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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Samira al-Khalil: A gentle rebel against tyranny and injustice

Sketch of Samira al-Khalil; Credit: Marc Nelson

Samira al-Khalil was born on February 2, 1961. Her family was from the small town of al-Mukharam al-Fawqani in the eastern countryside of Homs, but Samira was born in As Suwayda due to her father’s work as a policeman. She was the fourth child among four daughters and five sons. Her mother was a “housewife” dedicated to caring for her family of eleven that spent most of its time commuting between al-Mukharam and the city of Homs until after her father’s retirement when her parents settled in the village for good.

Samira was arrested in 1987 in a massive campaign by the Assad regime to liquidate the organization. She was transferred to Damascus where she was tortured during interrogation as is the established routine in Assad’s Syria

After high school, Samira enrolled in the university to study French literature but did not go very far in her studies. In her early twenties, she joined the anti-regime Communist Action Party in her hometown of Homs and became active in its ranks.

Samira was arrested in 1987 in a massive campaign by the Assad regime to liquidate the organization. She was transferred to Damascus where she was tortured during interrogation as is the established routine in Assad’s Syria. Samira was then transferred along with several of her companions to the women’s prison in Douma where they would spend more than four years before being released on November 26, 1991.

After her release, Samira worked at a variety of unskilled jobs to support herself before learning the basics of computers in the second half of the 1990s, as many other young Syrian women and men did at the time. It was a skill that served to benefit a woman in her thirties who was unemployed and had a previous record as a political prisoner.

In the capital, Samira worked for the office of the Emirati newspaper Al Khaleej in 1999 but also had to work a second job at an emerging publishing house just to survive. At the time, the labor market for those like her was confined to these narrow fields and the monthly income barely exceeded 5,000 liras, of which Samira paid 1,500 liras for her modest housing leaving her with the equivalent of $70 USD per month to live on. But Samira, who wanted to live independently, was able to live on such a small amount and less.

Samira and Yassin al Haj Saleh were married in 2002 and together they participated in the Damascus Spring forums. They both participated independently in a variety of public activism circles as well. Samira also spent some time in the Civil Society Revival Committees and participated in the preliminary discussions of the Damascus-Beirut Declaration on Syrian-Lebanese relations. For Samira and Yassin, the five years that preceded the revolution were the years of a couple approaching fifty; living for the first time a stable life in a country that was about to witness a big explosion.

Driven by the threat her wanted status imposed, and by her desire to be with him and share his new environment since they did not know how long his stay would be, Samira joined Yassin in Eastern Ghouta a month and a half after his arrival

On March 16, 2011, Samira participated in the sit-in in front of the Ministry of Interior. During the first year of the Syrian Revolution, Samira kept moving secretly for security reasons. In the second year of the Revolution, she spent most of her time with her husband who was also in hiding. But no matter where they went, safety was elusive for it was a very violent year throughout the whole country.

Nevertheless, Samira continued to be an activist during her two years spent in hiding, participating in field activities, and helping as much as she could. It was a fateful coincidence that Samira became wanted by the regime two or three weeks after her husband moved from Damascus to Eastern Ghouta, in what was supposed to be a transit station on the road to the north. Driven by the threat her wanted status imposed, and by her desire to be with him and share his new environment since they did not know how long his stay would be, Samira joined Yassin in Eastern Ghouta a month and a half after his arrival.

“What will turn out to be the mistake of a lifetime is when I left Douma for Raqqa (his hometown) on the evening of July 10, 2013, which did not seem to us at that time to be anything but a necessary risk among the risks that had been preceded by, and followed by, others. It was a must,” said her husband Yassin, in an article published by AL JUMHURIYA in December 2020 titled Samira’s Story.

Dedicated to the women and children of Eastern Ghouta, and to the task of documenting the crimes being committed there by the regime and others, Samira did not feel any undue pressure to leave the area at the time as is evident in the book Diary of the Siege in Douma which contains a compilation of her writings published by her husband after her disappearance. The book consists of three sections; the first includes a transcript of papers she wrote in Douma between the chemical massacre in August 2013 and her kidnapping in December, the second section includes her Facebook posts in the few months preceding her kidnapping, and the third section includes three articles about Samira written by her husband Yassin.

on December 9, 2013, Samira and her friends and fellow human rights activists Razan Zaitouneh, Razan’s husband Wael Hamadeh, and Nazem Hamadi, a well-known poet, and lawyer, were kidnapped from their office in East Ghouta

In November 2013, a complete siege of Eastern Ghouta was imposed. Before that, it was a heavy siege but people could still access their property or businesses in Damascus from the towns of Ghouta, even if they were searched, humiliated, and had food and supplies they attempted to carry back with them to the besieged area confiscated daily. But after November, a deafening siege and complete lockdown were imposed.

The siege was tight from the outside, but also from within, as the area was taken over by Liwa al-Islam, an Islamic militia that subsequently changed its name to Jaysh al-Islam. By the end of September, the militant militia which had been established by Zahran Alloush (deliberately released from prison by the Assad regime in mid-2011 to support its propaganda narrative of fighting Islamist terrorists), had made itself into an army and become more than before, the de facto authority in Douma and the strongest contender for power in Eastern Ghouta.

her broken-hearted husband continues to be an activist for Syrian freedom and has published many of his writings since his wife’s abduction

By then Samira no longer had plans to stay; she was in Douma as a temporary refugee waiting for a more suitable opportunity to join her husband. But fate intervened and on December 9, 2013, Samira and her friends and fellow human rights activists Razan Zaitouneh, Razan’s husband Wael Hamadeh, and Nazem Hamadi, a well-known poet, and lawyer, were kidnapped from their office in East Ghouta. What subsequently happened to the group of human rights defenders, Syrian revolution icons now referred to as the “Douma Four,” is unknown until now.

Inspired by his memories of Samira, her gentle humor, noble strength, quiet dignity, and persistent refusal to back down in the face of abject cruelty and injustice, her broken-hearted husband continues to be an activist for Syrian freedom and has published many of his writings since his wife’s abduction. He recently wrote that “absent Samira does not know all that has happened in her absence. During these ten years, her parents and sister Amal passed away, and her loved ones were separated near and far.”

the first annual Samira al-Khalil Prize will be presented […] to “a woman whose practice and trajectory are in solidarity with  the struggle to put an end to the infringement of fundamental rights and freedoms in the Arab and Mediterranean regions.”

On February 2, 2022, on what would have been Samira’s 61st birthday, the Samira al-Khalil Association was officially introduced to the world by her family and friends. The aim of the association is to keep Samira’s story and struggles alive while empowering women in Arab and Mediterranean regions who are active in the fields of art, literature, and the defense of justice and human rights.

To further that goal, the first annual Samira al-Khalil Prize will be presented in Paris on International Women’s Rights Day, March 11, 2023, to “a woman whose practice and trajectory are in solidarity with  the struggle to put an end to the infringement of fundamental rights and freedoms in the Arab and Mediterranean regions.”

Each year’s award will highlight a specific practice in a diverse range of artistic and activism fields with this year’s focus being on women filmmakers.

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