BEIRUT, Lebanon — Nearly eight months into the popular uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the story of Zeinab al-Hosni emerges as one of the darkest chapters of an already brutal crackdown.

Zeinab made global headlines in late September when her decapitated body was handed back to the family by Syrian authorities. Zeinab had been abducted by security forces, the family said, tortured and killed.

Amnesty International condemned Zeinab’s murder as the first woman to die in Syrian custody since protests erupted in mid-March.

But two weeks after her family buried her, Zeinab appeared on state-run Syria TV on Oct. 4 claiming she had not been abducted, but had run away from home.

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That left her mother with the nightmare belief that her daughter had been killed after the interview was taped. The disturbing twist also highlights the increasing difficulties faced by journalists reporting on a chaotic country from which all independent media have been banned. “I have no doubt the person on TV was my daughter. But I’m sure the regime did this interview before they killed her,” 57-year-old Fatat Malouk, Zeinab’s mother, told GlobalPost in an interview at a safe house in Lebanon.

“I wish in reality it was Zeinab alive now, but it’s just lies. Why don’t they hand her over alive? And if she is not dead, who is the person we buried?”

Death and deception

Zeinab first went missing on July 26, just a few days before the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

From a conservative Sunni Muslim family long struggling with poverty since her father died when she was just three, Zeinab lived at home with her mother in Bab as-Sebah in Homs, a key protest neighborhood in a city at the sharp end of the rebellion against the Assad family’s 41-year dictatorship. For months Bab as-Sebah has been encircled by checkpoints, snipers and tanks.

Though Zeinab was not a protester, said the family, her brother Mohammed had become a leader of activists in Bab as-Sebah, rallying crowds to chant for freedom and the toppling of Assad, regularly helping carry the wounded to makeshift home clinics.

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“Security would come to our neighborhood and shout through loudspeakers for Mohammed to turn himself in,” said Zeinab’s brother, Yousef al-Hosni. “They stormed the house several times.”

But Mohammed, Yousef and the other men of the family had long since fled home, fearing they would be arrested and killed. Zeinab was left to look after her ill mother and find food in a neighborhood where electricity and water were regularly cut for days, and few supplies made it through checkpoints.

On the day she disappeared, Zeinab was out trying to buy medicine for her mother, the family said. When she didn’t return, Fatat called her mobile and sent her three frantic text messages. Eventually a voice answered.

“I asked, ‘are you Zeinab?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ But she sounded like she was suffocating, like she was in prison,” Fatat said. “That was the last time I heard her voice.”

Asking around, Yousef was told by a neighbor that on the day Zeinab disappeared, security forces had driven through Bab as-Sebah opening fire. When the terrified residents ran, security picked up a girl Yousef said matched Zeinab’s description.

The family and activists in Homs believe Zeinab was abducted by security forces in an effort to pressure Mohammed to turn himself in, a tactic long used by the Assad regime, which has been documented by Human Rights Watch.

Disturbingly, activists in Homs say Zeinab’s abduction is not an isolated case.

In the last few weeks, GlobalPost has been in contact with different activists who report up to 25 young women going missing in Homs over the past few months in what appears to be a systematic attempt by security forces to punish and humiliate male protesters by targeting their female relatives.

With so many family members wanted for arrest, Zeinab’s family hesitated for 10 days before Fatat went to report the case to the police. But also hanging over Zeinab’s case, and other cases of women missing in Homs, is the same fear: That women are not only being held hostage or killed, but raped.

To many in the religiously conservative Sunni community of Homs, the thought that one of their relatives could have been raped brings intense feelings of shame and “dishonor.” In three weeks investigating reported cases, GlobalPost has been met by a wall of silence, as families and victims refuse to speak about their experiences, though trusted sources confirm rapes of women in Homs by security forces have taken place.

“Since the beginning of Ramadan the regime has been doing everything possible against protesters and activists, but nothing worked, and people kept going to the streets,” said an independent activist in Homs. “Now they are using this filthy way: Raping the girls, torturing them and then killing them. It’s inhuman. We don’t know what to do about it.”

