Up until May 28, Hazem Hallak didn't pay much attention to the anti-government protests that have been roiling Syria since mid-March. The 50-year-old oncology researcher, who left Syria for the U.S. in 1984 to attend Case Western Reserve University and later met his wife while doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Penn, was leading a pretty normal life in Merion Park, just outside of Philadelphia. "I have a house in the suburbs, I have two kids, I have a cat, I have two cars, I have a job, I have a mortgage," he explains. "I became a workaholic, obsessed with my science, obsessed with my grants." The politics of Syria played a small role in his life; what opinions he expressed -- intermittently, and not very forcefully -- showed up on his infrequently used Twitter account: thanks for Anderson Cooper's CNN coverage, or recommending the U.S. recall its ambassador to protest the regime's crackdown.
In our day-to-day coverage of the Middle East uprisings, we tend to focus on three actors: the regimes in power, the opposition that wants to oust them, and the international community that watches the drama unfold. The stories of people like Hallak, who've moved away from their homelands and are watching the historic events from afar, don't always fall neatly into the "pro-regime" or "anti-regime" camps.
Hallak found himself suddenly and unexpectedly pushed into the latter group on Saturday, May 28, when the coroner's office informed his family in Syria that it had received the badly beaten body of a man who appeared to be Hallak's younger brother, Sakher. Sakher, a well-off 43-year-old physician who ran an eating disorders clinic in Syria's commercial capital, Aleppo, had just returned from a three-week visit to the U.S.--his first ever trip to the States--in which he'd attended an eating disorders conference in Miami and spent time sightseeing and catching up with Hazem in Philadelphia and their two sisters in California and West Virginia. (The photo above shows Sakher, on the left, and Hazem, on the right, in Manhattan).
As Hazem and the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee, who've both gathered information on Sakher's death, tell it, the Mukhabarat (Syria's intelligence agency) and the Shabiha (pro-government militiamen) detained Sakher as he drove home from work late on Wednesday, May 25 and killed him a couple days later. Prior to the devastating news, Sakher's wife had received assurances from Syrian officials and a lawmaker and psychiatrist who were close with both the regime that the Mukhabarat would release the Sakher. Instead, the family learned of Sakher's demise after a man driving in a village outside Aleppo stumbled upon Sakher's corpse--eyes gouged, genitals mutilated, bones broken--in a ditch and brought him to the coroner's office.
Hazem believes Mukhabarat officials killed his brother--intentionally or not--as they interrogated Sakher about which Syrian opposition figures he'd met with in the U.S., resorting to torture when Sakher insisted he hadn't met with anyone. The Syrian Embassy in Washington, meanwhile, claims that Syrian authorities never detained the doctor and that Sakher's murder was a criminal act. Embassy spokesperson Roua Sharbaji, citing a Syrian judge who inspected Sakher's body, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in early June that Sakher had received severe blows to his head and died from strangulation. A month later, the Embassy told The Atlantic Wire it had no further information.
Hazem doesn't buy the Embassy's explanation. He claims Syrian officials initially blamed his brother's death on Israeli spies and later on Sakher's office manager, who was briefly jailed. The office manager, Hazem adds, later friended him on Facebook and asked him, presumably under duress, for a list of everyone Sakher had met with in the U.S. so that she could "find his killer." As further evidence of the regime's complicity in Sakher's murder, Hazem cites witnesses in Syria who've told him that security forces have warned other doctors in Aleppo that they could meet the same fate as Sakher did.
Sakher, Hazem notes, was an unlikely target. He says his brother was apolitical and flourished under the Assad regime because of his clinic's upscale clientele. When he bid him farewell on May 5, Hazem says, "I really assumed--and I think he himself assumed--that he is untouchable because he catered to the rich and the elite and he's happy." When the two brothers did discuss politics and the Syrian uprising, Sakher told Hazem that the younger generation in Syria--the educated twenty- and thirtysomethings who Hazem calls the "Twitter and Facebook generation"--believed the country's president should be elected based on the popular vote, not religious sect. (The Syrian president currently must be a Muslim, and the minority Alawite sect dominates politics.) Sakher, who, according to Hazem, never participated in anti-government activities, added that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had made a fundamental error at the outset of the uprising by choosing to respond with an "iron fist" like his father, Hafez, rather than calling for free elections, which Assad probably would have won. Even though many Syrians hate the regime, Hazem explains, Assad is "popular because people think of him as a nice guy. He's a doctor. He's tall, he's handsome, he has blue eyes." Women "love him," Hazem adds, quickly correcting himself--"used to" love him.
In the wake of Sakher's death, Hazem has taken to Facebook and Twitter with a vengeance, ratcheting up his rhetoric against the Syrian regime, invoking Sakher's memory, and urging his brother's hometown of Aleppo, Syria's second largest city, to join other restive cities like Hama in the struggle to topple Assad. When he tried to speak with family members about how Sakher died, he recalls that his family said, "'You know what? Nothing's going to bring him back.'" But, Hazem adds, "that's how old people think: 'He died, he's going to go to heaven, and God is going to punish the people who did it and God's going to take good care of him.' I think it's a mechanism to cope with all this violence … I do not buy this garbage."
Hazem doesn't think Assad is capable of reform (he quotes the Syrian saying, "Dogs are only capable of having puppies" in reference to Assad's father, Hafez) and wants the U.S. and the international community to clearly express support for the Syrian people and demand that Assad and his regime relinquish power, though he adds that "the people in Syria are doing this revolution with or without the Unied States. With or without the world."
We initially heard Hazem's story when he emailed us in response to an article we wrote on Rep. Dennis Kucinich's meeting with Assad and opposition figures in Damascus last month. Hazem, who says he used to like Kucinich, now has strong words for the anti-war Democrat. Kucinich "has no power in the United States," Hazem argues, "but what bothers me is Syrian TV used [the meeting between Kucinich and Assad] to the maximum. He gave morale to Assad and Assad supporters." Ultimately, Hazem adds, "Assad has blood on his hands and [Kucinich] should not be talking to" him.
Hazem says he's still devastated by Sakher's death. "You never get over losing your little brother," he observes. "If it was a car accident or airplane [crash] or something you may get over it. But knowing him as an innocent, extremely smart and bright kid, who had so much to give. And just because these Shabiha people with no education kill him. It's just, you know?"
Hazem also feels very guilty about not asking his brother to stay in the U.S. "I did not understand the magnitude of the Assad regime," he explains. "I really didn't believe there are people that bad in the world. I've been living in the [United States] so long."