Stefan Rousseau/AP
Stefan Rousseau/AP

A mother’s journey to find her missing son in Syria

Fatima Khan’s son, a volunteer doctor in Syria, was detained at a checkpoint. Thirteen months later, he died in custody

Fatima Khan wants to know why.

“Why would they kill my son?” she asks out loud to people, some of whom she has already asked many times before. She asks in WhatsApp missives and text messages, in confrontations with Syrian officials, in conversations with the opposition, and when she’s not asking someone else, she is visibly wondering to herself.

She replays each moment from when her son Abbas Khan, a volunteer British doctor on the Turkish-Syrian border, was detained by the regime at a checkpoint inside Syria to when he died in the regime’s custody 13 months later, on the eve of his promised release. He was 32 years old. Abbas' imminent freedom had been won by Fatima herself, a housewife who had never negotiated with hostile governments but who had relocated to Damascus on her own for five months to campaign tirelessly for her son.

She is looking for the key that will make sense of what is surreal. After all, what took her son wasn’t an act of God or chance but rather a deliberate one of the state — organized and institutionalized.

So for her “why,” there must be a readily articulable “because.”

There must be human beings with whom she can rationalize, even if it is on their terms, no matter how surreal.

Why did regime officials tell her they would let Abbas live if they didn’t really mean it?

“Why wasn’t detaining, torturing, starving and humiliating him enough? Why kill him too?” she asks.

Abbas Khan as a baby, in Fatima’s arms, with his sister Shahzeena and brother Afroze.
Courtesy Fatima Khan

Abbas Khan, an orthopedic surgeon, volunteered to provide medical care to Syrian refugees through a small organization, Human Aid. He traveled to Turkey’s border with Syria to treat those fleeing the war. But as refugees arrived with tales of who was left behind, Abbas believed he could be of further assistance on the other side of the border.

He decided to take the risk of crossing into Syria. On the outskirts of Aleppo, he worked in a hospital for less than 72 hours when, on a quick errand to change money, he was stopped at a regime checkpoint. They took him.

Fatima says Abbas always “felt to help people,” which meant that “many times he put himself in trouble.” She recalls the time when, at school, one boy was being bullied; Abbas intervened and was badly beaten. Or when Abbas helped a family whose car had broken down at 1:00 a.m. in knee-high snow; he gave them a lift all the way to their house. By the time he was heading back to his own home, the snow had accumulated further, and he got stuck out in the cold.

When he left in November 2012, Abbas told his mother he was going to Turkey for two weeks. Fatima didn’t think much of it. Three of her children are doctors who often travel for medical conferences. None of her children told her where Abbas was really going.

Abbas’ wife — a shy woman from Egypt whom he met online and with whom he has two small children — also knew, and Abbas made sure to check in with her every day until the day she didn’t hear from him at all. After more than 24 hours of silence, it was the field hospital that called her.

Back in London, Fatima was sitting on her bed watching TV before going to sleep. Her daughter Sara came to her, sat beside her, and started crying.

“Mummy,” she said, “Abbas has gone missing.”

Only then did Fatima learn the truth, of where Abbas was and what he had gone to do.

The family didn’t know what happened to him. Was he captured by the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian government, jihadist groups or some other militia? They didn’t know which would be worse. 

She pleaded for help, kneeling to kiss their feet, and when they moved away in embarrassment, she kissed the ground.

Shortly after Abbas had disappeared, his family found an article on Iran’s Press TV reporting that Syrian security forces had arrested him in Aleppo for “helping terrorist groups and insurgents.”

For eight months, the family then waited for the Syrian government to grant them visas to Syria.

While they were left in limbo, they looked for help wherever they could find it, from their own government, local and national, other governments, politicians, NGOs, individuals, anyone.

The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, had married a Syrian woman who was raised in London. Assad’s father-in-law still lived and practiced medicine in the city. Seeking an audience with him, Fatima tracked down his house, but the lights were never on. She then tried unsuccessfully to see him at the hospital. Not dissuaded, she finally made an appointment for a consult at his private practice on Harley Street, where the rich in England go for the best medical care money can buy.

