How I Survived a Syrian Gulag

A political inmate recounts his daily life during his two-plus years in one of the regime’s notorious prisons

How I Survived a Syrian Gulag
Source art: Cell 22 / Oil painting / private acquisition; Mohamed Al Mufti / 2012 / Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

On Sept. 15, 1987, the first day at primary school, my father took me to an old and elegant building with high ceilings and large windows, surrounded by spacious playgrounds, and left me with the headmaster — a skinny man older than my father who wore gigantic prescription glasses — after signing some official documents in his office. The headmaster ordered me to join my classmates, wearing mud-colored uniforms, in a long line where we stood one behind the other in the school’s front yard. The morning rituals began with a military drill: “Rest! Get ready! Stand in a row! March!” This was uttered in a distinctive intonation and rhythm. We moved our arms in a salute that was identical to the Nazi one and recited the Baathist Youth Scout declaration. The headmaster opened it by calling out “Our covenant,” and we responded back in an angry, zealous, collective voice: “is to stand up to imperialism and Zionism and reactionism, and to smash their criminal tool, the Muslim Brotherhood collaborators!” Everything appeared — and still does — strange, shocking and incomprehensible to the child who I was.

Each classroom had about 40 students, squeezed into very narrow seats. All the classrooms were similar, with a large green board and a portrait of then President Hafez al-Assad on the wall, smiling with a grimace, looking at us with his droopy eyes, as if saying: “I see you all.” Under the photograph, the motto of the Arab Socialist Baath Party said: “One Arab Nation, with an eternal mission … our goals: Union, Freedom, Socialism. Our leader for ever: the comrade Hafez al-Assad.” Today, that image remains etched in my mind, and perhaps in the minds of most Syrians. Hafez was present everywhere: schools, government offices, universities, mosques, churches, police stations — even in the prisons. In fact, he was also present in the car when his eldest son and heir-apparent Bassel died in a car crash while driving to the Damascus airport on Jan. 21, 1994. A year later, portraits of the younger son Bashar — the current president — began to appear alongside those of his father and “martyr” brother. Among the loyalists, each of these Assads had a special nickname. The father was “The Eternal Redeemed Leader,” Bassel was the “Martyred Staff Major Engineer Parachutist Knight” and Bashar was “Syrians’ Awaited Hope.”

Years later, as a freshman at the Industrial Institute of the city of Quneitra, I was arrested on March 19, 2002, by a military intelligence officer after 48 hours of interrogation. I was summoned, along with a large group of students, to the Military Intelligence Branch regarding an accusation that I was collecting applications for the Masonic Lodge from the students. As it turned out, one of those students, an expert in writing security reports in those days, wrote one against me after a silly argument.

Report writing and “informers” were both part of the Baathist culture. The leadership and party branches encouraged new members to write reports about their colleagues. A party comrade would begin by simply transmitting information about his colleagues’ cultural and ideological positions to his leaders. However, with time, the informer’s status grew until he became a secret agent, providing his services on a “freelance basis,” i.e., he would get paid for each report and its importance. The scope of the informer’s imagination had to grow proportionately to fulfill the increasing demands of this apparatus; he would begin to invent stories and incidents. Some informers would go as far as to write reports about their parents and spouses.

The day Bashar inherited the presidency from his father in 2000, the intelligence apparatus sent out a rumor about their intention to combat the culture of “reports and informers.” My informer colleague, related to the then-head of Air Force Intelligence, Izzudin Ismael, submitted his report about me to a high-level security office. That’s why my classmates and I were called to the Military Intelligence Branch No. 220, also known as the Sasah Branch, and subjected to interrogation sessions with a wide range of questions regarding our political leanings by officers whose ranks were no higher than a warrant officer. “What did this person say? And what did the other person reply to him?” They beat up everyone who came along with me, even the “informer.” I was lucky they did not subject me to any torture or violence. However, I was arrested soon after my friend Hassan shared with me a few photocopied pages from a book by the famous Syrian businessperson, Badr Uddin Al-Shalah, in which the author spoke about his relationship with the Damascene Masonic movement and his time as a leader and successor to the Lodge of Ibrahim Al-Khalil, the presumed name of the secret Masonic organization in Damascus.

