Syria’s Mothers, Divided by War, Share Sorrow of Missing Sons

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Families of the missing forfeit a normal grieving process as they swing between hope and sorrow.
Haydara Matar, five years old, holds a photo of his father, Syrian Army Capt. Mohammad Matar, who has been missing for two years. ‘I have the right to know his fate,’ said the boy’s mother, Heyam Makhlouf. ENLARGE
Haydara Matar, five years old, holds a photo of his father, Syrian Army Capt. Mohammad Matar, who has been missing for two years. ‘I have the right to know his fate,’ said the boy’s mother, Heyam Makhlouf. SAM DAGHER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

MASYAF, Syria—Officials told Ghadeera Malouk that her son, a 28-year-old medic in the Syrian army, died during a mission in the rebel-held suburbs of eastern Damascus. In the days after, Mrs. Malouk held a memorial and secured a gravesite here in the family’s hometown.

Then the army called again. There was no body. Her son, they said, wasn’t dead—he was missing. That was more than two years ago.

Now, Mrs. Malouk said, “I am living on the hope that he may still be alive.”

Another mother, Fareeza Wehbe, last spoke two years ago with her son, a 33-year-old Red Crescent ambulance driver. He had called to say he was ferrying wounded, including his younger brother, a rebel fighter. Mrs. Wehbe never again heard from either son. “I have been grieving ever since,” she said.

The two mothers, divided by war, religion and politics, share the unresolved sorrow borne by tens of thousands of families missing loved ones. In the tragedy of Syria’s three-year civil war, many here consider lucky the families of those killed and buried. Rather than give over to loss, families of the missing forfeit a normal grieving process as they swing between hope and sorrow.

“My husband has been missing for almost two years, I have the right to know his fate,” said Heyam Makhlouf, the 29-year-old wife of a Syrian army officer from Masyaf. She last saw him two years ago—for their son’s third birthday. “I tell my son, ‘Dad’s at work,’ ” she said, breaking into tears.

More than 200,000 people have died and millions more displaced in the multi-sided civil war. There are no exact numbers of the missing, but the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a pro-opposition NGO, said in August that President Bashar al-Assad ’s regime was responsible for the disappearance of about 85,000 people.

Rebel forces have taken as many as 7,000 soldiers, with some used in prisoner swaps, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group based in the U.K.

The Syrian government’s Ministry for National Reconciliation Affairs estimates that about 20,000 people have gone missing in the conflict. Ali Haidar, the minister, wouldn’t say how many were held by the regime.

On one side of Syria’s divide is Mrs. Wehbe, a Sunni Muslim from Douma, the largest city in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and a center of the revolt. In March 2011, her brother, a physician, helped organize some of the first protests against the Assad regime, which is predominantly Alawite, a minority sect linked to the Shiite branch of Islam.

The army responded with deadly force to the street demonstrations. Mass arrests and killings followed over the next year, with rebel groups forming and securing arms.


Ghiyath Beswani, 35 years old, worked as an ambulance driver and aid worker for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in suburban Damascus during Syria’s civil war. He went missing two years ago and his family doesn’t know whether he is alive or dead.SYRIAN ARAB RED CRESCENT DOUMA BRANCH

Mrs. Wehbe’s 72-year-old husband was a blacksmith and, before the conflict, so were her four sons. Two of her sons joined the Free Syrian Army, a mostly secular rebel coalition. One son, Ghiyath Beswani, became an ambulance driver and aid worker in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, a nonprofit organization belonging to an international federation that includes the Red Cross.

Mrs. Wehbe said her son was an outgoing person who wanted to help people. “I was really happy when he joined the Red Crescent,” she said.

In early 2012, the army started shelling residential neighborhoods in Douma. On June 29, as regime forces launched a major assault, Mrs. Wehbe said she huddled at home with her husband, daughter, three daughters-in-law, a brother-in-law and 17 grandchildren. “There were clashes, explosions and shelling all around us,” she said.

Mr. Beswani, the ambulance driver, called to say he would come by with cars to help the family escape, said Mrs. Wehbe, who, like most Syrian women, goes by her maiden name. He told his mother he had already retrieved his 25-year-old brother Alaa, a rebel who had been wounded.

“Then he called and told me that he couldn’t reach us, and that we should try to escape on our own,” Mrs. Wehbe said. “That was the last time I heard his voice.” The family fled to farmland outside Douma.

A day later, the Red Crescent and Red Cross were allowed entry into Douma, where they collected more than 500 bodies from the army’s assault, according to a Red Crescent worker who was there. A government spokesman said rebels were responsible. Witnesses blamed soldiers.

A month later, another of Mrs. Wehbe’s sons, Emad, was killed fighting with rebels in Damascus. Friends buried him outside of Douma and returned his personal belongings to his mother. “I have yet to visit his grave,” said Mrs. Wehbe, who cries when she speaks about her dead and missing children.

