Mariam al-Hallak, Berlin, Germany
Mariam al-Hallak is an activist and former educator now based in Berlin. She's a founder of the Caesar Families Association. She's one of the many Syrians who learnt of their loved ones' deaths in the Assad regime's detention centres through the “Caesar photos” — leaked images of thousands of detainees tortured to death in custody.
Ayham was the youngest of my three sons. At the start of the revolution, he was studying dentistry and taking part in the peaceful protests in Damascus. He was so proud to be calling for freedom.
He started to attend workshops in Beirut related to freedom of speech. The night before he was meant to travel back home he called me to tell me he had had the best night of his life on the beach in Beirut. I'll tell you about it when I get back mama, he said. I'm still waiting to hear about that night.
They arrested him at the university. They took him to a room filled with torture tools. They pierced him with needles and extracted his toenails. They beat him severely all over his body. When they beat him on his head, Ayham lost consciousness. Then they poured hot water on him to wake him up. Another detainee, a doctor, saw that his body was starting to turn blue so he shouted to the guards to say he was having internal bleeding and was dying. The guard looked in and said, when he is dead, call me again. He died a few days later. They stuck a white piece of paper to his forehead with the number of his body.
I was only told he died three months later. We started to grieve and to accept condolences from friends. During the event a government official arrived and told me that Ayham was actually alive. He gave us details and it was enough for me to let myself believe. So I looked for him for over a year, everywhere, asking everyone I could. I would go to the police with other mothers and we would ask them to tell us about our children. They all denied having any information at all until I saw one of the officials nod his head at me. He had died.
They refused to give me his body and when I asked where he was buried they shouted at me and told me to leave. They said if I weren't an old woman I would be arrested as well and would never be freed. After six months I received a piece of paper from a government source confirming he had died. The paper had the number of his body and stated the cause of death was a heart attack. I never received anything else, no actual evidence, no body.
When the Caesar photos were first released I tried to identify him but they were so harsh and harmful I couldn't look at them. A friend of the family managed to identify him and confirmed it to me. Strangely, my reaction was partly relief: I could see from the pictures that he hadn't been tortured as badly as some of the others I saw. Since then we have not stopped campaigning. We have spoken out about this at every opportunity and we went to Berlin to fight a lawsuit against the Syrian regime. We founded a coalition that brings together families who recognized their loved ones in the photos and are trying to find out where they are buried.
That is what I am waiting for. I need to know where he is so I can bury him and sit next to his grave. This is what I am following, every day. I didn't get to see him or talk to him but a place to bury him would allow me to ease my pain and tell him what I want to say.