The Story of Rehab al-Allawi

From a Human Rights Watch Report

Rehab al-Allawi, a Damascus resident originally from Deir al-Zor, was an engineering student at Damascus University before the uprising in Syria. Hers was the only published photograph of a woman, among the Caesar photographs dealing with dead detainees.

Rehab was about 25 years old when the Raids Brigade, a special raids unit of the military police, arrested her on January 17, 2013. The unit came to the family home in Damascus around 10 p.m. According to Rehab’s brother Hamza, an officer told Rehab’s mother that the matter would be closed within a few hours.

Rehab worked in one of Damascus’s local coordination committees—loose networks of activists—and she assisted internally displaced persons who had fled Homs, her brother Hamza told Human Rights Watch. After her arrest, the family sought information through personal contacts within the Syrian government. They paid over US$18,000 to various officials in the Syrian military and security services to gain information about Rehab, and to try and secure her release but received no information.

After a few months, a Syrian brigadier-general told the family Rehab had died of a stroke, her brother reported. Rehab’s other brother Bassam asked to see her grave, and in March 2013, an officer accompanied him to al-Najha cemetery, on the outskirts of Damascus. Bassam showed the guards a picture of Rehab and asked if they had seen her body. The guards told him, “Yes they brought three girls at 11 p.m. ten days ago.” Hamza, Rehab’s other brother, asked Bassam to have her exhumed, but he was not able to do so. When he asked, the office replied, “There is nothing more we can do.” The family never received a death certificate. They held a memorial service for Rehab in Jordan soon after, and another in Saudi Arabia, where the two brothers live, in June 2013.

The same month as Rehab’s second memorial, an acquaintance who knew Syria’s Justice Minister called the family and told them Rehab was still alive. “We told him, Bassam saw her grave. He told us, ‘She is in the Military Security Branch, I saw her name on the register. If she was dead, she would not be on it.’”

Several months later, in October 2013, a military security officer reached out to the family and requested $90,000 to secure Rehab’s release: $50,000 as payment for his services, and $40,000 to secure her safe exit from Syria to Turkey. Bassam met and paid an intermediary in Istanbul. After the money was transferred, the officer told Rehab’s family that she had left Syria for Lebanon.

“We believed it, we searched all over Lebanon, every tent. For eight months we hoped we would find her,” Hamza told Human Rights Watch.

A former detainee, Hanadi, told Human Rights Watch that she was detained with Rehab for over three weeks in the 215 Branch (Military Intelligence). Rehab arrived in late January or early February 2013, according to Hanadi and information other former detainees provided Rehab’s family. Hanadi said:

We spent 24 days together in the cell, next to each other, she talked to me about her parents. She wanted to see her parents. She would always speak about her brothers and sisters, she was scared for her family. 

Hanadi was transferred to Adra Prison after three and a half weeks. She never saw Rehab again. About a month later, a new female detainee arrived to Adra from Branch 215. Hanadi said she asked the new detainee about Rehab. The detainee said that one night at about 11 p.m. a month and a half after Hanadi was transferred the guard came and told Rehab: “Pack your stuff, you are going home.”

In March2015, after the Caesar photographs were published online, a cousin called the family and asked if Rehab’s photo might be among those released. “She looks just like Rehab,” the cousin said.

Though the family recognized Rehab, they asked former detainees who had seen Rehab in prison to confirm, as her appearance had changed greatly during her detention.

Hanadi told Human Rights Watch:

One day her brother called me and asked me if it was Rehab in the photographs that were published. She gained a lot of weight in detention… because we could not move, and from eating potatoes, rice, and bulghur. I recognized the pajamas she was wearing, and her face. Even the shape of her toes was the same. When she arrived she was not sick, her face was not yellow, and she was very thin.

In the photographs that emerged of her body, 215 Branch is written on her forehead. Three photographs that appear to be Rehab were saved in a folder dated June 4, 2013. Human Rights Watch shared these photographs with Physicians for Human Rights. Forensic pathologists observed that the photographs depicted a woman in her 20s with an IV line apparent in her left arm, indicating medical intervention. They found no visible evidence of injuries or blunt force trauma.

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