Orouba Barakat, a lifelong anti-Assad activist, and her daughter Halla were murdered in their apartment in Istanbul. The lead suspect is a family member who confessed. Their family had opposed the Assads for half a century. Who were the Barakats?
ISTANBUL, Turkey — “I will not leave my country behind. I have to serve my people [at any cost]. To whom will we leave our country? Who will build our country?” Orouba Barakat, a leading anti-Assad Syrian activist and journalist from Idlib, used to say whenever her daughter insisted that they could go back to the United States.
Orouba, 60, and her daughter Halla Barakat, a 23-year-old activist and journalist, were murdered last month in their apartment in Istanbul’s Uskudar neighbourhood. Fingers have been pointed at a range of people: those from the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad to friends and family members who might have visited or stayed at their house.
Motive for murder
So far, the lead suspect is a distant relative, Ahmad Barakat, who was arrested by the Turkish police on September 30 and has confessed to both murders.
Whether Ahmad had a motive to murder Orouba and Halla, or whether he had an accomplice, is still not clear.
“There is no evidence to indicate these murders were politically motivated,” a senior Turkish police official told TRT World on the condition that he remain anonymous. “His DNA samples match the samples taken from the victims. Before he came to Turkey, he had been in Syria fighting for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for a year.” The FSA is part of the opposition to the Assad regime.
“His motives seemed to be tied to financial issues,” the police official said. Also, “He does not seem to be psychologically stable.”
The suspect appeared in court on October 6. With a confidentiality order in play, there was no public hearing. The court ordered that Ahmad should remain in custody.
“What we heard from the prosecutor’s office is that he confessed to committing both murders,” one of the family lawyers, who does not want to be named, told TRT World.
Even the Barakat family does not know exactly what the suspect said, the lawyer said.
The family thinks that without outside help the suspect could not have committed both murders, the lawyer also said.
News organisations carried statements quoting Ahmed as saying he killed Orouba during a fight over salary which she owed him.
Halla, who was reportedly in another room, started screaming when she saw her mother's bloodied remains. Ahmed said he killed Halla to stop the screaming. TRT World could not independently verify these statements.
Whether or not the murders were politically motivated, they have shaken the tightly-knit Syrian community in Istanbul. Many of their friends were too scared to talk.
The family and friends TRT World spoke to were not convinced that the murderer could be a disgruntled relative. “Assad can do anything. This can be a message for the rest of us who oppose him,” one of them said.
In their blood
The mother and daughter had been politically active their entire lives, just like Orouba’s parents.
“This is a revolutionary family,” a close family friend, who does not wish to be named, told TRT World.
Orouba was forced into exile in the early 1980s after facing years of persecution by Hafez, Bashar al Assad’s father, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades. She moved through various countries before settling in Turkey in 2012.
When a series of uprisings shook the Arab world in March 2011, Orouba thought a lifelong struggle against the autocratic Syrian regime might end with some semblance of a positive conclusion.
Orouba was one of the first activists to call people to the streets to protest against Bashar al Assad, her friends and family said. With relentless activism on social media, she rapidly became a mobilising force behind the movement and one of its unofficial spokespersons.
“We were really confident that the Assad regime would crumble within a month,” Maen Barakat, Orouba’s brother said. Maen is a businessman based in Turkey.
The regime did not fall. Instead, Syria turned into a war zone which has claimed almost 500,000 lives. While various factions of the Assad opposition fight ground battles, air strikes and deadly chemicals rain down from the skies where a powerful international proxy war is being fought.
When asked why street power did not bring down the regime, Shaza, Orouba’s younger sister, and Maen laughed, a joyless sound mocking their younger selves for hoping for an Assad-free Syria.
Maen’s apartment is in a relatively conservative district of Istanbul. Modestly furnished, his home is an altar of struggle: a picture of Shaza’s teenage son who was killed in the Syrian war hangs on one wall and a Dome of the Rock model is displayed in a corner.
“We expected the world to stand with us. Instead, the world stood with Assad,” Maen told TRT World. “Assad said the world was conspiring against him, but in fact the world was conspiring against the people of Syria.”
A family of revolutionaries
For the Barakat family, this sense of abandonment goes back to 1916, when the Sykes-Picot agreement set the terms to carve up the former Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One.
“Our parents were very aware of the political climate of the time. They knew about the divide-and-conquer methods of the Sykes-Picot agreement,” Shaza said.
The subsequent creation of Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian territories angered many in the Arab world. The Barakats felt the pain as well.
Maen, Shaza and Orouba’s father and their maternal uncle were among the many Arab men who went to fight the Israelis in the war or “catastrophe” of 1948.
“They were witness to the betrayal by the Arab leaders. They saw the murder of so many young Arab men. They could have won that war but couldn’t because of that betrayal,” Shaza said.
The Barakats' view most contemporary Middle Eastern regimes as a continuation of western colonialism and imperialism.
“My father said he would not remain silent.”