A fourth son, Abdul-Nasser, was later arrested by security forces. Like most of the thousands missing from the eastern Damascus suburbs, he and his brothers are Sunni, the group making up most of the rebel fighters.

Mrs. Wehbe’s loss was one felt weeks later by Mrs. Malouk, an Alawite mother. Rebels launched a counteroffensive and Mrs. Malouk’s eldest son, Weam Youssef, a medic with the army’s 4th Division, was in a convoy struck by rocket-propelled grenades launched by rebels of the Free Syrian Army.

Before the conflict, Mr. Youssef was a nursing student who was building a second-floor extension to his parents home, his family said.

Mrs. Malouk, who comes from a military family, lost her husband, an army colonel, before the war. She raised three sons and two daughters in Damascus, where her late husband was stationed. Her sons have joined the Syrian army and one daughter is a nurse.

For most Alawites, one of Syria’s religious minorities, the ascent of former President Hafez al-Assad to power more than 40 years ago opened the door to jobs in the military and government, areas largely shunned by Syria’s Sunni majority. The pattern continued under Mr. Assad’s son, the current president.

On July 21, 2012, Mrs. Malouk was told her son had died in the convoy attack. A week later, the army said he was missing.

The military had launched their attacks on the rebel-held eastern suburbs from the town of Harasta, where a deep trench now divides the two sides.

Among the troops stationed at Harasta’s military base is 23-year-old Housam Youssef, the brother of the missing army medic. Housam Youssef was studying agriculture when the war started. He enlisted even though he had already completed his mandatory military service.

Mr. Youssef said his older brother Weam inspired him: “He would tell me, ‘You were born to defend this country.’”

Now, Mr. Youssef said, he is the only one to help in his mother’s search. Another brother, 27-year-old Wisam Youssef, finished law school and is a reservist in the eastern province of Deir Ezzour.


Housam Youssef said he met a survivor of the rebel attack who claimed he saw Weam Youssef alive. The man, another medic, was at a military hospital three days after the ambush when Mr. Youssef found him. The wounded man said the convoy of tanks, personnel carriers and medical evacuation vehicles was struck in Irbin. The man was sure he saw Weam Youssef giving first-aid.

The hospital conversation lasted about five minutes, Housam Youssef said, before the man succumbed to his injuries. He died shortly after.

Housam Youssef then pored over video clips posted on the Internet by rebels. One video from the time of his brother’s disappearance showed rebels attacking Irbin’s main square, where regime forces were stationed.

“Some have been captured and others have been killed,” a voice is heard on another video showing the bodies of soldiers in the square.

From there, the trail went cold. Housam Youssef said he and his mother searched the hospitals and morgues around Damascus with no luck.

Mrs. Malouk made a breakthrough in June of last year. An Alawite man named Mohammad al-Hsayn was released by rebels in exchange for prisoners held by the regime. Housam Youssef and his mother visited Mr. Hsayn in a hospital, where doctors said the man had been tortured while a captive, according to Mr. Youssef.

Mrs. Malouk showed Mr. Hsayn a photograph of Weam Youssef. The man said he recognized Mr. Youssef and recalled he was treated for stomach and shoulder wounds, then transferred to the al-Tawbah prison.

Abdul Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for Army of Islam—the rebel group that runs the ranch-turned-prison on Douma’s outskirts—said he didn’t know of Mr. Youssef. But he said a large number of regime soldiers were held there.

On the rebel side, meanwhile, Mrs. Wehbe began to piece together what happened on the night her son, the ambulance driver, disappeared. By chance, a cousin had been with Mr. Beswani.

As the government attack escalated that night, Mr. Beswani and his colleagues in Douma’s Red Crescent office sent a radio distress call to the group’s Damascus headquarters. They asked for help securing safe passage through army and security forces, according to Red Crescent workers, including Hisham Wehbe, Mr. Beswani’s cousin.

Mr. Wehbe said Mr. Beswani’s wounded brother Alaa and nearly two dozen others drove in two ambulances and two cars along the route suggested by headquarters. They got as far as a checkpoint just outside Douma.

Security officers ordered the convoy to the Bairouni Hospital. Agents at the hospital checked identification papers against a government list, the cousin said. Mr. Beswani, his brother Alaa and a wounded civilian were detained and the others released.

The wounded civilian was taken to a nearby military hospital in Harasta and later pronounced dead. The government didn’t release information on Mr. Beswani and his brother, but the family reported the case to the International Committee for the Red Cross, or ICRC.