I distinctly remember the day of my arrest. I arrived at the branch early in the morning and waited for more than an hour outside the door of the colonel, who was also the deputy director of the branch. Photographs of the Assad family covered the walls in his office. The colonel was a large man in an elegant suit with eyes full of contempt. He went through the pages of my interrogation report with boredom and disgust, then stood up in fury behind his desk and started screaming in my face a series of profanities that could fill dictionaries. When he finally caught his breath after his outburst, he asked about my knowledge of the Masonic movement and its origins. I told him what I knew and what I had read about it in the Baath party’s educational literature, asserting the impossibility of joining such a group. When he asked about Al-Shalah’s book, I told him I could bring it in the next day. He burst into a satirical laugh: “You are our guest from this day on.”

With that, the colonel pressed a bell on his desk, summoning a brutish soldier who, on orders, took me to prison. I didn’t know at that moment my life would change in unrecognizable ways.

The Sasah Branch’s detention center was in a building attached to the interrogation offices. The soldier handed me over to a short prison warden, who moved and spoke like a rooster. He stared repugnantly at me from head to toe and ordered me to undress fully. I didn’t understand his intention. I removed all my clothes except for my underwear. He pointed toward it with his stick and told me to take it off. I did as I was ordered. He followed me with his eyes and then ordered me to crouch down and stand up three times. Meanwhile, he searched my clothes, removing my wallet, belt and shoelaces, then took my glasses. He put everything in a plastic bag, tied it and put it away in a drawer inside his metal desk.

He dragged me to a solitary cell and pushed me into the darkness of a space that was no larger than 7 feet by 3 feet and had an insufferable smell. I pulled an abandoned blanket that was covered in feces and urine to a corner, covered it with my coat and slept on it. I woke up hours later to the voice of Hassan, my friend and cellmate, who was arrested for supplying me with pages from Al-Shalah’s book. He urged me to eat a falafel sandwich, the only meal provided by the branch, but I refused and went back to sleep. I didn’t eat for the next three days. I’d wake up to urinate, drink water and sleep again.

On March 21, 2002, three days after our arrest, the prison warden ordered Hassan and me to get ready. I expected they would release us after they had checked the strange accusation and discovered our innocence. For reassurance, I whispered to myself that I would keep my promise to my grandmother, to be with her in our provincial town about 75 miles away on Mother’s Day, which coincided with Nowruz every year. I leaned against the wall facing the prison warden’s office, feeling dizzy. He looked at me with loathing, took a long stick out and began to scream in my face: “You’re a great actor! You’re a skillful actor!” I didn’t understand the source of his anger, which soon transformed into violence. The warden ordered me to put my right hand out, like students do when they receive corporal punishment at school. I extended my hand, and he slapped it with his stick. He ordered me to show my left hand and slapped that too. It felt like a scene from my primary school days. I fell down unconscious due to lack of food and woke up with bruises on my neck, soaking wet from head to toe. The interrogator ordered that I eat a falafel sandwich, delivered with a warning that filled my heart with terror: “You must eat well, because there’s no place for such pampering.”

The former Syrian writer and prisoner, Maabad Al-Hassoun, who survived time spent in the notorious Palmyra prison, said in his novel “Before Darkness Falls”: “A prisoner begins immediately by building incomprehensible love stories toward many things that are incomprehensible. At the same time, he conjures up vendettas for many hidden things that are impossible to understand. Then he begins to feed and nourish himself from these loves and grudges, ‘borrowed’ to feed his personality, as he is feeding himself with bread, water, and air.”

How many times has this experience been repeated? During my research on Syrian prisons for “The Syrian Gulag: Assad’s Prisons 1970-2020,” with professor Uğur Ümit from the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Netherlands, I delved into different human prison experiences. Self-defense mechanisms discovered by psychologist and former inmate Viktor Frankl at a Nazi prison camp are similar to those used by Syrian prisoners under the Assad regime. It is common for prisoners to create their own private world and a unique space as they struggle to survive years of extensive and growing oppression.

