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A Syrian woman's year of love and fear

By Yasmin Amer and Joe Sterling
updated 8:00 PM EDT, Wed March 14, 2012
Ellesar Hasan spent weeks wondering about the fate of her husband, Firas Fayyad, in Syria.
Ellesar Hasan spent weeks wondering about the fate of her husband, Firas Fayyad, in Syria.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It's been a year since the violent crackdown on demonstrators began in Syria
  • Ellesar Hasan's ordeal mirrors the agony of many in Syria
  • Her husband disappeared, and she suspected the worst

(CNN) -- When Firas Fayyad failed to arrive at the Dubai airport from Damascus in November, Ellesar Hasan shivered with fear and sensed the worst: The regime of Bashar al-Assad had either jailed or killed her new husband.

Hasan then rode out weeks of worry and torment as she searched and pined for her husband.

"It's like I'm on a long journey in an endless desert," she wrote on her Facebook page. "When will I finally find fresh water?"

Her ordeal mirrored the agony faced by thousands of Syrians whose families have been ripped apart since mid-March 2011, when the violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators began in Daraa.

People in Daraa turned out to protest the arrests of children for painting anti-regime graffiti.

Those protests were greeted with force, and that spurred more people to take to the streets in Daraa and other cities across Syria. As the crackdown intensified, grass-roots calls for reforms soon morphed into anti-government demonstrations.

Syria's army and security forces committed "widespread and systematic violations of human rights" during its year-long crackdown, the United Nations has said. The clampdown, designed to quell anti-government and even reformist ferment, has been condemned around the globe.

"Arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention were being used to keep thousands of civilians jailed for indefinite periods and without due legal process or explanation," a U.N. panel said.

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Fayyad and Hasan worked in the film world when they met in early 2010. She was a screenwriter and he, a film director. She lives in Dubai, where her father long worked, but frequently went back home to Syria. Fayyad lived in Damascus.

They had mutual friends in the Syrian art world. Fayyad friended Hasan on Facebook, perused her profile and learned that she's a screenwriter. He then asked her to work with him on a film.

"Our first few conversations were about work and films and art, and gradually, we started to fall in love," she said. "When we first met, it was an intense attraction."

Their courtship swiftly blossomed. On one sun-soaked day in May 2010, they exchanged rings on Revolution Street, a busy thoroughfare in Damascus.

"People all around were watching us. It was a very happy day," she said. "He told me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. I had the same feelings."

The couple had much in common intellectually and creatively. They bonded over their love of art, music, philosophy and literature.

"We were always together. Coffee, library, read, work, shopping. It's very rare that a woman finds the man of her dreams. He's so perfect. Everything I'm looking for," she said.

They also shared similar political views. Like many of their contemporaries, they wanted a democratic Syria and sharply criticized the regime.

Fayyad's views about democracy reflect his art. He had been working on a film called "On the Other Side," about Ja'far Haydar, an exiled Syrian poet living in the Czech Republic.

Sectarian hatreds surfaced in Syria over the past year. But Fayyad, a Sunni, and Hasan, an Ismaili, are among the thousands of testaments to sectarian amity in what is a Sunni-dominated but diverse ethnic stew.

"Both families got along. I love his family, and mine loves him. We're both from different sects of Islam," she said. "It's not a problem."

Fayyad also reveled in Hasan's achievements, not a common trait among men in traditional societies.

"He's progressive and supportive. I see very few men in this society who care as much as he did about his wife's success. He'd always bring me articles, books and poems and encourage me to learn more and keep writing," she said.

The couple was formally engaged in late January 2011, just weeks before the crackdown and the uprising exploded.

Three months later, Syrian security arrested Fayyad, his first but not last run-in with the authorities.

His attorney, Khalil Ma'tuq, said his client was at an Internet cafe near his home in Damascus. The cafe owner monitored Fayyad' online communications with Hasan.

"His conversation included discussions of the protests and what was happening in Daraa at the time," Ma'tuq said, referring to the city where the Syrian uprising started.

Security arrested him for inciting protests, promoting sectarian tension and collaborating with foreign influences. The arrest kept him from traveling to Switzerland for work.

"They spew lies," Hasan said of the charges.

Hasan traveled to Douma for Fayyad's court hearing. Her husband looked tired and tense, but he would glance at her and smile. Fayyad walked free 15 days later under a presidential pardon.

In prison, he told Hasan, he saw eight people crammed into a room meant for one. They couldn't move or sleep. The inmates ate lousy food.

"He didn't change his behavior after that experience," Hasan said. "It solidified his beliefs in democracy, human rights and freedom of expression."

They married in July. The day after they wed, they went to an anti-government protest in Salamiyah. They attempted a honeymoon at the beach but couldn't enjoy such an interlude.

"We were there for one day, but we just couldn't stand it, knowing the situation," she said.

In late November, Hasan was in Dubai, expecting Fayyad to show up by plane from Syria. She called his cell phone, and it was shut off.

"I knew he was detained," she said.

She couldn't find him, and panic set in.

"Every day, the lawyer would go to the courts, and we'd ask detainees that got out if they knew a Firas," she said. No one knew a Firas, and they couldn't find the man for weeks.

Hasan had nightmares of a cold and hungry Fayyad subjected to torture. She tried to buck up and maintain a semblance of normalcy, but she slept poorly and wept every day.

"The first 30 days were hard," she said.

She aired her grief over his disappearance on her Facebook page.

"It has helped get my story out there."

She also worked through her distress by e-mailing Fayyad daily notes.

"I want your heart and nothing else," Hasan wrote. "To all those who are imprisoned in the prisons of the Syrian regime, I want to tell you I love you."

A couple of months after he disappeared, the lawyer found Fayyad incarcerated in Aleppo.

On Facebook, scores of people backed a call for his release.

Ma'tuq soon got details about what happened.

Security arrested Fayyad at the airport after they got wind of his film, "On the Other Side." The authorities said he was "participating in illegal activities and conspiring against the regime" and threw him in prison.

"Firas is a film director. He has no weapons and nothing of that sort. He's peaceful, so we did everything possible to make sure he was freed," Ma'tuq said.

Fayyad appeared in an Aleppo court at the end of February. The judge freed him.

Fayyad called Hasan on the night of March 2 and proclaimed, "I'm out." She called a friend to pick him up at the jail. The couple talked again an hour later, but she was so stunned and elated, she couldn't come up with words.

"When I talked to him, it was maybe a minute before I can say anything. I couldn't believe he was finally out. He laughed at the fact that I couldn't say anything. I just said 'Firas,' and that's it. It was like my tongue just stopped working."

Hasan's e-mail notes heartened Fayyad. He told her he had a feeling she would write them.

"The first couple of days, he seemed tired. Afterward, I felt like he's the same Firas."

Fayyad is with his family in a village. Hasan, still in Dubai, will soon be joining him. She never wants to be apart again.

They don't want to be arrested, but they don't want to abandon the fight for democracy in Syria.

"What else can happen other than what has already happened?" she asked.

But thousands have gone missing or unaccounted and faced torture and death in prisons.

It could have been worse for Fayyad. For now, the couple's plans are uncertain, just like Syria's future.

"It's their individual right to continue doing what they're doing," Ma'tuq said. "It's their freedom of expression. Firas is an unarmed film director. he is not dangerous to the state."

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