Simon Schorno, a Red Cross spokesman in Syria, said he couldn’t comment on the two brothers. He said, however, the agency routinely submits requests to the government for information on missing people. “Unfortunately, and despite these efforts,” he said, “most cases remain unsolved because the ICRC simply does not get an answer.”

Mr. Haidar, the government minister, said in an interview that he had no information about Mr. Beswani and his brother.

On a recent morning in Amsterdam, Wael al-Saleh, 21 years old, looked at a photograph of himself and other members of the Douma Red Crescent team. Mr. Beswani sat in front with a walkie-talkie clipped to his chest pocket.

Mr. Saleh said he and others have tried to learn the whereabouts of Mr. Beswani through Red Crescent officials with regime connections. So far, nothing, he said, not even whether he is dead or alive.

Mr. Beswani was the eldest of the aid workers, Mr. Saleh said, and nicknamed “King of the Land Cruiser,” for his skill driving in dangerous rescues. “During the day we would see hell, blood and death,” he said. “At night we would try to forget for a bit: Sit together, laugh, smoke water pipes, listen to music and play cards.”

Mr. Saleh, who is seeking asylum in the Netherlands, said he recently dreamed he was back in Douma. “I was with my friends at the Red Crescent branch including the dead and the missing,” he said. “We were happy.”

In early October, Mrs. Wehbe received a call from her eldest son Abdul-Nasser Beswani, who was arrested a month after his two brothers disappeared. He said he was in Adra prison, one of Syria’s largest, on the outskirts of Damascus. His mother visited him a few days later.

Mrs. Wehbe said she has received conflicting information about her missing son from opposition activists released in prisoner exchanges. But in June of last year, one freed prisoner said he saw Mr. Beswani, the ambulance driver, at a Damascus prison operated by the General Intelligence Directorate.

Human Rights Watch in 2012 identified the prison, commonly known as Khateeb, among more than two dozen in Syria where it said people were tortured and held incommunicado. A physician jailed there for three months earlier this year said in an interview that he saw inmates tortured and killed.


Weam Youssef, 28 years old, was a medic in the Syrian army who was declared missing two years ago during an attack by rebels. YOUSSEF FAMILY

Mr. Haidar, the government’s reconciliation minister, said no one was being held secretly by security and intelligence services. He said people can be detained a long time for interrogation because of a case backlog. He said torture was banned but that it could be mistakenly administered.

“Of course, there are going to be exceptional measures in times of war,” he said, “This happens all over the world, not just in Syria.”

Mr. Assad issued a decree in April 2011 that prohibits security and intelligence services from holding anyone incommunicado for more than 60 days without referral to a judge. Since then, families of the missing, activists and a special United Nations commission investigating abuses in Syria said the regime has targeted and detained thousands of human rights workers, medical and aid workers, lawyers and political opponents in violation of the decree.

Mr. Assad and regime officials have denied the allegation.

Many Syrians bribe members of the security forces for information about missing loved ones, according to people who have paid. Mrs. Wehbe, who survives on handouts from family, can’t afford bribes, she said, and the war makes it difficult for her to travel safely to inquire at the many regime prisons.


A view of the Masyaf region, where most women dress in black to mourn men missing and killed fighting on the side of the Syrian regime in the conflict that started in March 2011. SAM DAGHER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Rebels retook control of Douma and the surrounding eastern suburbs at the end of 2012, but Mrs. Wehbe hasn’t returned. She joined other Sunni families who fled to the city of al-Tal on the northern outskirts of Damascus.

The predominantly Sunni city of densely packed apartments is ringed by army and security checkpoints. Mrs. Wehbe said she was caring for 16 people, including her ailing husband and the wives and children of three of her sons. Sharing the apartment is the wife of Mr. Beswani, the missing ambulance driver, and his three children. The youngest is four years old.

About 130 miles north, in the Alawite village of Findara on the fringes of Masyaf, Mrs. Malouk’s family home is perched on a hill. Grapevines and fig and olive trees line the entrance. Her eyes well up as she looks up at the unfinished extension her son Weam, the missing army medic, was building.

“He used to say that he will only get married when the war ends,” she said.

Mrs. Malouk now only comes to visit. She has moved into military housing on the outskirts of Damascus.

Last summer, she said, she was at a Damascus bus station when she ran into Umm Fadi, a Sunni woman and her best friend from the old neighborhood. She said they hugged and began to cry.

“I told her, ‘What happened to us?’ ” Mrs. Malouk said. “She told me, ‘I don’t know.’ And then she said, ‘All my sons are gone, I only have Ali left.’ ”

Mrs. Malouk said she told her friend, “I have lost Weam, too.”

Then the two women separated and boarded their buses.

“I kept crying and waving at her from the bus window,” Mrs. Malouk said, “and she was doing the same.”

— Mohammad Nour Alakraa contributed to this article.

Write to Sam Dagher at