Our “Syrian Gulag” journey was an arduous one. The goal was to understand the Syrian prison system. We began with detention centers, then moved to the branches, the intelligence apparatus, the military security formations, and finally the military and civilian prisons. I met about 100 former prisoners, men and women, and listened to their stories. I read an enormous number of books on Syrian prisons. And yet, after five years of doing this, all I could gather was that we were only at the beginning of a long road to understanding.

Military Intelligence Branch 235, also known as the Palestine Branch, was the largest branch of military intelligence, virtually independent. It included many offices that were responsible for holding the majority of critical files in Syria, both domestic and foreign, in addition to the Fedayeen Office, which specialized in the files of Palestinians and their organizations on Syrian territory. The branch contained an office for political parties, including one responsible for cases of spying and informing. The tasks of this branch had been expanded to include the pursuit of Islamist movements, working on their infiltration and attempts to direct and control them too, which were carried out by the counterterrorism department. Violence, brutal torture methods and long imprisonment without legal recourse have left a permanent and chilling imprint on the collective memory of the Palestine Branch inmates and Syrians at large, mine included.

After that beating at the detention center, Hassan and I were transferred from the Sasah Branch to the Palestine Branch. The director there also rang a bell, this time summoning a large prison warden with a thick mustache. He took us to one of the interrogation rooms, then ordered me to put on a blindfold as we walked down a long staircase. He held my arm from behind, then handed me over to another prison warden, who pushed me into the dormitory and took off my blindfold.

We arrived at this branch on Mother’s Day. At the dormitory, an elderly man welcomed me. He asked for my name, city of origin and what I had been charged with. I don’t know why I trusted him, but I opened up with all the details of the story. He furrowed his eyebrows in anger, his eyes tinged with sadness. On the verge of tears, he turned his face away and asked one of my new colleagues to heat the bathwater and wash my clothes. A young man asked if I had any other clothes apart from the ones I was wearing. I didn’t, so he gave me a pair of cotton shorts and a white T-shirt. The makeshift heater was nothing more than two sardine tin cans covered with an insulating piece of plastic. It was placed in a bucket of water over the sink. When the water boiled, the bathroom assistant gave it to me to add to the cold water. A small piece of military soap, considered one of the worst types in Syria, was enough to refresh me. I finished my bath quickly, as the bathroom could not be occupied for long. It was in demand continuously and never went unoccupied for more than a few minutes at a time. There were more than 30 prisoners in this dormitory, the dimensions of which did not exceed 120 square feet.

Source art: Cell 22 / Oil painting / private acquisition; Mohamed Al Mufti / 2012

The dormitory represented Syrian society in all its strands: the pious, the criminal, the intellectual, the military, the bureaucrat, the old, the young, Kurds, Alawites, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Circassians, Armenians and Arabs. The elderly head of the dormitory started giving me instructions: We mustn’t make loud noise, do not look directly into the eyes of the interrogator or prison warden, get out of the door if you are asked to, stand on the side of the door with your face to the wall when commanded, accompany the prison warden as ordered, do not object or show reluctance, answer questions with direct and brief answers. I remember the face of that elderly man. His eyes were full of anger and sadness. He hailed from Al-Utaiba, 16 miles east of Damascus city center; he could never go back home after his return from Saudi Arabia. His travel suitcases followed him to the numerous security branches over seven months. He stressed the importance of silence and avoiding sharing any information with other prisoners, because informers were everywhere. “The walls have ears,” he reminded me.

It was decided by the men in my cell that I would sleep next to the door. The floor was covered with military blankets, and we used our shoes and winter coats as cushions. Everyone slept with our sides glued to a fellow prisoner, like pencils in a row or pickles in a jar. The day our number reached 38, we started sleeping sideways, alternating heads and feet. We quickly got used to the terrible smells, crowding, hunger and the sounds of torture. The inmates’ collective memory begins to seep into you. Their eyes transmit the fear of the sound, beginning with the creak of the dormitory door as it opens, or the warden’s nightly knock on the door at 10 sharp to indicate sleep time. The inmates start creating their own private space and a silent language; eyes do the talking and heartbeats are clearly audible. The door is opened in the morning for breakfast, which includes a piece of “military bread” (​​poorly produced, baked and shaped bread that gained notoriety when the military bakeries produced them first in the 1970s), poor-quality olives and a small piece of halva or a small spoon of jam. Lunch is often cracked wheat bulgur, poorly cooked with a red sauce and a piece of round flat bread. Dinner is a piece of boiled potato and a piece of bread. “By military bread alone lives the Syrian prisoner,” the saying goes.