The allegations of rape also contain explosive sectarian overtones in an already traumatized and tense city: Security forces, particularly the pro-regime thugs and secret police believed to be behind the abductions of women, are mostly Allawite, the offshoot sect of Shia Islam to which the president and most of the regime’s secular-leaning elite belong, while the women being abducted, according to activists, are all Sunni Muslims and religiously conservative.

“A girl with a hijab, that’s the target,” said an activist with the Homs Neighborhood Union, referring to the headscarf worn by pious Muslim women.

On Sept. 10, having grown reportedly mad with rage and worry on hearing of the abduction of his sister, Mohammed al-Hosni was shot during a raid on an activist safe house. Two of his friends were killed but, said his family and activists, Mohammed was only shot through his hand.

When Fatat was called two days later to the Military Hospital in Homs, however, her son’s corpse told a story of death under torture and intense violence.

“He had seven bullets in his body: three in the chest, one in his hand, one in his hip, one in his leg and one from where they put the pistol in his mouth,” said Yousef, who filmed his brother’s body and posted the video to YouTube.

“They broke his neck and his jaw and his back was completely smashed. It was torture by the worst means that anyone can imagine."

Fatat recalls begging her son not to risk his life going out to protest. “Even if they gave me all of Syria for you I wouldn’t want it. Don’t go out,” she recalls telling Mohammed, tears welling in her eyes.

But staff at the military morgue had further grim news for Fatat, asking if she knew anything about a missing young woman. When she said she did, Fatat was led to the morgue where a ghostly white torso lay wrapped in a sheet. Other body parts were brought in a zippered bag.

The video activists made of the corpse is too graphic to publish. It shows a bone sticking through from a severed arm, barely recognizable, its hand having also been hacked off. The decapitated head, blackened and burned, its eyes and lips sealed shut. The stump of an arm and the gaping hole in her shoulder where a blade was wielded to cut the woman into pieces.

“Even though it was so burned I knew it was the body of my daughter. It’s a mother’s feeling that told me,” said Fatat, who washed the body herself, preparing it for burial.

Before she could leave, Fatat, who is illiterate, said she had to sign with a thumbprint a death certificate saying the corpse had been killed by “armed gangs,” which the regime says are behind the uprising. Fatat had already signed the same paper to receive Mohammed’s body and agreed not to hold a large funeral for either.

“They killed the rose Zeinab,” read one of the many placards held aloft by women in Homs protesting after the burial in a small cemetery in Bab as-Sebah on Sept. 17.

“Zeinab never joined the protests, but even so, the same thing happened to her as her brother,” Fatat said.

As the gruesome news of Zeinab’s apparent death in custody began to leak out late last month, the family prepared to flee Syria, terrified the publicity would mean another loved one killed.

Then on Oct. 4 the family saw the dramatic and disturbing sight of Zeinab speaking on a pre-recorded news package aired on Syria TV.

Asked if she still lived at home, Zeinab replied that she ran away without telling her parents and had gone to stay with relatives. “I ran away because my brother was beating me and torturing me,” she said, asking her mother to forgive her.

But the regime may have miscalculated if it thought the video gave it an advantage in its battle against the media and rights groups, which it says have inflated reports of the uprising.

“The reappearance of Zeinab should not detract from the fact that there is a decapitated body of a woman held in Syrian custody,” said Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch in Beirut. “More and more reports are coming out of Homs of deaths with complete impunity, which no one investigates. Syrian state TV is more interested in propaganda than getting to the bottom of things.”

Having grieved the loss of her two children, Fatat remains convinced that Zeinab died and that she and Mohammed “are martyrs, alive in heaven.”

Yousef is less reconciled to the horror that has befallen his family.

“They are saying Zeinab is still alive, so let them hand her to us alive. And if so, who is this person that we buried? Isn’t she a human being?

Who did that to her?” he said.

“Who gave her to us to make a media propaganda? Who has an interest in doing that? Is the soul of a person something you play with?”

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