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The Wives of Martyrs

The new lives of women made widows by the Syrian Civil War.

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Syria’s widows are struggling to find a sense of normalcy in the dusty Jordanian border town of Ramtha, painfully close to the home and life they once lived in Daraa, in southwestern Syrian. The burdens of violence are present in their scant belongings, heavy mementos to remind themselves of those they lost in the war. Digital era lockets: cherished cell phone images of dead fathers, husbands, and brothers lost to Syria’s bloody uprising.

I first met many of these women in 2012 when their husbands and fathers were still alive, fighting for the Free Syrian Army. The photos, and the accompanying article, "The Private Lives of Syria's War Widows," explore the intimacies of everyday life of four families headed by women who have lost their fighter husbands to the civil war. “Tomorrow there will be apricots” is a popular proverb in the Levant, which means, “Tomorrow never comes.”

Above, Hala, 19, illustrates the proverb. Divorced from her husband after only 25 days, she had been forced to marry her abusive cousin after her father was killed. She feels she is slowly dying inside the apartment, and her only release had been a laptop she used to write poetry and stay connected to Syria. Her uncle became enraged upon discovering the computer, smashing it, beating her, and throwing her clothes out the window.

Tanya Habjouqa
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Syrian lingerie is part of the folk tradition around trousseaus and weddings. Wedding gifts amongst the refugees include lingerie and hair remover devices. Here, a brightly hued negligee is displayed on the window, a gift to Hala’s recently married younger sister, 17-year old Amal.

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Hala tries on her younger sister’s wedding lingerie, jokingly placing a scarf on her face as she poses. “Do not expect me to get married like my sister. I want someone to fall in love with,” Hala had insisted at the start of summer. By the end of summer, she was considering a proposal from a Saudi who she had yet to meet in person, tired of spending her days “counting ants” in the same apartment day in and day out.

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Selene, 36, is Hala’s mother. She still keeps her husband’s favorite white slacks, fantasizing he will return. He went missing for seven months before she learned of his fate: He was killed by a sniper in Daraa while fighting with the Free Syrian Army, leaving her with six children.

She refused to look at the images marking his death. She jokes with her fellow widows that if he comes back, she will share him in the evenings. She deeply loved her husband and is struggling to make a future for her children, desperately searching for a husband for her divorced eldest daughter.

Tanya Habjouqa
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Aysha, 30, has been widowed for one year after
 11 years of marriage to Abu Layla, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army.

Here, she shows
 a tattoo on her shoulder that reads, “Why did you leave me when I needed you?” The tattoo relates to a dramatic quarrel the two young teens had when they were dating—upon making up, they each tattooed the message as a reminder of how horrible it was being apart. She never imagined the tattoo would take on such poignant meaning years later.

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When Abu Layla was alive, he would send Aysha sultry texts, poems, and fighter images from the front lines. It was by text message she found out that he died while fighting in Syria. When her old Nokia cell phone died, she lost her trove of memories. This is the only image she has from that time before his death.

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Nadia, 25, lives with 17 displaced family members in a two-bedroom apartment. Above hangs her mother-in-law’s lingerie, one of her only intimate items smuggled from Syria—which she offered to share with Nadia if her son returns from the front lines. Nadia prays she won’t lose him, joining her sister Aysha in the “wives of martyrs” building.

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An 88-year-old woman brushes her vibrant dyed hair, once her crowning glory. She is visiting her daughter-in-law and grandchildren in the “wives of martyrs” building. Her son died fighting in Syria. She had advised him on his wedding night to slap his new wife once, to assert his authority. Despite that abrupt beginning, the marriage had been a happy one till his death. The younger women are respectful but quietly laugh at the elderly women’s advice about how women should live.

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Um Mohamud, 35, had little room in her Peugeot as she fled Daraa with her five children after her fighter husband was killed. She paused and filmed a mobile video of her home in case she never saw it again, and took this wooden tray her husband had bought her on a trip to Beirut.

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Hala displays her “cinderella dress” from her sister’s recent wedding. It was a modest party held in another apartment, the first time in almost a year she had stepped outside of her building. The young Syrians living as urban refugees in Jordan fear leaving the house due to the risk of being taken advantage of, or ruining their reputation and chances of marriage, the only foreseeable future outside of their four walls.

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Layla, 15, stands alone in the niqab she recently started wearing. Her 17-year-old sister has just married, leaving her alone in the house with her widowed mother and four siblings. The marriage proposals are already coming to her. She had dreamt of finishing high school and becoming a teacher. She says that while early marriage was common in Daraa, at least girls were allowed by their families to walk freely in their community and go to school.

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An image of Layla (uncovered) and her sister Sama two years before, aged 13 and 15, just after the news of the death of their fighter father in the civil war. Their mother of six children was under almost immediate pressure to marry off her two eldest daughters. Layla was trampled upon in her sleep by a Syrian army unit storming their house looking for their father before they fled to Jordan.

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In 2012, Um Salim (mother of Layla and Sama) shared a mobile phone image of her martyred rebel husband on her phone. She received the news of his death by text while about to deliver her baby. She did not see his body, only a gruesome image of his dead body in a funeral shroud. She had received this romantic image from her husband just weeks before his death, and digitally framed it with reverential words of his martyrdom.

Tanya Habjouqa
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