Eight days in a Syrian cell - a first-hand account
- Khaled El Ghayesh
- 31 May 2011 06:57 (South Africa)
As the regime in Syria plays out its bloody end game, KHALED EL GHAYESH reflects on his own experience in a Syrian prison. Late in March he was detained for eight days and denied all contact with the outside world. His crime? He went on holiday to Damascus.
What seemed to be the end of a really nice weekend, evolved into an unexpected nightmare – and an experience to remember. It struck me and made me realise the extent of our physical and mental endurance under unexpectedly harsh conditions.
On 25 March, I set off for Damascus to spend a pleasant weekend in Syria – a change after a stressful week of work in Beirut. Being an adventurous person whose risk and safety standards are low, I didn’t think the recent political unrest would be reason to change my plans. My Syrian friends confirmed it was safe and I should have nothing to worry about. While approaching the suburbs of Damascus, I was not expecting to see the calm city that I had witnessed on my two previous trips. I was in Egypt during the revolution and I knew what anti-regime protests should look like. I was wondering: will Syria be next?
To my surprise, the first scene I saw in front of the infamous Bab Touma in the heart of Damascus was a pro-Bashar demonstration with passionate people all over the place yelling: “Allah… Souriya… Bashar bas” (“Allah… Syria… Bashar and no one else” in Arabic). Like everyone else was doing, taking photographs was a very normal thing to do at this time. I never imagined that pictures taken inside Syria had other implications for people of the Syrian regime. I spent my next 48 hours between Damascus and Aleppo, hanging out with my friends and feeling it was a great choice to have gone to Syria for the weekend, against the advice of my Lebanese friends. Too bad that. A little after, things took a nasty turn.
On 27 March, at the Syrian-Lebanese border on my way back to Beirut from Aleppo, I disembarked from the bus to have my passport stamped - never imagining it would take eight days. When I asked a police officer where I must go to have my Egyptian passport stamped, he took me to a moukhabarat (secret services) checkpoint on the borders where I was interrogated and thoroughly investigated for half an hour. They deemed me suspicious and dragged the bus driver and the guy beside me in for investigation too. They were allowed to leave afterwards with the bus, but without me. I was told in a very polite and respectable way that I had to go for half an hour for a small interrogation after which, they would take me anywhere I wanted. The coffee the officers served me was a reason for me not to worry and to assume I’d be sleeping in Beirut that night.
They handcuffed me, took me in a car to the city of Homs, 60km east of the border, and told me not to worry at all as they respected their “Egyptian brothers”, insisting it was all just normal procedure. I had to believe them. I had no other option. Forty minutes later, we reached a place on the outskirts of the city. I was asked to step out of the car and was taken to a place that looked like a police station, except that many people were handcuffed and blindfolded on the floor, with obvious traces of being tortured or beaten up. After they confiscated everything I had, I suddenly found myself thrown into a corridor with prison cells on both sides, exactly as seen on TV.
I don’t think I have had such a shock in my life before – or will ever again. I didn’t know exactly where I was and why I was there. The next day I was accused of espionage and three days later I was in Segn El Amn el Askary, a military security prison.
My first hour in prison was the hardest or, as prisoners inside joke: The first hundred years are always hard, after that everything gets easier. No matter how much you yell, shout, scream, seek help, ask for a phone or ask to talk to someone, no one will ever answer. Such treatment was also a reason for me to hold on and keep going. I knew if I broke down mentally or physically, or even if I was dying, no one would come to help. I could not sleep that day and, pathetically enough, all I could think of were the consequences of losing one working day. I spent the night in cell 18, a two-square-metre room, with two other Egyptians who had also been arrested for no reason. I squeezed myself like a sardine to try to find room to lie down on the floor with one blanket for the three of us.
The next morning was the major turning point; it was the “official” interrogation. They called my name, handcuffed me, blindfolded me and took me to a room where I was told to kneel. This was the place where I spent some of the most unforgettable hours of my life. Unfairness, injustice, irrationality were just words before I experienced them myself while being accused of false things. I was punched and slapped on my face many times without even seeing who was interrogating me. There was no hope of trying to prove my interrogator wrong, that I was not working with certain foreign Lebanese or Israeli organisations that have interests in toppling the Syrian regime, because the whole point was to use pressure to force me to admit to things I didn’t do. I was being threatened with having my nails pulled out if I didn’t admit the truth; I was called a liar and sworn at many times because I refused to “confess”, before finally being told that I will be sent for the next year to a place not even God knew about.
After being thrown back in cell 18, scared was not what I felt – it was a mixture of anger and dread. Arguing with someone without being able to get them to understand your point is quite a frustrating thing; it just gets way more frustrating when this is an interrogation in a place in which you know that pain and despair are even in the air you breathe. For the next two days, and with nothing else to do besides having pointless, but interesting chats with prisoners in neighbouring cells, I was thinking how to try to prove myself innocent in a more convincing way during my next interrogation. I had all the time to concentrate so I had my thoughts and defences planned in a much more organised way than before. All I was waiting for was to hear my name called again, to be handcuffed and blindfolded and driven to the second interrogation.
