I am Hala Hajj Saleh, cousin of Haitham and his wife. Haitham al-Hajj Saleh, born in Raqqa in 1978, studied at the Institute of Training Class Teachers and worked as a teacher and later as a secretary. Haytham and I got married in 2007 and had three children, we lived a quiet and happy life with our children. Haytham who I have always seen as my beautiful destiny in life was calm, he had no problems with anyone, and he was chivalrous and understanding so that I did not have any real problem with him throughout our marriage; he was very close to his children, so affectionate that they were attached to him, and they suffered a lot after his disappearance, as they were too young to psychologically accept it or to understand him. That’s why that absence left a painful effect on them and still does. Eight-year-old Naya is the youngest of my two kids. Naya was only nine months old when her father was kidnapped by ISIS, so he experienced the world without the presence of her father. Destinies wanted her to be born in a country whose most beautiful children are being killed and kidnapped, just because they demanded to live in a free and dignified homeland and to be the daughter who does never knows her father Except through his image fixed features. Naya, who dreams every day of her father’s return and keeps asking me her usual questions and saying her childish words, always repeats this phrase to me: “You all know Papa…but I don’t know him; I have never seen him.” In fact, I have nothing but confusion and helplessness in front of her questions. How can I find a definite answer to her questions while I myself have been living the mystery of his absence for eight years, vacillating between hope and obsessions: the hope that he is still alive, insisting on holding on to, and the obsessions that plague me at times which sometimes go longer or shorter while despair of his return overwhelms me. Haytham and I did not enjoy the years of our happy marriage, and our children could not enjoy his tenderness and his distinguished fatherhood, too. Rather, ISIS came to turn love into oppression and waiting, and the family life into hell. Haitham and the Syrian Revolution Despite Haitham’s absence from any political work before the Syrian revolution, not adopting any political affiliation, he was one of the first participants in the revolutionary movement, and he worked secretly in Al-Raqqa, for he was a believer in the principles of freedom and dignity. He participated in the demonstrations against the Assad regime and the relief work in Al-Raqqa which received the people of other stricken provinces. When the regime forces began targeting civilians, he became involved in military action. At first, he began helping regime soldiers who refused to participate in the killing of peaceful demonstrators to defect from the Syrian army and flee to areas outside its control; Later, he joined the Free Army and fought alongside it against the Assad regime, defending armless civilians. ISIS is the enemy of the heroes of freedom As an active person in the Syrian revolution at the peaceful and military level, Haitham was a target of ISIS which had begun to kidnap and liquidate civilian activists and Free Army members and empty Al-Raqqa from its revolutionary bases. On the morning of May 21, 2013, Haitham was kidnapped from the city of Raqqa. On that day, someone came to our house and told him to hurry because his comrades in the Free Army wanted him to come quickly. It was about half-past six in the morning; I tried at that time to stop him from going, but he told me that he would come back quickly. Evening prevailed, but he neither come back nor did he even call. I prepared the dinner and sat while the kids were waiting for him, but he never came back. It seemed that it had been an ambush by ISIS, and the one who came to take him was cooperating with them. We have been waiting for him since that day, and hope for his return is still in our minds and hearts despite the journey of search and waiting and despite the difficulties that go beyond the psychological state alongside the danger that threatens the security and safety of my family. The family and the quest: wandering between dangers and sorrows I found myself alone and heartbroken facing that disaster: a wife and a mother of three frustrated by the absence of her partner. I found myself bearing the responsibility of not only protecting her children and securing their material and moral requirements but also remaining strong in front of them and in the face of their loss. Moreover, I took the responsibility to search for their father and to endeavor as far as possible for his safe return; I had to bear the setbacks and pain of waiting, absence and dashed hopes on the thresholds of disappointments. In the early days of Haitham’s disappearance, I was convinced that the issue of his disappearance was temporary and that he would return soon. I never imagined it would last all these years. I would spend hours every day on the porch of our house waiting for him to come back; These hours turned into eight years of waiting. Up to now, the hope of his return accompanies both his children and me. This hope weakens sometimes, but it is the only way for us to endure the hardship of living in the shadow of Haitham’s painful absence. I tried a lot to search for him and put myself on the line for him, for I went to ISIS headquarters to ask about him more than once, and I always received the same harsh answer from their members: he was killed on charges of “apostasy.” Even after hearing this recurrent answer, I used to go back to them and ask, so that I might get another answer, but to no avail. During these eight years I was not always so strong; I went through many moments of weakness and could not control myself even in front of my children. I had difficult days and bitter situations. I looked at my children and was afraid that I could not fill the void left by their father; that became my only concern in life: to be both the father and mother of my children. “Welcome” and the difficulties of absence: between extortion and displacement In addition to all of the above difficulties I faced as a mother seeking to protect her children in an unfair life and left with a share of absence and mysterious loss -like many families of the kidnapped- I was also the target of extortions by war brokers who masterfully play with the feelings of families and feed on their fears and hopes which succumb to news and blackmail that enhance the oppression and difficulty of absence. You cannot imagine the extent of the pain I was experiencing after my hope rose to a peak, and after it vanished, I found nothing but a mirage; those people whose purpose and motives I did not understand selfishly manipulated our feelings. Haitham was our only source of livelihood, so I faced the challenge of securing an income for my family to support the children’s education and their future and other difficulties related to stability in a country devastated by a fierce war and oppressive tyrants. My children and I had to experience the pain and cruelty of displacement and move between many regions until we settled in Turkey. After Haitham was kidnapped, we stayed for a while in Al-Raqqa hoping that he would return so that he would not find the house empty. Then the airstrikes intensified on Al-Raqqa, so I took my children and went to the village. We lived there in the village school; We stayed there for about two years. The period of displacement was difficult for everyone; our living situation went from bad to worse. General conditions were so bad that securing water was difficult. Of course, talking about the lack of education for children in that period might seem like a luxury that no one pays attention to. Everyone was concerned about just surviving with the minimum requirements. Meanwhile, ISIS had seized our house in Al-Raqqa, and later warplanes bombed the house and destroyed it completely; I thanked God at that time for our exodus and for saving us from death under its ruins. After two years of living in the village school, I moved to live in a room next to my in-laws in the same village. At that time, I had no livelihood. I did not complete the year in this room, as I decided to go out to Turkey in search of safety and in the hope that my children would resume their education and that I would get a job. We arrived after an arduous journey to Turkey. The beginning was very difficult, and we have been facing some difficulties so far. Maybe we are used to bearing difficulties; that is what I think. Today, I live with my three children safely in Turkey, but Haitham’s absence leaves behind both sadness and pain. I live with my children in the hope of meeting Haitham one day, for I am trying to instill strength and safety in them despite the cruelty of waiting and the absence that stole from us not only the life partner but the entire joy, tranquility and peace which can only be obtained with Haitham’s return.