Yasmin Almashan, Crimmitschau, Germany
Yasmin is a Syrian activist from Deir Ezzor in northeast Syria and a founding member of the Caesar Families Association. She's one of the many Syrians who learnt of their loved ones' deaths in Assad regime detention centres through the "Caesar photos" — leaked images of thousands of detainees tortured to death in custody.
I come from a long line of activists. My father, brother, and uncle were all detained and released by the Syrian regime before the revolution. When the revolution started, our family got involved from the beginning in organising peaceful protests in our hometown of Deir Ezzor.
In 2012 my brothers were at a protest when the security forces opened fire on the protestors. A sniper killed one of my brothers, Zouheir. The regime came to us, showing us a piece of paper which stated that an unknown armed group killed him. But we know that was a lie so we refused to sign it. We knew it was them. We arranged a huge funeral for him. My brother Oqba did it all, he even made a casket for Zouheir with his own hands.
After that the targeting of my family rose to another level. The threats grew worse and worse and the raids on our home were constant. In 2012 they detained Oqba, then my father. They didn't give a reason. It might purely be because he was asking about Oqba. My father was released months later but we decided to stay in Deir Ezzor. We had to wait for Oqba.
Later, another brother of mine, Obeida, was working as a first responder in Deir Ezzor. He would go out after a bombing to try to save the lives of people in the neighbourhood. One day he was shot dead by a sniper while doing his job. That's what the regime does. They wait until after a bombing for people to come out and help the injured and then they shoot them.
Ten days later, my brother Tishreen, a father of eight, was killed by bombs that fell on his house. After I began to process the shock of everything that was happening, I decided to start working more seriously on my search for Oqba. I paid a lawyer and I asked a lot of people but I never got any reliable information. I met people who had been detained with him. They'd seen him when they were all being transported between branches and said he was being moved to Damascus, but then there was no trace of him. I watched his two daughters grow up without knowing their father, without knowing if he would be back or not.
In May 2014 my youngest brother Bashar, who was just 19 at the time and recently married, started volunteering as a first responder. He left one day to help and we never saw him again. We received news that he had been taken by ISIS, which controlled large areas of Deir Ezzor at the time. We heard was killed immediately, but we couldn't find his body. People think he was thrown in the Euphrates so there was never any trace. But we'll never know for sure.
By this time three of my brothers had been killed, and two had disappeared. I can't describe the pain and anxiety we all went through, especially our mother. It's agony not to know the destiny of your loved ones. When ISIS came after me too, I began to live in constant fear and anxiety. Especially for my own children. Everything was awful at that time. There were executions in the streets every day. So, in February 2015, we decided we had to leave Syria. It was a very difficult journey because we were wanted and being watched both by ISIS and the regime. You need a miracle just to get out of the country.
Given my previous work as a pharmacist, I'd started to document some of the casualties of the war. Even the casualties that were indirectly caused by the war, like miscarriages from pollution. I also worked as a journalist. I was telling people what was going on and so, of course, I was targeted. On top of that I'd openly rejected ISIS. I was very outspoken in my opposition to them. I told everyone this was not Islam. I was terrified, every day for myself and for my children. ISIS were kidnapping children at the time and taking them to their special schools. So I stopped letting my children go to school in case they were taken too.
Leaving Syria was the hardest decision. We wanted to stay and wait for Oqba but eventually we felt that if he were released, he would find us. But when we arrived in the refugee camp in Turkey in march 2015 a friend came to me to identify one of Caesar's photos. Immediately I knew it was him, Oqba.
We were so sad and so shocked. It was more than painful to find out finally that we lost him. But also I felt relieved: from the photos it seemed like he didn't suffer a lot before his death. It must have been very fast. We'd seen other photos of bodies with horrific torture marks. We'd heard such horrible stories about what they do in the prisons. I felt relief, too, that now I know what happened, we're not living in this uncertainty anymore.
I often think if only we'd known earlier about his death. If we'd been told about it when it happened, maybe I wouldn't have lost three other brothers.
Even though I now know what happened to him, I'm still waiting. I'm waiting for the moment when I can hear the declaration that all political prisoners are released. When Oqba made the casket for our brother who was first killed, he arranged a huge funeral for him. It's my responsibility to do the same for him, and let him be buried with respect as a hero and son of Syria.
When you're made to wait like that, you feel paralysed. It's as if someone has pushed a pause button and your life is on hold. It's very difficult to describe that feeling of being made to wait. It's like you're standing still but everything else around you is moving. Everything is growing older, the seasons are changing but you are stuck in the same place, in the same time.
This is a terrorising tactic of the regime. They do this intentionally to silence people from asking about their loved ones. They want us to fear that when you are arrested it means you are gone forever. I hope no one else has the same experience as me.
Later I managed to get to Germany as part of the family reunification scheme. My husband was already there and he was able to bring me and our children. It was then that I started the work to establish Caesar Families Association, an organisation that has now become a part of me. We were a group of families who all found photos of our loved ones in the photos. And we decided to do something. We made a list of demands: the immediate release of all political prisoners; to hold those who did this accountable; to achieve justice for the victims; to reclaim the remains of the loved ones; and for any future government to honour the victims. Because these people are not numbers. We all want the same thing: truth and justice.