Sleep remained my method of resistance, my way of denying, escaping, my new condition of incarceration. But as the days continued and I spent more time with my cellmates, I found solace there and my spirit found a sense of renewed hope and freedom.

Two days after my arrival at the Palestine Branch, I endured my first interrogation. It began when I was instructed to leave the dormitory. I complied. At the bottom of the steps, the prison warden directed me to go left. Then I stood with my face to the wall and waited for about half an hour until a young interrogator summoned me. He didn’t give me a blindfold as he led me to the first room in the corridor. It was the “Civilian Report” session, where you had to give names of all your relatives with their dates of birth, names of their spouses and children, jobs and places of residence. Afterward, I returned to the dormitory for a few days. At the end of the week, I was summoned again for an interrogation. The same journey followed from the dormitory to the interrogation room, but this time I was met with punches, kicks and stomps. I didn’t know from which direction the next blow would come or why I was being beaten. They repeated their command: “Think!” they barked. “What have you done? What have you done? Confess!” This session continued for more than an hour before a new voice interjected, asking more direct questions: “How did you join the Masonic movement? Who introduced you to them?” He didn’t like my answers that denied his allegations. So he shifted his interrogation to understanding my political leanings.

I was sent back to the dormitory. Now, every time the door opened, I thought they were calling me for an interrogation. After waiting for a week, sitting with my legs pulled near my chest because of intense fear, the door opened. The observers in the dormitory gave the news that interrogator Ahmed Al-Ali had arrived. Prisoners usually listened for the footsteps of the interrogators through the small windows overlooking the corridor. Al-Ali was known by the exceptional sound of his shoes and the rosary that he held behind his back. He crossed the corridor up and down, waiting for his victims to emerge from one of the cells. I didn’t know that I would be his victim that day.

The moment the prison warden brought me in, he ordered me to wear my blindfold and pulled me to the first interrogation room while he cursed and thundered, his shouts interspersed with phrases like: “You’re a liar, you son of a whore. … You’re a liar!” I insisted that I was being truthful, and he insisted on continuing his insults and slapping and punching me. He asked a prison warden to bring one of the men to whip me, but the warden volunteered to whip me himself. He puffed up his chest and beat me like a raging gorilla. Within seconds, I was naked and lying flat on the ground, with the quad cable touching my back. He didn’t ask me about anything and kept calling me a liar. I continued to tell the only story I knew: that I’d had a conversation-in-passing with students and that I was not aware of any such thing as Masons or their lodges. He ordered me to carry my clothes and return to the dormitory.

It was at that moment, I think, that I began to consider the branch as my home. I went down the steps and stood in front of the dormitory door, waiting for it to be opened, as if it were my bedroom. The dormitory becomes a refuge for your fears and a fortress that protects you from the brutal interrogators and their terrifying executioners. A young man from Aleppo was about to tend to my wounds with a sterilizing liquid, kept by the head of the dormitory for this purpose. He had not yet opened the bottle when I was summoned for a second interrogation that day.

As soon as my head peeked out of the staircase, the warden grabbed my arm as his colleague put on my blindfold. Wearing only my underwear, I was raised on a metal chair. My hands were tied with metal handcuffs and attached to a raised metal bar. He then pulled the metal chair from under me so that all my weight would be carried by my wrists. Only the tips of my toes touched the ground. I felt my soul departing from me through my fingertips. My torturer began to whip me on my back. Despite my attempts at suppressing my screams, a moan seeped between my teeth. Minutes later, he started spraying me with cold water and I screamed for help. He asked me about my connection to the Masonic movement, and I answered: “Write whatever you want and I will put my fingerprint on it.” He started beating me more severely than before. After a few more minutes, he brought me down using the metal chair. When I returned to the dormitory, I learned that this type of torture was called “al-shabah,” or the ghost, and was widely used across all branches of the intelligence services, military and air force.