After paying his 300-pound fee, she told the cardiologist, “I’ve got heart problem.”

“My son got arrested in Syria,” she says she said to him. “If you could kindly help me?”

According to Fatima, he was unmoved. “What do you want me to do?” she says he retorted. “Seven of my family died in this war.”

Several fruitless months later, in July 2013, the family found out a visa was ready in Beirut — but only for Fatima. She flew the next day to Lebanon and then crossed into Syria. She had two weeks to find Abbas, though no one knew where in the labyrinth of Syrian prisons — civil, criminal and secret — he was being held.

As the British Embassy in Syria was closed, Fatima had no intermediary to help her. According to a spokeswoman for the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it was working through the Czech Embassy in Syria to communicate with the regime in an attempt to secure consular access to Abbas.

In Damascus, Fatima did approach the Czech Embassy, but says it was unable to assist her. She also approached the Russian and Iranian embassies, as both countries continued to have influence with the regime. She says the Russian Embassy had arbitrary operating hours and that the Iranians complained she was not appropriately veiled.

Her children, who were researching Syrian prisons back home in the U.K., would direct her in Damascus. She would hop in a taxi as soon as she had an address or a name, only to be consistently turned away at the gates.

When she went to the “Palestine Branch,” the notorious military intelligence prison where political prisoners are held, she was yelled at by several heavily armed men who chased her away.

Her taxi driver told her, “I’m not coming here with you next time. If they arrest me, my family will never know where I am.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but Abbas was in there.

Fatima went to the Ministry of Reconciliation, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Justice and even Assad’s office, asking to know where her son was being held. She was shuffled around and out of people’s offices with no answers.

The gruffest of the functionaries, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official, told her it was her fault.

“Your upbringing was wrong,” he said to her.

When she tried to explain that Abbas only wanted to help the people, his response, she says, was, “We didn’t ask him to help.”

He then told her to go to her embassy — the Indian Embassy — even though Fatima had emigrated 40 years before from Hyderabad and is a longtime U.K. citizen.

Always dressed in a sari, Fatima says she was treated by Syrian officials as if she were Indian, and therefore with less respect than if she were European.

But no matter who she met or how they treated her, she pleaded for help finding her son, kneeling to kiss their feet, and when they moved away in embarrassment, she kissed the ground where they had just stepped.

If you had told me, I wouldn’t have let you come.

Two days before Fatima’s visa expired, she received a call to go to the counterterrorism court the next day. “You will see your son,” she was told.

She went. There, several defendants were brought in, and she caught sight of Abbas.

“I met my son. He was a skeleton,” she says. “He hugged me, he kissed my shoulder and said, ‘Mummy, I’m sorry, please take me from here. I didn’t do anything wrong.’”

In Urdu she asked him, “What are all these black marks on your feet?”

“I was tortured,” Abbas told her. “But I’m healing up. This is nothing.”

Suddenly they found themselves surrounded by men with guns, says Fatima.

“You can’t use your language,” they shouted at them.

After that court appearance, Abbas was moved to Adra, a civil prison.

Her visa renewed, Fatima spent the next several months living out of a hotel in Damascus. She went through many lawyers, judges and intermediaries who she says always wanted money, promised big results and delivered nothing.

She spent more than $25,000 in bribes and fees.

But at least with Abbas in Adra, Fatima could visit him once a week. With several more bribes, she was able to get him a pen and some paper. For $30 a day, a guard would give her a letter from her son. They also talked by phone daily.

Abbas began to put on weight. He told her about his life in the Palestine Branch. He told her that for the Syrian regime, “a human has no value. Chicken or lamb has value because they can sell it. Humans are not even peanuts, which you can eat. Humans are worse than peanuts.”

At the Palestine Branch he was kept in a dark room, with no light, with several other men. There was enough room to fit only if they all stayed standing. They were kept naked and allowed access to a toilet only twice a day.

When they were fed, the food was thrown into their cage. Every day, guards would pick a few men out to be beaten. Abbas used to hear them cry.

As Fatima listened to these nightmares, she would argue with Abbas.

“Why you are here, and why am I here?” she asked him. “If you had told me, I wouldn’t have let you come.”

