“She can no longer speak to men.”

The story of Zainab, held hostage for ransom in Serekaniye. Originally published in Arabic here.

Hamza Hamaki

Jumah Sheikho did not expect that the decision to return with his wife to his city, Serekaniye, would end in tragedy.

On October 9, last year, Turkey, with factions affiliated with the Syrian opposition, launched a major military invasion from Serekaniye to Gire Spi. Fierce battles erupted on a 120-km front on the border between the two cities, and ended in Turkey talking control over this entire area after the withdrawal of the Syrian Democratic Forces, according to an agreement between Washington and Ankara.

It was on the third day after the shelling and fighting began, when Juma Sheikho decided to take his family out of the city to the south and west, to the villages of the town of Til Temer on the Heseke road, in an attempt to save their lives as the Turkish bombardment reached its height and armed jihadist gangs invaded Serekaniye in a “street war”.

That afternoon, he set off with a motorbike that was his only way to get his family out. Like most of their neighbours, they feared for their lives and felt like they had no choice.

During the first days of Turkish bombing focused on the city and its countryside, about 150,000 people fled the city. They crossed the countryside of Til Temer and reached Heseke, in scenes that embodied one of the worst tragedies in Syria during eight years of the war. Hundreds of children and women gathered outside, taking refuge from the cold and rain in schools or unfinished buildings.

During this time most international relief organizations withdrew their staff from Rojava, and left across the borders to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. This led to great pressure on the local organizations, which found themselves shouldering all responsibility to provide assistance to the displaced, despite limited capabilities.

The thirteenth day of October marked a tragic turn for Zainab and her family. Two days after reaching safety, she and her husband made a decision to return home to find out what had happened to their house.

“We had taken the decision to check on our house and fetch some necessities,” Sheikho said, “but we never thought Zainab would be kidnapped by an armed faction in the city center. By luck I managed to escape with some other families.”

Zainab spent two weeks in detention, during which time Juma could not sleep. This fear has been tasted by dozens of families displaced from Serekaniye according to local human rights reports, despite being unable to gather accurate statistics on these violations.

After Sheikho reached his family, he tried everything to find out what had happened to his wife, but to no avail, until he received messages from the gangs who had detained her.

Grey hair falling across his face, he says: “They sent me pictures of Zainab, and demanded a ransom of one million Syrian pounds in exchange for her release.” He tried to secure the amount with the aim of sending it through brokers to the agents who had detained his wife.

During the period of Zainab’s detention, the man comforted his three children and his other wife. He said: “The one million pounds that I sent to the armed factions, I worked hard to collect it, but the return of my wife to her family cannot be measured in money.”

However, Zainab’s return to her family would not end her suffering, as her husband had hoped. The effects of the period of forced detention on her are far from being forgotten. The horror of the scenes of killing and torture that she lived for two weeks was a nightmare from which she still cannot wake.

Char magazine was unable to take her testimony and know what happened to her during the detention period, as Zainab was unable to look at the camera while we were taking pictures. “She can no longer speak to men,” her husband said.

Zainab today lives with her family in the school of Umm Hajariya, located to the west of the neighborhood of Al-Nashwa in Heseke. They live in one room, with two other families, in difficult conditions.

Explaining the situation of his family, Sheikho added, “How can three families live in one room These children are out of school. Everything went overnight.”

For Juma, the pain and hardship he experienced and went through with his family, he says would be worth it if only he could see his wife recover from her psychological crisis, and overcome the horrors she experienced.

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