I was lodged at the Palestine Branch for around two months and was then transferred to the Military Interrogation Branch 248. There they repeated the interrogation and prepared their final report, which had been ordered by the head of the military intelligence section, Brig. Hassan Khalil. Before I was transferred to the notorious military prison in Sednaya, I learned from the head of the interrogation department that Khalil refused all requests to release me.

The Military Intelligence Branch is nothing but the Second Bureau (Le Deuxième Bureau) in the Syrian army, rooted in its French origins. Baathists took control of this branch the day they took over. When Hafez overthrew his colleagues in the party and seized power in 1970, his close friend Mohammed Ali Zaza headed the branch. He was succeeded in April 1971 by Hukmat Al-Shuhabi, who had received a diploma in Soviet Intelligence. Al-Shuhabi was succeeded by Ali Douba, one of the most prominent leaders of Syrian military intelligence, who continued to lead the branch until 2000. Douba was forced to retire in preparation for the arrival of Bashar to power.

The archipelago of cells, detention centers and military, civilian and secret prisons in Syria may be one of the largest in the world, on a per capita basis. The Military Intelligence Branch was nothing more than one of the oldest heads of the four-headed intelligence snake, which includes the Air Force Intelligence Department, the Department of General Intelligence and the Political Security Branch. Added to these were the military formations with security functions such as the Republican Guards and the Fourth Division, formerly the “Defense Brigades.” And we can’t ignore the military police, which is the nervous system of the army and armed forces.

I spent three months at the interrogations branch, which is the point of arrival for all prisoners in military intelligence branches before they are referred to the judiciary or other prisons. This branch witnessed dozens of bloody stories, and dozens have suffered here under the burden of torturers’ whips during the early ’80s. Leaders of the Syrian leftist opposition were imprisoned here. Some of them were kept in solitary cells for years. However, after Bashar succeeded his father, the overall gestalt of this branch moved a hair-step closer to being a more modern facility. Previously dark rooms were introduced with a faint yellow light, one that focused on the face of the accused. Cameras monitored every movement, and microphones monitored every whisper. There were hours of “intelligent” and “cultured” interrogation, as my fellow inmates and I liked to sarcastically call the brutal beatings and debasing line of questioning to which we were subjected. I lost half my weight in three months. I was presented to the committee of mental illnesses simply because I greeted an interrogator. At the end of my term there, the head of the interrogation bureau requested that I put my fingerprint on the interrogation report so that I could be transferred to another prison, as he could no longer do anything for me.

I did as asked, and in a few days, I was transferred to the Sednaya military prison. Flashbacks of my school days returned, the mold and humidity of the place reminding me of my classrooms during the first day of school. Wael, the prison warden, reminded me of the “futuwa” (chivalry) trainer at school, because of his flowing mustache, cruel features and booming, loud voice. His assistant, Mohammed, was nothing but a senior teacher and a type of fox, deceptive and hiding what he meant with gentle words and a polite demeanor. Ali, the mainstay of the holy trinity of this gigantic prison, was neutral in his demeanor but carried out instructions as if he were a trainee.

It seemed like the prison was their first home. They ate, drank and slept there. They laughed and lived there. They did not step out, because of fear of indifference or of feeling inconsequential. In Sednaya, they had the power to grant life or death. Outside, they were nothing but low-ranking officers in an army that barely received any respect.

I spent what was left of my term — a little over two years — in Sednaya. I was let out after the verdict issued against me by Fayez Al-Nouri, president of the state security court, ended. I felt like I left prison in the flesh but not in spirit. The following years rolled by like a dream. The revolution was born, and the regime doubled its prison capacity to suppress it. There was a return to the beginning, killings by torture, limitless violence, rapes and a pleasure in the demise of people by hunger and pain. I lost many of my prison brothers, whom I had grown to regard as family.

It is for them that I began the journey to find former prisoners and make a documentary film about sexual violence in captivity.

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