BEIRUT

Middle East

Refugees remember horrors of detention

File - A Syrian refugee who refused to be identified for security reasons sits on a chair in the Bekaa Valley village of Kamed al Loz, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. (The Daily Star/Samya Kullab)

KAMED AL-LOZ, Lebanon: His hands had been handcuffed and bound to a metal pipe over his head, Amer recalls, the toes of his feet barely grazing the ground below. As he dangled near-suspended from the air, the Syrian intelligence officer had commanded him to take wing: “Go on, fly like a bird.” It’s been nearly two years since his detention and Amer is crouched on the floor in his temporary home just outside the Bekaa Valley town of Kamed al-Loz, his hands behind his back and his head facing the wall.

“Like this, they told us to sit like this,” he says, simulating the position he was told to take by the officers on the first day of what would become a three-month-long incarceration at Saasaa Branch 221, an intelligence facility lying halfway between Damascus and Qunaitra.

In 2011, he was one among many protesting the detention of several young students for writing anti-government slogans in Deraa. Amer was accused of inciting protesters.

Reports last week alleging that between March 2011 and August 2013 some 11,000 detainees were systematically tortured and some executed continue to draw international condemnation, as former detainees recall the harrowing time they spent behind bars at the hands of their captors.

On the first day of his imprisonment, Amer and his fellow protesters were gathered in one room and beaten with metal rods and told to get on their knees and face the wall, a stance they were to assume for the entire day.

“But this wasn’t the torture bit,” he adds. “This was the welcome.”

On the second day he was blindfolded and taken to the underground prison, where he kneeled and stared at the wall for what felt like an eternity. Detainees were not permitted to use the lavatories and many had no choice but to urinate on themselves, Amer says.

“It was summer at the time, and lice were rampant. Our hands were bound behind our backs so we couldn’t brush them away,” he adds.

He slept naked in an overcrowded cell at night and spent the days nearly hanging with his hands bound over his head while enduring beatings with rods, sticks and jolts of electric shocks. “Light people can endure this position longer; heavier people suffered more because they had to support all their weight with just their hands,” he says.

“Men were raped by the guards in the prison, sometimes with rods. Their testicles were electrocuted at times,” he adds. “If we wanted to use the washrooms, we had to go in twos, we were never allowed to clean ourselves because our hands were always bound”

They were fed one palm-sized portion of food almost every other day – one day there would be burghol, while on another it would be apricot jam on a scrap of bread, or just three olives. “A lot of people starved.”

A prisoner swap deal eventually led to Amer’s release, and his experience encouraged him to fight in the ranks of the rebel Free Syrian Army. “If I go back, it will be to fight again,” he says assuredly.

Amer was arrested during a campaign early on in the uprising, when it was still possible to exploit government connections or resort to bribery to release detainees. Amer says those arrested nowadays are never heard from again. He fears his brother Khaled, an Army defector who was arrested a year ago, might be one of the 11,000 victims whose fates were publicized in last week’s bombshell accusations.

Majid, 25, was imprisoned for 45 days in Saasaa five months ago. He lifts up his shirt to reveal the scars left behind by electric shocks.

A police patrol picked him out of his neighborhood one night. On his first day behind bars he was beaten with metal rods for six hours straight, he says, until he fainted. Then he was questioned by intelligence officers.

“‘Who do you know among the terrorist groups?’ they asked me. ‘Who do you know who has arms? Who do you know with connections to the opposition?’”

“When I said I didn’t know, they kept beating me.”

Majid remembers being taken to a spacious room with about 20 to 30 bodies hanging from the ceiling, a position similar to the one described by Amer. He was stripped naked and a sack was placed around his head and a tire around his neck.

In the months that have passed since his incarceration, Majid says his resentment toward the regime has only intensified. Were it not for his wife and children, he says, he would have stayed and fought.

“One of the guys who was in with me carried out a suicide attack with a car bomb on one of the intelligence branches in Harasta six months ago,” he says. “If it weren’t for my family, I would have done the same.”

Ahmad, 16, was detained for 11 days over a month ago in the Damascus suburb of Moadamieh. Although his family was allowed to leave the besieged area, Ahmad and other young men were rounded up in the evacuation process by air force intelligence.

“When we went to the bathroom they would make sure to keep the doors open. We were beaten the entire time we were there,” says the youth, who settled with his family in the border town of Sawiri.

“They insulted our mothers, our sisters while they beat us. They made us wash their clothes, shine their shoes. They did anything to humiliate us,” he adds.

When he thinks back to the time he spent behind bars, it isn’t the beatings or the pangs of hunger that still haunt him; it’s the pronouncements he was forced to make under torture.

“‘Who’s your God?’ They would ask me between lashes,” he says. “I had to say ‘Bashar is my god.’”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 28, 2014, on page 8.

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Summary

"Like this, they told us to sit like this," he says, simulating the position he was told to take by the officers on the first day of what would become a three-month-long incarceration at Saasaa Branch 221, an intelligence facility lying halfway between Damascus and Qunaitra.

In 2011, he was one among many protesting the detention of several young students for writing anti-government slogans in Deraa.

Detainees were not permitted to use the lavatories and many had no choice but to urinate on themselves, Amer says.

Amer says those arrested nowadays are never heard from again. He fears his brother Khaled, an Army defector who was arrested a year ago, might be one of the 11,000 victims whose fates were publicized in last week's bombshell accusations.

Majid remembers being taken to a spacious room with about 20 to 30 bodies hanging from the ceiling, a position similar to the one described by Amer.

Ahmad, 16, was detained for 11 days over a month ago in the Damascus suburb of Moadamieh. Although his family was allowed to leave the besieged area, Ahmad and other young men were rounded up in the evacuation process by air force intelligence.


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