Torture, Solidarity and hope in one of Syria’s prisons
It was a 4x6m cell with 62 people inside. People of different ages, from all over Syria. The youngest were 12 years old, children. The eldest were men in their 70's.
The cell was located on an underground floor, but luckily, it had some tiny windows at the top of one of the walls. It was barely enough to bring in some fresh air, but at least it gave us a glimpse of the outside world. When they brought me in, I saw a long hallway with many cells on both sides, as well as a room for the guards. On one side of our cell, there was a small toilet for everybody to use, in front of all the others. It was so crowded inside the cell that people also had to use it to sleep on. The rest of the tiny room would have been empty - had it not been packed with people. Other prisoners told me that we were lucky as our cell had been newly constructed and was still clean and nice compared to the other cells on that floor. A metal door with one small, square window at the top was the entrance to it. When that window opened, the startled prisoners would rise up while waiting for the guard to call one of their names, not sure whether to hope or fear for it to be theirs, as being called could mean either investigation and torture or release.
After I had been arrested, I was investigated. It was 2008, I was 19 years old and had been arrested at university campus - I thought that I was given away by a colleague for criticising the government but I realised later that it was for another reason. It was because of what a friend wrote me while we were chatting online. We were classmates in Abu Dhabi and we both went back to Syria to study at different universities. He was complaining to me that it’s difficult for him to get used to it in Syria and that he wanted to go back to Abu Dhabi - it’s normal given the fact that he was born there, had a great life and all his friends as well.
The intention of the “investigation” was not really to find out what we had said or done. The only purpose (like is the case with most investigations in Syria’s political prisons) was to make us sign a statement, confessing to dozens of false allegations, then let one of them call our families and claim that he wants to help us out and that he knows we have done nothing wrong, but as usual takes a lot of money in return. Another reason of course is to spread fear amongst the population with the stories we’ll share when we get out, if we make it. Anyways, they have means to make you confess to even the most absurd crimes you never even thought of committing. In my case, my alleged crimes, including absurd ones like working as a secret service agent for the United Arab Emirates, would have been big enough to have me tried in front of the "National Security Court" - and that would have meant being sent to the most notorious prison of all of Syria’s torture prisons, Sednaya.
I was lucky that they changed the statement to a less sever crime after they made sure that my family will pay them, The allegations were called “Cursing High Authorities” - Which I did so many times and I still do. But that meant that my trial would be in front of a “Military Court”, which meant I wouldn’t be transferred to Sednaya.
I was in Kafar Souseh, Damascus, in the Headquarters of the General Secret Services, Political Security, Branch 263. I don’t know exactly how long I was there, in that 4x6m cell, but it must have been something between one and two months. You see, when you are locked up in any of the political prisons in Syria, you don’t know when, or if, you will ever get out again. So when you first set foot into a cell like the one me and my 62 fellow prisoners were living in, you don’t know if you will leave it after a few weeks, months, or years. Although, in between being locked up and being released, there will be several occasions when they call your name, and you step out of the cell, not knowing if you will be released, or taken to further “investigation”. In any case, when you set foot through the cell door, they will blindfold you to make sure you don’t know where you are going or who is there with you.
For “investigation”, they will bring you into a room, and ask you to sign the paper confessing to the list of crimes that you never committed. They will beat you, heavily, to make you comply. And if you refuse for too long, they will take you “down”.
“Down” is four floors underground, and is equipped with the latest tools for the most effective torture techniques. Nobody gets out without confessing to everything they are alleged to have done, and they are ready to kill for that. To them, it’s a matter of principle that nobody can withstand the state power by not submitting, so they will continue until, sooner or later, you confess - otherwise you end up dead, or worse, in Sednaya.
In my “investigation”, it took me a few rounds of torture to finally confess to what I was accused of. Of course I wanted the abuse to end, but I knew that I would be confessing to what would be considered high treason. The investigator kept beating me, heavily, until I agreed to confess - at some point, you just can’t take it anymore. But whenever I was holding the pen to sign the confession, I thought of how big a deal the crimes were that I was confessing to, and how injust it was that I would confess to crimes I never even thought of committing, and I changed my mind and refused to sign again and again.
Until they eventually took me “Down”. Only then I realized that I should’ve signed to whatever they presented me with. I finally told them I would confess to whatever they want. And I’m sorry dad and mum, sorry brothers and sisters and sorry my friends, if they asked me at that point to rat you out, too, I would have - I had no chance. But then I learned that even confessing wasn’t enough. They wanted me to tell them how I did it. So I invented some ridiculously crazy stories, but they were not satisfied. They thought it was too unrealistic, and that I was making fun of them - which, to be honest, I kind of was. They went on beating me some more. Eventually, I signed the statement and they took me back to the cell.
They use different means to make you comply. Sometimes when they beat you, they just use a stick, other times the “Cannibal”: electrical cables. Additionally to beating, “down” they also use other tools and means - anything from extracting toe nails to electroshocks.
The Cell Rules:
Apart from the unpredictable interruptions of “investigation”, everyday life in prison has clear rules.