It never happened - for the next seven days.
A prison is quite a special place to be. Knowing that your whole world has shrunk to nothing, but a narrow sunless corridor, 20 solitary cells and a disgusting bathroom becomes a fact that takes a while to sink in and accept. To spend days and nights with absolutely nothing to do was something I never imagined I would experience, especially as someone with a pretty eventful way of life. I tried to experiment writing poetry, visualising the outside world, making friendships with everyone, but nothing changed the constant fact that time was moving slowly and indefinitely like someone who lost his way in the middle of nowhere.
The most pleasant time of day was when I could sneak out of my cell and spend some time with fellow prisoners. Cell 4, where my best friend in prison Abdullah was, was my favourite place. Abdullah is a Syrian who makes a living out of smuggling anything you can imagine through the Syrian-Lebanese borders. My friendship with him was not only about his great sense of humour and his heart of gold, it was the fact that we all – despite the different backgrounds – were living together and going through the same fears and anticipations.
I have to say that I was lucky. What happened to me was not the worst that could happen inside. For me, being spared physical torture has not only, thankfully, seen me come out safely, but it has also allowed me to have my own personal reflections on this experience by being able to view it from a wider perspective. The hardest time throughout the eight days was from Thursday until Saturday, when the tension inside the prison was raised to its maximum in anticipation of the weekly Friday protests. Waking up from your sleep to the screams of innocent people who were being brutally tortured and looking up at the faces of other prisoners to wonder whose turn was next was a scary and unforgettable way of witnessing how unfair life can be. The officers would torture them, beat them up, then take them to the cell next to you so you could hear their cries and screams. Knowing that there was nothing we could do for them – or for those who were tortured by locking them up blindfolded and handcuffed in the bathroom with its filthy floor – we would just sit in our cells, whisper to each other and imagine what kinds of torture they were going through and what any one of us might be going through at any moment.
The more the time passed, the more I was losing hope and the more I would try to accept the fact that the interrogator’s words were correct: I would be spending the next year of my life here. It was not until Monday 4 April that things dramatically changed when I heard my name being called for the first time in seven days.
To my utter surprise this was my last day in prison. For two hours afterwards I could not believe that I was actually being walked out of prison, on to the streets of Homs. The first interaction with noon sunlight was quite a scene after eight days of not seeing what I’d been seeing each and every day of the past 25 years. The sudden dose of freedom was too much to grasp after eight days of subconscious brainwashing inside a Syrian prison. For me, the prison walls extended to the Syrian border. My new definition of freedom was the Lebanese entry stamp on my passport.
It was a strange coincidence to have a taxi driver keep asking me about my political views about what was happening in Syria and about the president, especially after what I had learnt about the Syrian secret services. It is a common saying in Syria that for every two Syrians, there are three secret services officers watching them. In a country where people are thrown into jail because their friends reported what they were saying while chatting, you should expect anything. After taking a shared taxi to Beirut, the closer I came to the border, the scarier it was to get flashbacks of what had happened during the past eight days. After seeing again the same people who had lied to me about going for half-an-hour’s chat, that became eight days in prison, and after being stopped again for a five-minute interrogation, I finally got my exit stamp from Syria. Five minutes later I got my entry stamp into Lebanon.
I was free!
The moment I stepped on Lebanese land felt like heaven to me. One of the most memorable scenes of my life was the Lebanese flag and the Lebanese soldiers at the border that day. After my Lebanese phone started working again, I received non-stop phone calls and text messages, even from people who didn’t know I was in Syria. I realised later that my case had been escalated at both the political and media levels in a way that I could never have imagined. Without my family and friends’ actions, I don’t think I would have ever made it out again into the sunlight. Being thankful to each and every person who did something to try to help is not enough to describe how I felt after I knew and saw what was happening while I had been detained.
After returning to my normal life and after the excitement of being released gradually faded away, looking back on what happened, it seems strange to me that I had actually been in jail. I would never have imagined that one day I would be mentioning the words “when I was in prison” as a fact and as something that had actually happened to me. Despite passing through such difficult times, this experience has made me stronger and I have become more aware of the human capacity to adapt and survive. Very easily and in no time, one’s life can drastically change without even doing anything wrong. The many reasons we enjoy life, are balanced by its randomly harsh unfairness, which we should accept as part of the contract to live in this world. It’s just the mandatory tax for being human and living this life that we should be ready, but never willing, to pay at any time. DM
Khaled El Ghayesh is a 25-year-old Egyptian engineer who lives and works in Beirut, Lebanon. He does not plan to go on holiday to Syria anytime soon.