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13 min read

Everything beyond Assad’s prisons is paradise

"I was arrested on March 26, 2011. That is when I was introduced to the secrets of the dark. Three black cars stopped outside my home in Damascus; eight persons, armed with automatic guns, stepped out of the cars and surrounded the building. One shouted in a speaker: “Get out you rat! Surrender, you traitor! You little shit journalist, can you hear us?”

The ongoing pandemic makes it impossible for the Syrian journalist and filmmaker Ali Al Ibrahim to even allow himself to think about the time he spent in a Syrian prison. Or to think about the 16 000 prisoners who are still there. He claims that among countries that once experienced the Arab Spring, the Syrian regime is unlike any other regime, and he reminds us of its brutality and of peoples’ vulnerability during the ongoing pandemic.

Ali Al Ibrahim is an acclaimed investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker from Syria. He has won several prizes within the field of journalism and as a filmmaker, among others for his film One Day in Aleppo (2017).

Credits Text: Ali Al-Ibrahim Översättning från arabiska till engelska: Jasim Mohamed August 05 2020

In a small underground cell, amidst the centre of the Syrian capital Damascus and specifically within what is known as the notorious “Palestine prison branch”, my heart skipped a beat when I heard the echo of my mother’s voice inside me, while in that place, as I heard her say that if wrinkles become prominent on one’s face, then this indicates that tragedy has beaten us.

The prison is a security facility run by the Syrian military intelligence. Today, it has a capacity of 16 thousand prisoners, both male and female. I was agonizing in a cell no more than one or two square meters. In the middle of it was a hole in the ground, which was supposed to function as a toilet. Weeks passed as I was disconnected from any sense of time. Yet on the day I “heard” my mother’s voice, I felt that my face and body were alive for the first time since I was thrown in that cell.

Early on March 26, 2011, they took me to the prison and what was previously shrouded in secrecy began to unravel. After three black vehicles arrived at my residence in Damascus, eight men, carrying automatic rifles, emerged from the cars and surrounded the building. One of them began shouting into a loudspeaker, saying “Get out you scoundrel! Surrender, you traitor. You hear me, you shit journalist?!” As the moments passed, the voice was getting louder while my heart began beating faster. I closed the curtain at the window I was watching them from after they entered into my building. A few minutes later they broke down my apartment door and arrested me.

I was detained underground, based on a clear accusation: shooting videos of popular protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. These were protests in the streets in most Syrian cities that carried chants of “Freedom, forever, whether you like it or not Assad”.

Whoever knows the Syrian regime is not surprised by the open-ended crisis in Syria, because said regime differs from those in other countries that witnessed the Arab Spring. Whoever knows Bashar al-Assad, and prior to him his father, Hafez al-Assad, is keenly aware that the ruling Ba’th party, the security apparatuses and army which savagely kills Syrians, and the authority which dominates all aspects of the state, all pay no heed to the aspirations of Syrians for freedom nor their calls for it.

In the cell, I hear strange sounds that seem to be an unusual mix of the chains used to lock the doors along with the shouting of prison guards from the floor above. Here indeed I feel the wrinkles increasing on my face. The prison guards walk and bang on the cell doors with sticks and cables, while a voice bellows from outside: “Do you have any corpses to get rid of?”

I had no way of knowing the time inside the underground prisons of the Syrian regime. Yet days before I was transferred from solitary confinement to a joint dormitory, and during a semi-daily interrogation session, the interrogator stuck his fingers into my chin and screamed loudly, saying: “You’ve been here for three months! Until when will you remain silent and not speak? You people need to be stepped on. I’m going to make you wish you were dead. Let’s see what you’ll get out of your journalism then you animal”.

In the large cell, I saw something different. The prison guards would come daily to take away the corpses of prisoners who would die inside the cells, either due to sickness, hunger or as a result of the injuries of prison torture. Every day no less than five bodies would be placed by the prisoners at the cell door.

