Mustafa Harmoush wept when he heard his mother’s voice on the telephone. The regime of President Assad had already murdered his father, cousins and brother-in-law; his brother and two uncles have disappeared into the brutal Syrian prison system.
Last Wednesday, when she phoned to tell of her release after two and a half weeks in jail, it was like a miracle.
“I cried and cried and cried from happiness,” said the 30-year-old, who lives in Brussels. “People had been telling me she was dead.”
Mr Harmoush’s family were made targets because his uncle, Lieutenant-Colonel Hussein Harmoush, had defected in protest at the murder of unarmed civilians. With the formation of a new rebel battalion in the city of Homs, and with some reports suggesting that the number of rebel soldiers may now have reached thousands, the embattled regime is being ruthless against the families of defectors as it tries to stop the army slipping from its control.
Mr Harmoush said that his mother had been released with a message. “They told her to say to her people that the angels will abandon God before the Syrian Army abandons Assad.”
His family’s ordeal began a month after Colonel Harmoush’s defection in June, when his younger brother, Hasan, was arrested while visiting family in Aleppo. He was taken to a military prison and he has not been heard of since. Then, on September 8, security forces raided the home of his elder brother and his father Mohammad Harmoush, 74.
After a shootout with defectors sheltering in the house, four people were arrested. They included Mohammad and his wife Mariam, who was wounded in the attack, and his son Ahmed, and his son-in-law, Mohannad Houry.
According to Mr Harmoush Jr, his mother watched as her son-in-law was killed. “She has been psychologically damaged by what she saw,” he said. The next day the corpses of Mr Houry and Mr Harmoush Sr were returned. Videos of their bullet-riddled bodies have been posted on the internet. Another brother, Mahmoud, was shot in the leg during the raid but escaped and has taken refuge in Turkey. Afterwards, the family’s home was bulldozed. About a week later two cousins, Musa Harmoush, 21, and his brother Hasan, 17, were abducted. The two had no connection with the defecting soldiers, but the day after their arrests, their bodies were found on the roadside near the village. A video showing Hasan’s blood-soaked corpse suggests that he was shot in the head.
Colonel Harmoush is also in Syrian custody after he disappeared from a refugee camp in Turkey on August 29 in mysterious circumstances. This month he was paraded on state television, where he was forced to “confess” his crimes. His family remain proud of his stand against the regime, despite the brutal consequences.
“I was so happy when I heard what he did,” said Mustafa Harmoush. “Me and my cousins and everybody knew that Hussein had dignity and honour, that he wouldn’t kill innocent people. He wanted everybody to know what freedom is.” There are signs that Damascus is intensifying its vicious campaign against the families of dissidents and defectors. One Damascus-based journalist and activist told The Times that nine out of ten would-be defectors are keeping quiet because they fear ruthless persecution by the regime.
“For any of them who defect it’s a complicated process,” said the activist, who works under the pseudonym Alexander Page. “Their families have to go into hiding. Their relatives are being targeted, and if the regime can’t find their relatives, they attack their extended family. It’s definitely scaring people … but the Government is aware that soldiers are ready to defect at any time.”
Mustafa Harmoush believes the persecution will ultimately serve to bring about the regime’s demise: “They killed my cousins and a lot of my family because they want defectors to see and read these stories so that fear is planted in their minds. But the more Assad kills people the more people protest. More and more soldiers are defecting.”
The price of defection
The family of Hussein Harmoush at a refugee in Turkey. © Natasha Fillion.
Here is my story from last Friday’s Times about the persecution of the family of defected Syrian soldier Hussein Harmoush, about whom I’ve previously written on this blog.
Photojournalist Natasha Fillion did excellently to get inside one of the refugee camps in Hatay to get this picture of his family. On the left is one of Hussein Harmoush’s brothers, Mahmoud, who was shot in the leg escaping a Syrian army ambush.