Starvation was the most painful torture we were subjected to. You probably can’t imagine, but it was much worse than the physical torture. They weren't just starving us by giving us no food. That would probably have been better. But what they did was worse. We used to get three meals a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sounds great right? It wasn't really. It was literally barely enough to stay alive.
We used to eat in groups, each group consisting of 6 - 8 people. We used to get all the food for the day at once in the morning. The portion we used to get per group was not even enough for one person. Here is what we used to get:
Dinner Was the same as breakfast
This way, we were constantly starving without ever having our bodies shutting down totally - and we had to bring up an immense discipline to not eat it all the food we got at once. On some days, they didn’t bring us any food.
Discipline was also required for sleeping. With the lack of space, we had to sleep in shifts. While some of us were standing, others were sleeping. Of course there were no mattresses or anything, we just used our shoes as pillows and jackets as blankets.
Part of the torture treatment was not only not giving us enough space to sleep, but also not letting us sleep properly. The guards made sure of that by coming into the cell frequently, night and day. According to rule #2, everyone had to stand up facing the wall before the guard was inside. You always had to be ready to jump up anytime - and you would regularly be awoken by others screaming at you to get up.
This might be surprising to most of you, but I never knew what solidarity really meant until I entered that tiny cell. The solidarity I experienced between all the prisoners in that horrible place was the first time I felt something that powerful and beautiful.
We did not only share the same suffering, injustice and pain, we also shared so much compassion. We felt that anyone who came new was part of the family - and we instantly cared for them.
I remember the day I was brought in. I was lost and didn’t even know where to sit. Many invited me to sit with them. They started introducing themselves, try to comfort me and explain the system and how things work in there. They even gave me from the little food they had, because they knew I wouldn’t get any that day because it’s distributed only in the morning and I had missed my chance. We were all starving, but we shared our food with each other.
I remember when they used to take some of us to torture, the rest of us would prepare wet towels and rush to put it on their wounds as soon as they were brought back.
One of my cellmates pulled me up many times while I was sleeping and made me stand right in front of him facing the wall when the Guard came in. He did that so he would take the beating on his back in case the Guard noticed that I didn’t stand up in time because he knew that he was physically more capable than me - he was the Arab champion in weightlifting and three times Syria champion in boxing, and therefore still very fit even after months of starvation. I will be forever grateful for him.
Even some guards had compassion. Unfortunately, unlike for us, compassion had a very high price for them. One of the guards ended up in a cell next to us for bringing in two cups of tea for two elderly people in our cell .
I even saw compassion in the eyes of one of the guards who was torturing me. I saw the pain in his eyes, as if he was trying to tell me “I’m sorry” and “please forgive me”.
Imagine going through all this and much more I didn’t mention without knowing for how long it’s gonna last. It could be days, months, a year or maybe more, nobody knows. The uncertainty of how long it would last was by far the worst. I believe the only thing that made us survive was hope - even though many didn’t survive after all. One of our cellmates was in this tiny cell for more than a year already when I came - and he could still smile and laugh when he heard a joke. More than that, he was often the one making us laugh by telling us funny stories about survival in the real world before he was imprisoned. He suffered the longest, but I believe long enough to get used to the situation and realise that the only way to survive is to hold on to the hope of being free one day. It was very difficult for him to see so many people come in and leave again while he was still inside these four walls. Yet he was still smiling and laughing. He gave us strength to keep holding on to the little hope we had left.
But I didn’t really grasp how much hope we had until the butterfly gave us a visit.
It was a day like any other day. It was morning, we had just had our breakfast, and we were quietly chatting as usually while each of us wass hoping to hear his name called to be released. Suddenly, the cell went into total silence when, through the tiny window at the top of the wall, a beautiful butterfly came fluttering in through the tiny window. This butterfly was the only thing from the outside world we had seen in a long time, years for some of us. It was this living thing of beauty that made us remember that there is more than darkness in this world. This butterfly resembled freedom and hope for us and I’m sure that all of us wished to be that butterfly in that moment. It was a very painful and emotional moment as it reminded us what it felt like to be free, to be with our families and friends and to live a normal life trying to pursue our dreams and goals.
We were all waiting to see where or on who the butterfly was gonna land - in our minds it meant that that person would get their freedom somehow.
It took a few rounds inside our cell, circling all of us, and went out the window again without landing on anyone. It was a sad moment watching it leave, but its appearance gave us immense hope that one day, we will walk out of this door and be free as well.
We spent the rest of the day in silence not talking to each other. Instead, each of us was thinking about his life, about what he had done, the regrets and mistakes, the good and bad times, and most importantly, about what kind of a person he will be and what kind of things he will be doing differently when - and if - he finally gets his freedom back.
Qutaiba Zarzour, *1988, is from Idlib, Syria, and lived in Abu Dhabi most of his life. After his release from prison he went back to Abu Dhabi because he was still wanted by the Syrian Government. When the war started in Syria, he returned to his home country to help care for children. When he learned that the government was actively looking for him again, he fled to Turkey and from there to Germany where he arrived in early 2015. While being forced into inaction while waiting for his Asylum, he started thinking of a platform that would later be called Josoor. He currently lives in Munich and is the co-founder of Josoor.
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