Cold Mountain: Where a swift death is a privilege

By Razan Zeitouneh

We worked together for several months. We got angry with one another, and then made up and laughed together. We swapped news, invited each other to share our favorite meals, and promised to celebrate together in freedom squares. I knew neither his name nor his face.

I imagined him to be in his early twenties, friendly, short-tempered but with a ready smile. He was so inquisitive that he constantly forced me to tell him, “That’s enough pestering.”

None of this seems to square with the name we received yesterday, of a young man who died under torture. I don’t know Hassan al-Azhari. The name is just one of the dozens that I type in every day to document cases of killing.

I knew my friend as Cold Mountain, an English nickname I gave him at his own request, with wintry connotations that have little to do with his coastal home town of Lattakia.

Now my friend Cold Mountain has disappeared. I have tried in vain to establish for sure that he is the same Hassan al-Azhari who died under torture, and whose obituary was published without the word ‘martyr’. He will have a conventional funeral, one that does not suit his “crime” of pursuing freedom, and of demanding it during the revolution.

All I know is that Cold Mountain was arrested on April 13, and it seems likely that he was Hassan al-Azhari. I didn’t do anything for him. I didn’t even document his arrest. I didn’t ask about his name.

Cold Mountain had to die in order for me to realise the amount of death that has gradually seeped into me like a poison, removing day by day some of my sense of life, and of the presence of the living.

After documenting the name of one dead person after another, and issuing one call after another, what comes then? I work like a gravedigger who has grown accustomed to burying the dead, yawning, and placing their obituaries in the museum of international organisations.

Why is the international community so keen on documenting the crimes taking place before its eyes? Why does it care so much about devoting so much organisation and accuracy to documenting the victims’ cries, only to mummify them in testimonies, figures and charts? Why should I listen time and again to the statement of a detainee describing how he was trampled, mutilated or burned, or how they jumped on his head, pulled out his fingernails, flayed him and watched bits of his flesh fly out from under their whips?

I have to record all this according to the “rules of observation and documentation”, and then release it to the civilized world, so that it can feel sorry us, pray for our salvation, bless our professionalism and offer us more training.  We are like mercenaries of freedom.

We need to have more rules for ourselves. We need to be ashamed of ourselves because we are not civilised or non-sectarian enough, not sufficiently immune from extremism, and unable to organise ourselves into a unified opposition movement. Damn us!

Cold Mountain, we are just parasites on freedom when we trouble them with the sound of your cracking bones.

I didn’t ask about Cold Mountain’s name or the date and circumstances of his arrest. He went past like the others. Either he would be released or he wouldn’t. The prison gates do not hold people for ever, but all too often they open to release dead corpses.

Cold Mountain was a sweet, sensitive soul. He hated the idea of falling into their hands and prayed that he would instead be killed by a bullet or a shell. In my country, a swift death is a privilege.

When we agree online to meet in the squares of freedom, we know we are talking nonsense. Cold Mountain will not be there to keep his promise to buy us falafel.

Instead, we will mourn him and regret that we only knew his name from the lists of martyrs, and that we only saw his face for the purposes of documentation.

We didn’t answer his torrent of questions. A 24-year-old has his whole life of wonder and discovery ahead of him. This is what the human right blogs and international principles say – a whole life, Cold Mountain, and not one that consists only of prison cells, beatings and a world that is watches our suffering without shame.

You should know that this is not an obituary. It is the rest of a conversation that was never finished, with the roles reversed – I ask and ask, and you interrupt me with half-answers, and then I keep on asking until you say grouchily, “That’s enough pestering.”