastern suburb of Damascus, relatives of four human rights activists abducted there in late 2013 saw cause for hope: Might the transfer from opposition to government control of Douma provide clues to their fate?
The abduction of the two men and two women known as the Douma 4 — by Islamist rebels active in the area, their families say — was an ominous milestone in Syria’s cataclysmic war. It signaled the rise of armed Islamist groups that came to dominate the opposition while casting aside, often brutally, civilian activists who had helped coordinate the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s iron-fisted rule.
And the kidnapping was a high-profile reminder of the thousands of other Syrians who have disappeared, sometimes without a trace, over more than seven years of war. Relatives said that since the abduction on Dec. 9, 2013, they have had no solid information about the four: Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamadeh, Samira Khalil and Nazem Hammadi.
Rumors materialized and then dissolved. Enticing stories told by Islamist defectors could never be confirmed. “From time to time, we hear yes, they are okay, they are there, or they were given to the regime,” said Khalil’s husband, Yassin al-Haj Saleh. “We don’t really know if the information is true. It’s possible,” he said.
A punishing two-month government offensive to recapture the suburbs east and south of Damascus, marked by deadly aerial bombings and, last week, a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people, seemed as if it might give relatives a chance to find out.
As part of a Russian-brokered deal between the rebel group, called Jaish al-Islam, and the government, the rebels have released hundreds of the hostages and prisoners held throughout the war.
On Monday, as news of the prisoner releases circulated, the relatives grasped at every report.
“Yesterday, they released about 200 detainees,” said Zaitouneh’s sister, Reem Zaitouneh, who lives in Canada. “We are trying to get the names. We are trying to reach some people there. We hope they can find some news,” she said.
By Thursday, more detainees were freed, and Syrian government forces had taken full control of Douma. But there was still no word on the four, and information was becoming harder to obtain.
Reem’s contacts among the activists in Douma had fled. The leaders of Jaish al-Islam were withdrawing, reportedly to northern Syria. Even if the activists were alive, government troops taking control of the area — who considered Zaitouneh and her colleagues as fugitive dissidents — were likely to arrest them.
“I can’t do anything,” Reem said.
Her sister, a human rights lawyer, is a singularly revered figure in opposition circles, a woman who had defended dissidents in state security courts in the years before the revolt and then recorded war crimes and other violations by the government as well as its armed opponents after the uprising exploded into war.
She was a founder of the Violation Documentation Center as well as the Local Coordination Committees, a network that coordinated and documented anti-government protests and tallied the costs of the conflict.
Her colleagues are also seasoned dissidents. Hamadeh, her husband, who also helped found the LCCs, had been arrested twice by the authorities and tortured, Saleh said. Khalil had spent four years in Syrian jails. Hammadi, a lawyer and poet, was also wanted by the government.
In the opposition-controlled enclave before their abduction, they documented a pitiless government siege of the area, including a suspected chemical weapons attack in August 2013. But their work, including opening a center to advocate for women, also drew the ire of the ultraconservative Islamists in Douma.
Razan Zaitouneh had received several warnings to leave the town. One warning was a slain cat, left at her door, her sister said. “They knew she was fond of cats,” Reem said. “She was helping people to stand up against the siege, against everything. She refused to leave them.”
After the four were taken from Zaitouneh’s apartment, Jaish al-Islam quickly denied it was responsible. But there was damning proof, the relatives said, including evidence that a laptop belonging to Zaitouneh had been accessed in Jaish al-Islam’s media center, according to Rami Nakhla, a Syrian activist who is her longtime friend.
“They were thugs. They controlled the city,” Nakhla said.
The Islamists were furious at Zaitouneh’s defiance, he said — her refusal to cover her hair and her determination to stay in Douma.
Nakhla, who now lives in Geneva, said he had directly negotiated with the Jaish al-Islam, trying to secure a phone call with Zaitouneh that would prove she was unharmed. But the talks foundered, partly because Jaish al-Islam was facing a storm of criticism for allegedly abducting the activists.
A spokesman for the group did not respond to a request to comment on the abductions.
Their absence has left their supporters to reflect on the role the activists might have played in an opposition movement that came to be hobbled by its own disunity, brutalized by Assad’s government and overwhelmed by rebels with guns.
Zaitouneh avoided the spotlight but was the kind of natural leader the opposition sorely lacked, according to those who knew her. “She was the engine — the one who provided moral and ethical leadership for those around her,” Nakhla said.
Apart from the personal toll on the families, there was a tragic symbolism to the activists’ abduction, Saleh said. “They were two men and two women. They were against the regime and abducted by Islamists. They were ignored by the international community, the enforcers of international law,” he said.
The families, in exile, were powerless to affect the course of events in their broken country, to intrude on the deals struck between foreign countries intervening in the war, to weigh in on the bargains between the government and its opponents.
They were even less likely to learn the truth.
“We don’t have a mechanism to arrest or to question,” Saleh said. “To bring these people to justice.”
Zakaria Zakaria contributed reporting from Istanbul.