Since the start of the Syrian revolution, which demanded freedom, justice and the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime, many died in detention centres of the infamous Syrian intelligence. After nine years of revolution, statistics indicate that there are 130 thousand cases of detainees and forced disappearances, where detainees are subject to various forms of torture and burning, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). SNHR also confirmed in its statistics that more than 14 thousand persons –including women and children- were tortured to death inside the Syrian regime prisons, between March 2011 to March 2020.

The Syrian regime authorities detain prisoners in inhumane conditions, crowding them into dirty cells for months or even years. The food that was given to us was –and still is- insufficient, to the point that all prisoners suffered from hunger. Heat and humidity were so high, to the extent that the prisoners’ clothing had disintegrated within a few weeks in detainment. For breakfast, we had become used to eating a little jam. However, the quantity was so small since the guard would also dilute it in water. For lunch we would have bulgur which wasn’t well cooked. Dinner would comprise a few boiled potatoes for 110 detainees. We also became used to getting 4-5 pieces of rotten bread daily.

The cell was 4 to 5 meters wide by 10 meters long, without any room for lying down or sitting. We were not allowed to leave the cell or get any fresh air. The cell had a small steel door with bars at the top and didn’t have lighting. At the door entrance on the outside was a yellow light bulb which would emit a faint light through the bars. All of the detainees were wearing only their undergarments due to the high temperature and humidity.

In Syria there are dozens of security branches in addition to military detention centers established after 2011 in order to suppress and eradicate the Syrian revolution. The mission of these security branches was to arrest and torture any activist or opposition member who participated in peaceful protests, or wrote publications against the regime demanding freedom. The administration of these branches, alongside the prison guards, would engage in the most horrendous forms of torture against the detainees on a daily basis and around the clock. Their aim was to liquidate these prisoners under the pretext that they are terrorists.

In the corner of the dormitory, a man who was fifty years old or more, had collapsed. Somehow the prisoners had moved around so that he could sit down. He sat, hitting his head with his hand and fluttering his hand through his hair, screaming “for the love of God. I’m sick, I have tuberculosis”. A week later, he stopped screaming and his final words were “I swear to God I’m sick, help me people”. The Syrian regime authorities refuse to provide medical assistance and medicines that are necessary for the prisoners. Due to a lack of food, fresh air and rest, while living in the aforementioned crowded conditions, illnesses spread quickly, along with death, as a result of the torture.

Many would die after an intense beating or torture while incarcerated. The most extreme forms of torture would take place during the interrogation sessions, usually in separate interrogation rooms or torture chambers, or even in the hallways of small detention centres. During these sessions, the interrogators and officers would want the detainees to confess to participating in the protests, and to mention the names of other participants or the organizers, in addition to confessing to the possession of a weapon and usage thereof. In some cases, they would want the submission of information regarding supposed external funding (i.e. from abroad) of these protests.

There was no place to sleep, so we would sleep with our heads facing the feet of others. Due to a lack of space for sleeping even using this method, we would sleep on top of each other, with our heads lying on the feet of others, in two rows. Two persons suffocated to death because of this sleeping method.

After the death of prisoners in the jails of the Syrian regime, their bodies sometimes stay for a day or two in the cell before being moved. They are then transported in small trucks to a military hospital such as Al-Mezzeh Military Hospital (also known as “Hospital 601”) or the Tishreen Military Hospital, to prepare the bodies and wrap them. In most cases, the detainees themselves were forced to carry the corpses from the prison to the trucks.

Once I saw seven corpses. The bruises covered the entirety of the bodies, especially the abdomen and back. The guard gave me a blanket to wrap a body in. The guard wrote a name and a number comprising four digits on the head of the cadaver, and then rewrote the name again on a paper card, and placed the card in the undergarment of the corpse. I carried the body and placed it at the entrance of the security branch. A truck came and took the cadavers away. I moved 18 bodies in 7 days and then collapsed and became unconscious. When I regained consciousness, I found that I had been thrown on top of the corpses, as I and the dead bodies were all on the sidewalk. I think they were waiting for a truck to transport us. They saw that I was not dead, but they shocked me with electricity to verify I was still alive, and then returned me to my cell.