“Yeah, you would have broken my legs,” he said, smiling.

Your son is more happy than you.

Fatima waited for news that he would be freed because, as it had been explained to her, Abbas’ being in Adra meant release was assured.

But by early November, she was still living in a cheap hotel in Damascus.

Around this time, the Khan family says a British newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, persuaded Fatima to give it a story. Fatima says she was encouraged to have Abbas write a letter to Foreign Secretary William Hague detailing his torture. She says the reporter spoke to her nightly asking her for details of what was happening in Damascus; she believed that much of what she communicated was in confidence.

On Nov. 2, the paper ran an article titled “Tortured, starved and locked up in the dark ... heroic British doctor held by Assad’s thugs.”

When she saw the inflammatory headline, Fatima panicked. “I was hoping for different headline, like ‘A mother requests rescue of her son from Syria,’” she says. “I didn’t think he would talk bad about the regime.”

When she showed Abbas the article, she says that he, too, was scared. “Even 10 percent of this will get someone killed,” he told her.

But the Syrians, she says, never mentioned to her the article or the letter to Hague. (The family says Hague never responded to the letter.) Then in late November, Fatima received a call from the Syrian Foreign Ministry telling her Abbas would be released before Christmas. She was ecstatic, as was Abbas, who couldn’t wait to be reunited with his wife and children.

In mid-December, the friend of a prisoner who knew Abbas emailed Fatima’s son in the U.K. The email said that Abbas had been moved from Adra. Fatima called several of the guards whose cellphone numbers she had. For money, they told her Abbas had just been taken for a final interview before being discharged.

Fatima went to the Foreign Ministry, which told her to go to the Justice Ministry. There she was told not to worry, that her son was “more happy than you.”

Back at her hotel, Fatima phoned everyone she knew in Damascus, from lowly bureaucrats to ministers, asking where her son was. Finally, she was told to go immediately to the Ministry of Justice. She was promised good news.

She rushed out but took a big bag full of chocolates to hand out in celebration. At the ministry she was escorted to a car. The driver’s eyes were bloodshot. They were accompanied by another man who took his pistol in and out of his pocket for Fatima to see.

She gave the driver chocolates and told him, “You people are good people.”

He ate the chocolate.

She says her heart was beating very fast, and she asked to be taken to her son, who as a doctor could check her pulse. She doesn’t know where she was then driven, but believes it was an Internal Security office in the Kafr Sousa neighborhood of Damascus. Inside the building, she asked to use the bathroom to calm her nerves.

When she returned, she asked if her son was there. Or if anyone spoke English. They shook their heads no.

The driver with the red eyes was drinking tea and offered some to Fatima, who declined. He kept looking at a door and at the other guards. Fatima took out the bag of chocolates and began to thank everyone for having helped her. She says they filled their pockets and stashed more away in a drawer.

She was then escorted to another, more formal room and told to take a seat by a man speaking in English.

He told her he would explain.

According to Fatima, the man said, “Accept our deep condolences that your son is no more. He committed suicide.”

“What no more? You mean khalas?” Fatima says she yelled, using the Arabic word for “finished.”

She says he answered, “That is what we are trying to tell you. He had already suicidal thoughts.”

Fatima refused to believe him. She tried to walk out, but her way was blocked with several men carrying guns. She says the man told her to come back and to look at the video showing how Abbas hanged himself by his pajamas.

“No, you killed him,” she said, “and you are going to kill me as well.” She tried to leave, but the men took her purse and began emptying it.

“No, he killed himself,” one of them — who had denied knowing English before — said, laughing.

She was shuffled to a car, and the man who had shown off his weapon before drove her back to her hotel.

“Tell me what happened,” she demanded, but she says he refused to talk to her.

She was scared and wanted to leave Damascus right away. The whole time in the car, she phoned everyone she knew in the city and asked, “Why, why they kill my son?”

He answered with a picture of himself holding up a double-tipped sword as long as his torso.

