By Cilina Nasser, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher
When Siham Abou Sitte fell in love with Ghassan al-Shihabi, she was drawn by his determination to keep the memory of old Palestine alive, his passion for reading and writing and his commitment to his work.
They were both Palestinian refugees living in Syria’s Yarmouk neighbourhood in Damascus.
When he proposed, Ghassan promised to cherish Siham’s two children from a previous marriage, Carmen (then 12) and Yamen (then 15), and treat them as his own.
Six years after they got married, Siham says Ghassan never disappointed her.
Siham recalls the day her mother passed away, Carmen was upset by her grandmother’s death and ran to Ghassan who held her in his arms even though her own father was sitting there.
“It was Ghassan who made her feel safe,” Siham says.
Ghassan and Siham then had their own children: five-year-old twin girls Joud and Jana.
When the uprising in Syria began and the situation deteriorated into armed conflict Ghassan’s attention turned to providing support and aid to Syrians and Palestinians displaced from the nearby areas of al-Hajar al-Aswad and Hay al-Tadamon.
Eventually, he and his family decided to seek refuge in Lebanon like thousands who fled Syria looking for safety.
When I met Ghassan and Siham in Lebanon on 3 January 2013, he told me how he along with others went by car to Hay al-Tadamon on 15 July 2012 to evacuate families trapped there as mortar shells showered the area during a government attempt to regain the opposition-controlled district. “Children were terrified… they were crying hysterically.”
Little did he know on 12 January 2013, his own little girls, Joud and Jana, would witness the horror of their father’s death.
Ghassan, Siham and their children went back to Syria the day after I met them to arrange Carmen’s accommodation in Qudsaya, west of Damascus, so that she wouldn’t miss on her university studies.
On Friday 11 January 2013, Ghassan and Siham bought 25 bags of bread to feed people inside Yarmouk. They tried to enter the besieged camp in the afternoon but there were intense clashes and it was too risky, according to Siham.
The following morning, Siham told Ghassan that she and the kids wanted to stay with him in Yarmouk. “We will stay together and die together,” she said. He put his arms around her and told her: “I will never leave you.”
They arrived at the entrance to the Yarmouk neighbourhood at 10.15am. The Air Force Intelligence checkpoint was not allowing cars to go in. “We could hear the sound of the sniper’s bullets,” Siham recalls. “They searched the car and said they wanted to confiscate the bread: “You can’t take bread in,” an Air Force Intelligence officer told us.
I said: “We’re taking bread for the families.” The officer replied: “No, you’re taking bread for the armed men.” I said: “Since anyway you’re not allowing us to enter with the car, we’ll park it here and keep the bread in the bunker. You don’t have to confiscate them.”
Siham crossed the street with Joud and Jana while Ghassan parked the car just outside Yarmouk. As both children were crying at the sound of the bullets, a soldier at the checkpoint said to them: “Don’t be scared, this is our sniper. He wouldn’t shoot at this corner.”
Meanwhile, Ghassan parked the car and as he crossed the road by foot to join his family, a military commander of the government-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, told him: “Ghassan al-Shehabi, you can take your car.”
So Ghassan walked back to the car and drove to where his wife and children had stood and asked them to hurriedly get inside. “I got inside the car with Joud and Jana in the backseat to protect them in case anything happened,” said Siham.
Ghassan drove for around 75 metres along Yarmouk Street, a main road in the neighbourhood, when a bullet punctured the backseat, passed between Joud and Jana and ripped through Ghassan’s driver’s seat piercing his back and lodging in his lung, his wife said.
“He shrieked: AAAH, and his hands just left the steering wheel… the car swerved uncontrollably onto the pavement and slammed against a wall… I could only hear sounds of bullets. Ghassan was just silent.”
Siham and Joud jumped out of the car. “Joud’s nose was bleeding from the impact of the car hitting against the wall, and her jacket soaked with blood. I thought she was injured by a bullet so I quickly took off her jacket… she was fine. The blood was her father’s.
“Jana did not say a word. She just squatted under the seat in shock.
Joud shouted: “You killed my dad, you killed my dad.”
“The location where the car stopped was near the first position for the Free Syrian Army on Yarmouk Street. So some of them came to help and one was a health worker who gave Ghassan mouth-to-mouth resuscitation… I looked at Ghassan; his eyes looked as if he was saying goodbye.
“They took Ghassan to Falasteen [Palestine] Hospital and I had to figure out what to do with the kids, so I couldn’t go with him. I left them with a family living nearby and told Joud and Jana that I was taking pyjamas to their dad, because they saw the health worker tearing his clothes. I ran to the hospital.
“As soon as I arrived there, a health worker told me that my husband didn’t make it. There were no doctors at the hospital because a few days earlier, Dr Aladdin Youssef was arrested and so others were scared to come to the hospital.
“The funeral was arranged so quickly and he was buried within two hours of his death. His mother, who’s in Lebanon, and my elder children didn’t have the chance to say good bye to him.
Later in the day, Siham had to tell Joud and Jana that their father had died. “As soon as they came in the door, they both asked: “Where’s baba (dad), where’s baba?” I said: “He went to heaven.” Joudi was upset: “How could he go to heaven and leave us?” So I said: “Baba wanted to stay with us, but he can’t because Allah has decided to take him.” Joud said: “Shouldn’t Allah take the entire family together to heaven?”
As Siham was recounting the story, I couldn’t help remembering how Ghassan carried Joud on his shoulders as we strolled to meet a friend whom he and Siham wanted me to meet in Beirut.
Joud playfully slapped her father’s head repeatedly with the palms of her little hands saying: “I’m very tall and I have two heads and two bellies,” as her father giggled.
One month on, the family is back in Lebanon but without Ghassan. Joud has grown to be aware that her father is not returning, while Jana tells people that her father is coming back.
Siham too feels that her husband never left. “He’s all the time with me. When I look at the sky as it rains, I see him. When I wake up in the morning, I see him next to me. Before I sleep, I see him… Death will not do us apart.”
Ghassan al-Shihabi, aged 48, was the founder of Al-Shajara Institution for Printing and Publishing.