And so Abdullatif Barakat, a history teacher and Syrian intellectual, fought against the post-Ottoman order all his life for which he, along with his family, paid the ultimate price.
After years on the run from the security forces of Hafez, Abdullatif died at the age of 47. “Our father was never at ease in Syria. A constant fear followed him,” Orouba’s brother said.
The Barakat women
Orouba, Maen, Shaza and their two siblings were brought up single-handedly by their rebellious mother, who was also a teacher, and one of the first female Syrian high school graduates.
“I remember throwing tomatoes and eggs at Hafez once. Our mother encouraged me; I was 11,” Maen said, talking about the time when the Syrian leader visited Idlib in the 1970s.
One colleague compared Orouba to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. “Orouba looked like her. She was immensely happy and very sad at the same time.”
In 2015, Orouba helped a deaf Syrian girl get hearing aids at an Istanbul hospital. When she heard her name for the first time, the girl cried. So did Orouba. She also laughed.
That’s how her friends remember Orouba, a strong woman with intense, contrasting emotions — who could go from amiable to immovable and steely.
Orouba took after her father, unwilling to back down from her fight for a new world order.
An incident at a protest outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul against the Kremlin’s support for Assad highlighted this side of Orouba.
She was one of the organisers and when the police insisted they clear the consulate entrance, Orouba refused to budge.
“She wouldn’t listen to anyone. No one was able to convince her to move an inch away from the consulate. She was like that — all passionate about the Syrian cause,” the same colleague said.
Orouba the mother
One of Halla's friends, a former colleague from Okaliptus Medya who spent time with both mother and daughter, remembers another side of Orouba — the single parent.
"Halla and Orouba only had each other. They were very close," he said.
He remembers Halla's friends were so comfortable around Orouba, a heavy smoker, that they wouldn't mind taking a cigarette from her every now and then.
"She made me feel I was one of her children. She opened up her house to me and made me feel like I had a home away from home," he said. "Maybe that was their weakness; they were too trusting."
The Syrian war has scattered the Barakat family, and tragedy has tracked them across the world.
Orouba’s nephew — Shaza’s son — was killed in the Syrian war in 2011. “I don’t regret that he died fighting. I would send more sons to die in those circumstances,” Shaza told TRT World.
Namee Barakat — one of Orouba’s cousins, has been living in the US for decades.
Namee’s son, 23-year-old Deah, used to raise funds for Syrian refugees.
Deah was murdered in North Carolina along with his wife and her sister in 2015 by a man over a small dispute over a parking space, an incident widely marked by the US media as a hate crime.
Then there was Halla, Orouba’s own, her child, her prodigy.
The girl with the green eyes
“Istanbul, I found myself in you and no terrorist will take that away from me.”
Halla Barakat felt safe in Istanbul, evident from her Facebook post on June 29, 2016.
Istanbul is where Halla is now buried alongside Orouba, a city forever her's and her mother's.
Halla was born in the US after her mother moved there in the 1990s with her Syrian physician husband. The marriage didn’t last and according to one of her former colleagues, Halla was estranged from her father.
By the time Halla moved to Istanbul from the UAE in 2013 to join her mother, Halla was every bit the activist.
Her Facebook profile is a timestamped memoir filled with her political commentary, photographs with the Syrian opposition and, like any young person, happy memories with friends and family.
At Sehir University, where she graduated with a degree in political science earlier this year, Halla was known for her knowledge of the Syrian war and her unbiased analysis.
“Even though she opposed the regime, her arguments were always very balanced. Our professors would often let her talk whenever the discussion was on Syria,” Enes Ahmeti, her former classmate told TRT World.
“She knew so much about Syria but she would never snub anyone who disagreed with her. She would say, ‘Oh I understand your view but this is how things are’ and so on,” Ahmeti said.
Halla was last working as an editor for Dubai-based Orient News Net. Before that Halla worked for Okaliptus Medya AS which had been contracted by TRT World prior to 2016 to handle their digital content.
"She was always smiling, bubbly," her friend from Okaliptus said. "Halla would brighten everything up, the world will be a little bit darker without her."
Orouba and Halla had been part of the news cycle before. They were close friends of Kayla Mueller, an American activist, who was abducted by Daesh in Syria in 2013 and later killed. Orouba and Halla tirelessly campaigned for her release.
During the last few months for her life, she helped Orouba set up an Istanbul-based charity called Alme — named after a Syrian refugee girl.
With Orouba and Halla now gone, there are other Barakats also engaged in helping Syrians. Shaza founded a school for Syrians in Turkey.
“We are not cowards. We know that we will be rewarded for our struggle in heaven,” Shaza told TRT World.
At the height of the Syrian conflict six years ago, Shaza’s son sent her a picture from his cell phone before he died in the war.
It read: “Don’t be sad mother.”
“He wrote the letter with bullets,” she said with a smile. He was 16 years old, another Barakat lost too soon.