The Syrian government maintains it didn’t kill Fatima’s son. It says Abbas committed suicide. But high-ranking regime officials — whom she called that night as she was driven back to her hotel — have also hissed at her that “yes, we killed him, now go back to your government and tell them not to send any more Britishers”; that “your son is a criminal, he came to kill my son and that’s why we killed him”; that “we killed him, yes, because he came without a visa”; and, again, that “your upbringing was wrong.”

After returning to the U.K. with Abbas’ body, she sent a message via WhatsApp to the driver with the pistol. Why, she asked, did you kill my son?

He answered only with a picture of himself, dressed in a navy blazer over a blue button-down shirt, holding up a double-tipped sword as long as his torso. He is standing in the middle of an ordinary office. Behind him there is a framed portrait of Bashar al-Assad, painted as an icon, sitting on top of a mini-fridge, next to some files.

Fatima Khan briefs the media at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, in January 2014.
Martisal Trezzini/EPA

When Fatima went to Geneva during the Syrian peace talks to confront regime officials, the very ones whose offices she sat in in Damascus, they ignored her and pretended not to know her. When she yelled at them on the street, “Why you killed my son?” regime supporters heckled her that she’d been paid to create a spectacle.

She paid them no mind. “If the ant moves in the elephant’s trunk …” she says. “I’m just like an ant.”

A Syrian functionary in the embassy in Beirut, whom Fatima still WhatsApps to ask “why,” is a true believer of the faction that maintains Assad is a good man surrounded by bad men. She responds that the president would never have done such a terrible thing. Someone else is trying to undermine him and make him look bad.

Pro-regime journalists tell her to “ask the British government,” implying that it was the U.K. that didn’t want Abbas — a Muslim Brit — to come back to the country, and that the Syrian regime simply did the British government’s bidding. This does give Fatima pause, and she mentions people rendered by the Canadians and the Americans to Syria for torture.

Syrians in the opposition tell her, simply, it’s because “the regime is bad.”

She wonders if she made a mistake, if the regime was going to release him but decided not to because she talked to the press. Was there something she could have done differently?

Syrians in the diaspora try to explain: Abbas would have been able to tell the world, credibly, what was happening inside Syrian prisons to people deprived of any due process or basic human rights. The regime couldn’t afford to let him go, to let him speak.

Because they can.

In San Diego the Syrian American Medical Society has flown Fatima to the U.S. for its annual conference to give her an award on behalf of her son. It, too, sponsors medical missions to the border and to field hospitals in Syria. So far, it hasn’t lost any doctors.

Now that Syria is at war, the focus is much less on networking and socializing and much more on providing care during war with limited resources and on stemming a public health disaster. The conference is being held at a beautiful hotel on the bay, and the doctors have brought their children, many of whom frolic in the pool. Some of the moms, wading beside them, are fully clothed, and their garments and headscarves float around them in the water.

The wealth and carefree fun sits ill with Fatima, who has been devastated since her son was taken.

She says the man who invited her (not a SAMS board member) promised her a meeting with President Barack Obama and his Cabinet. That is why she has gone to America, she says, hoping Obama can help her get answers.

The visit includes a dinner — modest as far as galas go — where awards will be handed out to volunteers who have risked their lives to provide medical care inside Syria. Fatima will receive Abbas’ award, preceded by a photo-montage video of him and his children. Some attendees will take pictures of themselves with her on their smartphones. The event will raise $2 million in pledges to continue their humanitarian work for the next year, and Fatima believes Abbas’ widow and children are entitled to a cut of that money. But first, she is sent on an Old Town trolley tour of San Diego.

The live narration is paired with musical intervals selected to match the attraction being pointed out — “O Sole Mio” accompanies the drive through Little Italy. The riders, many of whom are retirees with straw hats and fanny packs, sing along when they know the words.

As the trolley makes its way past the stadium of the Padres, the San Diego baseball franchise, Fatima is restless and not at all distracted by the scenery; her voice is rising. She is revisiting The Mail on Sunday article. Was that the mistake? She asks, why did the security men eat the chocolates? Why would they arrest a humanitarian aid worker? Why would they kill her son?

The man in front of her is humming emphatically along to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

“Because they can,” comes the answer as the man sings out loud, “For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out at the old ballgame.”

She pauses for a moment, and then she asks again, “Why?”

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