For Syria's Dissidents, Even Exile Isn't Safe

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Courtesy Thaer al-Nashef / AP

In this undated family photo, Mona Ghorayib, left, poses with her son in Alexandria, Egypt. Ghorayib, wife of an exiled Syrian dissident, said Syrian men kidnapped and held her captive for 30 hours in November

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In the early months of the uprising, neighboring Lebanon was one of the most popular destinations for critics of the Syrian regime, particularly due to its proximity to the Syrian city of Homs, where some of the worst violence has played out. But now, activists say, more and more Syrians are avoiding Lebanon entirely. "Our President thinks Syria is his own yard and Lebanon is his backyard," says activist Abdulhamid Suleiman, sentenced in absentia to 11 years in jail for crimes including "trying to change the constitution in illegal ways" and "making a secret organization to publish fake news." Says he: "I couldn't go to Lebanon because it would have been more dangerous for me. That's why I moved to Egypt."

But for some Syrian activists, even Egypt is now unsafe. With the country embroiled in the chaotic aftermath of its own tumultuous uprising, the Syrians who have fled there claim that agents of Assad's government operate with an unfettered hand. Many say they're fearful to visit their embassy out of the assumption that they might be sucked inside and repatriated. At least one Syrian has fallen victim to a scam: he handed his family's passports over to a lawyer who promised to help them obtain asylum in a third country, only to see the lawyer offer their passports to the Syrian embassy for confiscation. "Egypt is messy so anything can happen here," says Jarrah. "The Syrian [regime] can do something here without anyone even realizing." Amr Roydi, an official at Egypt's Foreign Ministry, seemed alarmed when asked about the harassment of Syrian activists by regime agents inside Egypt. "I didn't hear anything about this," he said, before asking if it was a widespread phenomenon. "I find it unlikely that any security apparatus can work that way in Egypt," he added. "We are not exactly a weak country, and our security is not known for dealing lightly with foreign apparatuses working in Egypt."

The end of Mona Ghorayib's ordeal came with the help of an Egyptian teenager employed by her Syrian captors, who intervened to help ferry her to safety. Drugged, hungry and six months pregnant, Ghorayib says she was threatened with rape and death multiple times during her 30 hours of imprisonment. At one point, she says, a man had entered the room and tried to wrestle her to the ground. "I started to scream so loudly that another came in and said, 'We don't have orders to do this now. You can wait until we have orders.'" The man who had tried to rape her later returned and cut off a lock of her hair. "He said, 'If Thaer surrenders himself to the embassy, we'll take him back to Syria, and as soon as he does this, you're free to go.'" At another point, he put his hands over her face, choking her from behind and said, "'We have orders to kill you now, so I'm going to leave you and you can choose how you want to be killed,'" she recalls. He returned with a saw blade, held it to her neck and cut several shallow incisions before laughing. Ultimately, Ghorayib was dumped in a poor neighborhood on Cairo's eastern outskirts.

Al-Nashef says that his wife is no longer going out into the streets alone but he's determined to press on with his activism. Still, he fears the worst is probably yet to come. "They kidnapped Mona to send a message because she's my weak point," says al-Nashef. "And I feel like we're still in danger — my life, my wife's life. Everyone is in danger. But we'll go on."

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