All corpses are taken in vehicles to a military hospital, and are sent for cremation or burial in military-controlled areas in the desert after they are photographed and a number is placed on the forehead or body. These numbers are written by the officers of the military branches on medical stickers that are attached to the dead bodies of the prisoners, either on the cadavers directly or on cards that are placed within their undergarments.

In January 2014, a Syrian defector – today called “Caesar” – left, carrying thousands of photos on CDs and USBs. Many of the photos show the bodies of prisoners who died in Syrian detention centres. The photos show corpses emaciated and affected by hunger, with bruises, scars and other signs of torture. Some cadavers had open and deep wounds.

At dawn, each security branch or detention centre collects the corpses of the victims who were tortured and killed in the previous 24 hours, and delivers them to one of the military hospitals to be photographed, wrapped and sent to mass graves under strict monitoring by security members of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

On December 18, 2015, UN Resolution 2254 on Syria called for confidence building measures, including the release of those detained in prisons. Yet this never happened and those who did exit the regime’s prisons did so through prisoner exchanges between the opposition and the regime or via bribing the regime officials to release them. Today, and with the rapid spread of the Coronavirus globally, the necessity of releasing large numbers of detainees has taken centre stage once again. While two billion people are committed to a health quarantine and not leaving their homes, the Syrian regime continues its apathy towards detainees and even increases their numbers filling its prisons.

Against this backdrop, numerous humanitarian organizations including the UN Human Rights Council, have called for pressure to be exerted on the Syrian regime so that preventive measures can be taken for the protection of detained persons. Following this, the regime issued an amnesty decree in which it stated that it will release large numbers of prisoners, successfully alleviating the criticism levelled against it, albeit temporarily. However, a new SNHR report shows that the regime released only 96 persons from among the 130 thousand detained, after two months of issuing the decree. In the same timeframe, it arrested 113 persons.

Every time I hear someone talk about the Coronavirus, I get a sick feeling in my stomach. I remember my comrades in the dormitory and those who I left behind. Undoubtedly, the spread of COVID-19 in the Syrian regime prison system will have disastrous consequences for the prisoners. Many of them suffer from deteriorating health conditions and have been arbitrarily detained for years. They suffer from weak immunity due to the torture and hunger they have been subjected to, which means that the suffering of these detainees is more severe than that of the rest of the Syrian and global populations. Yet the greatest danger lies in the overcrowding, thus representing an ideal environment for the spread of the contagion. I don’t think any of these prisoners will be able to escape or avoid this.

Weeks ago, Amnesty International warned -to no avail- that the Syrian authorities must fully cooperate with UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, detention centres and military hospitals throughout the country.

Anywhere else is better and more merciful than those dungeons. When the door of the cell opened and they shouted my name to escape that hellhole on the night of November 1, 2011, I was more than relieved. That day I could not see the people around me, but rather, the maggots infesting the torture wounds, wriggling and all mixed with one another. I couldn’t walk because there was no room to do so; all prisoners were stuck next to each other and underneath them were corpses waiting for the morning.

Ali Al-Ibrahim is an investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker, Co-Founder and manager of SIRAJ (Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism). He holds several awards in the field of journalism, most recently The Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press 2019 the BBC Award for Best Young Journalist in the Middle East and North Africa 2018. He was a trainer in investigative journalism for three years, Supervisor in media and policy development in media, and fellow at TED International. Ali Al Ibrahim's book, "Syrien lever och dör" (Syria, cities of death and life) launched in Sweden on 7 May 2019. Since 2016, Ali Al- Ibrahim has been living in Sweden, where he has been the Guest Writer at Region Jönköpings län.

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