“If we want to live in a free country,” Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari wrote on her blog on 27 April, “we must begin by living as though we are already in a free country.”
And so the 35-year-old Syrian, an outspoken lesbian, feminist and anti-government protester, continued to post highly critical entries on the blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, even as the security situation in her home country became ever more precarious, and her own position increasingly at risk.
She was teargassed, arrested and detained with other protesters at demonstrations in March and April; at one rally she saw a young man shot dead in front of her. But “for those of us who have taken part in the protests,” she wrote, “there’s no going back. For decades, we were afraid; be too critical of the regime, be seen as stepping out of official views, and one might expect a visit from the security police or a trip to a jail. Be more vocal and publicly call for the overthrow of the government and be prepared for either exile or death. Those of us who criticised things were very careful with our words and the forums we raised criticisms in. Now, though, everything has changed; too many have crossed those lines for there to be a going back.”
Late in April, two men from the Syrian security services came to her house late at night to arrest her; her father stood up to them and they left. A week later, however, both she and her father had been forced into separate safe houses, moving from house to house, meeting only in disguise. Her American mother (Araf holds dual citizenship) and other family members had fled to Beirut, but her father, from an old and respected family, was determined to stay in Damascus, and so Araf stayed too, continuing to blog: “Our revolution will win; we will have a free and democratic Syria soon. I know it in my bones.”
On Monday evening, Araf was silenced, for now at least. En route to a rendezvous with co-ordinators of the protest movement, she was snatched from a Damascus street by three armed men and bundled into a vehicle. Despite the frantic efforts of her father and wider family, nothing has been heard from her since.
Araf’s kidnap, by men her family believe are members of Syria’s security services, makes her one of the best known of many thousands who have been detained since protests bubbled up across the country in mid-March, swelling to become one of the bloodiest and most protracted of the Arab Spring’s popular uprisings. According to Amnesty International, at least 750 people have been killed by the security forces; as many as 10,000 have been picked up by one of the country’s diverse security service groups, many of them held incommunicado. At least 12 people have died in custody, and reports of torture are common.
Though Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, announced an amnesty last week for those detained before 31 May, Amnesty says the releases have been selective and ad hoc, and called for the immediate release of all detainees.
Even before the latest unrest, bloggers and others challenging the government had been regularly locked up. Tal al-Mallouhi, a 20-year-old Palestinian-Syrian blogger from Homs, was sentenced to five years in jail in February, accused of spying for the US. Other bloggers and dissidents have faced similar fates.
Though she had begun her blog in February principally as a defiant declaration of her sexuality and to explore lesbian and gender issues in Syria, Araf was rapidly swept up in the popular protests, and began writing impassioned, exhilarated, often very moving posts about her country and its longed-for future.
“What a time to be in Syria! What a time to be an Arab! What a time to be alive!” she wrote on 24 March. A week later, expressing her dismay at Assad’s refusal to grant expected reforms, she wrote: “Come Friday, when Jumaa prayers are done, we will be out, in every city and every street, calling with one voice: “SOURIYA! AL HOURIYA!” FREEDOM!”
The blog also contained extracts from an unpublished autobiography, detailing her teenage years in the US; she also wrote of her love of science fiction and Gil Scott Heron, and posted erotic lesbian poetry. At one point, her father laughingly reveals, she had been “on the list” forof those charged with finding a suitable wife for the man who is now Syria’s president, and who went on to marry a British-Syrian, Asma al Akhras. Why hadn’t he put her forward? “Do you think I hate you? I would not wish to be related to them.”
But Araf was also clear about the risks she was running, writing chillingly about the regime’s use of torture in a post entitled “Why we fight”. Torture, she wrote, is “routine and normal”. “It is what all of us expect. It is why we keep our nails as short as possible so they can’t be pulled off. It is why we were slow to come out into the streets … It is why you don’t see so many women in the protests. What do you think happens to women who get picked up?”
The following Araf had gained was evident when, within minutes of her disappearance being reported, campaigns were launched on Facebook and elsewhere to free her, with Syrian activists tweeting extracts from her blog.
Some hours after reporting her disappearance, Araf’s cousin Rania Ismail, whom she had asked to post to her blog if anything happened to her, wrote a brief update. “I have been on the telephone with both her parents and all that we can say right now is that she is missing … We do not know who took her so we do not know who to ask to get her back. It is possible that they are forcibly deporting her. From other family members who have been imprisoned there, we believe that she is likely to be released fairly soon. If they wanted to kill her, they would have done so. That is what we are all praying for.”
Nidaa Hassan is a pseudonym for a journalist in Damascus.