Demonstrators hold a vigil for Zaynab Hosni, 18, outside the Syrian Embassy… (Raad Adayleh / Associated…)
Reporting from Beirut — Fatat Malouk said she has no doubt: The burned, mutilated and seemingly unrecognizable body parts that she viewed in a Syrian military hospital in September were the remains of her child — the victim, she said, of government thugs who snatched the teenager off the street.
"My heart tells me this was my daughter," Malouk said.
Her daughter, Zaynab Hosni, 18, was posthumously immortalized as "the flower of Syria," and her gruesome fate, captured on amateur video, became a graphic rallying cry for the Syrian opposition.
So it came as a shock when a seemingly healthy Zaynab turned up last month on Syrian television.
"I am alive," declared the veiled young woman, speaking in a monotone and flashing her plastic identity card for the camera.
She hadn't been abducted, she said, but ran away to escape abuse from her brothers. She was living with relatives in Syria and planning to get married and have children.
It was an extraordinary propaganda coup for the Syrian government, which daily lashes out at sundry media "fabrications" designed to foment sedition amid a bloody crackdown on unrest that has left an estimated 3,500 civilians dead.
The episode was a cautionary tale for journalists, human rights investigators and others who largely have been barred from entering Syria. Instead of their own observation, they must rely heavily on amateur videos, Skype conversations, Facebook postings and other bits of often secondhand information to piece together what is happening in an uprising with competing narratives.
But the story of Zaynab Hosni, from the central city of Homs, a focal point and sectarian fault line of the Syrian uprising, also illustrates the paranoia and suspicion nurtured in more than four decades of autocratic rule.
Conspiracy theories about Zaynab's fate abound, many centering on the cunning of Syrian intelligence, skilled practitioners of intrigue and obfuscation.
Her older brother Yousef, speaking from a safe house outside the Lebanese capital, said, "There is a level of lies here that no one can imagine."
Fatat Malouk, the family matriarch, is a large woman who suffers from high blood pressure. Even before her daughter disappeared, there was sufficient reason for her high stress levels.
The family's neighborhood, Bab al Siba, was an early hub of antigovernment protests and armed resistance. In this conservative, largely Sunni Muslim district, resentment runs high against President Bashar Assad, standard-bearer of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Secular Alawite loyalists dominate the Syrian security services. Conservative Sunnis are prominent in the opposition.
According to Human Rights Watch, all six of Zaynab's older brothers fled the family home to escape arrest. Family members said neighborhood raids were frequent and their house was targeted. But the sister, the family said, didn't participate in demonstrations.
"Zaynab liked to be at home and wanted to get married and have a family," said a female cousin.
One of Zaynab's brothers, Mohammed Deeb Hosni, 27, had been an early organizer of antigovernment demonstrations, according to Amnesty International. By the summer, he was a marked man, living on the run, the family says.
Zaynab's time was spent caring for her ailing mother, the family said. One afternoon in late July, Malouk said, she asked her daughter to go to the pharmacy for some medication.
Later, her brothers said, they heard from someone in the neighborhood that a group of men grabbed a woman who looked like Zaynab, placed her in a car and drove away. The family checked everywhere: hospitals, morgues, police stations, the homes of neighbors, friends and relatives. But there was no sign of her.
At the time, rumors had been circulating of security thugs kidnapping young Sunni women as an intimidation technique. One human rights investigator said both sides in Homs may have seized women as hostages, for leverage or exchanges for male captives.
Amnesty International reported in its initial accounting of the case that Zaynab's abduction may have been intended to force her brother, Mohammed Deeb, to turn himself in. After her capture, Amnesty International said, the brother "was apparently told on the phone by her captors that she would only be released if he stopped his antiregime activities."
Family members say Zaynab had been missing for more than six weeks when, on Sept. 10, they received news of her brother. He had been arrested after a raid that left him with a gunshot wound to the arm, witnesses told the family.
Four days later, the family says it was summoned to pick up Mohammed Deeb's remains at the Homs Military Hospital. Family members said the body showed signs of having been badly beaten and shot multiple times. They signed the paperwork for the release of the body, including an attestation that he was killed by "armed groups," standard in Syria, where the government blames political killings on "terrorist" gangs.