PART IV Former Syrian Prisoners: In Their Own Voices

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People comfort a man crying in a street of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on January 30, 2014. (Photo: AFP- Fadi al-Halabi)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Thousands of Syrians are languishing in the numerous security branches scattered throughout Syria. At the same time, hundreds of Syrians have been kidnapped by vicious armed groups. Beyond all other issues, the cause of the detained and kidnapped is one of the most pressing issues arising from the Syrian conflict.

In a special series, Al-Akhbar shares the tales of a few Syrians who have had first-hand experience with the brutal, labyrinthine process of detainment by the regime's security apparatus, as well as stories of those who have been kidnapped and suffered horribly at the hands of armed groups opposed to the regime. Al-Akhbar cannot independently verify the following accounts.

Sohaib al-Zoabi, 23, is a dentistry student from Damascus, who was studying at Damascus University. He was arrested by security forces on 15 December 2012, and released more than a year later. He is currently unemployed and residing in Lebanon.

This is his story, edited in terms of length and flow:

I was arrested once, and questioned three times.

The arrest happened on 15 December, 2012. It was around four in the afternoon. I was on my way to see my brother. I was driving and a friend of mine was sitting in the passenger seat. A police vehicle stopped us and asked for our papers. I got out of the car and they immediately took my ID. We were put in a small van. They told us they were on the way to arrest my brother [Zaidoun], who was a political activist, and his group of friends.

I was in the van for about three hours. The security forces went into the hotel where my brother and his friends were meeting. When they brought him out and he saw me, his face looked shocked.

We were taken to the 215 Branch. I remember what my brother said when we were taken out of the van: “You will fall in love with this place.”

The 215 Branch, the worst place in the entire world.

They took us upstairs. We were blindfolded and our hands were tied with a white plastic zip tie. They loosened it for the interrogation. One-by-one they interrogated us. They really didn't know what to ask me since the aim of the arrest was my brother. They asked me things like how many times I demonstrated, which I denied, but they had information that I did go; which was true, I had demonstrated. They also had a file on me from the university.

After that, they took us underground.

Of course, in 215, the problem isn't the torture. I swear, sometimes I hoped they would take me upstairs to get tortured because I would smell some fresh air.

When we entered the building, it was cold. When we went underground, it was like a wall of heat. The branch had like 2,500 detained. The jail cell I was in had 90 people, it's size is four to five meters. Every person had their own small square. This small square is the space of your livelihood. You would fight to protect it from everyone. I fought for it. The amount of people was intense; legs on top of faces. The humidity and heat was too much for the body. Every one was sick and no doubt whoever is there would get ill.

My brother and I were in the same cell.

It was alright for a while, we both helped each other out.

By the thirteenth day, they came and took my brother upstairs for interrogation and he never returned. I thought he had died. After two or three days of being depressed, a prisoner who was upstairs came and told me they had taken my brother to the seventh floor and he was okay.

My own health was deteriorating. At one point I became unconscious because of the lack of oxygen and the heat. I don't remember what happened but others there said I was calling out for my mother. Someone saved me in the end, a prisoner who was able to get me medicine.

I remember I woke up, my head was on his lap, and he told me, “You have a new life written ahead of you.”

The amount of food was decent. Breakfast was about four to five olives and a loaf of bread for each meal. Lunch was something like rice and dinner was lentil soup that we all shared.

In 215, I did not receive any slaps but when I was transferred to another branch it was like I was taken to heaven. In 215, I was struggling with death. I saw more than ten people die in that branch. I saw them die with my own eyes.

One of them had a sore, and with the environment, it grew. He became unconscious, disconnected, and went into a frenzy and died. The temperature was above 40 degrees [Celsius]. Any wound on your feet or anywhere on your body would quickly get infected, puss up, or burst.

It seemed that daily, someone was dying.

In the open space outside of the jail cell was more terrifying. There were about 1,500. I saw them when I went to the bathroom, and one of the guards told me the number. Around me were different people who had been there for months, or almost a year.

I met an eight-year-old boy from Deir Ezzor who had been there for five months.

By the twenty-fourth day, I heard that my brother was released. It was a hard news to bear. They had still not questioned or interrogated me and I was afraid they had forgotten about me.

By the twenty-ninth day, I was called up to be interrogated. I was blindfolded and sat on a chair. The interrogator had a tool in his hands, a cable or something. It was used to scare me. He didn't beat me; instead he gradually moved it around my chest, telling me to confess. He asked the same questions that were asked of me the first time I was brought in, particularly on my activism in university.

The interrogation ended and I was not hit once.

On the thirty-second day, my name was called up. I thought I was going to be released.

I was taken to a car. I asked the driver if we were going to the courts and he responded, “No, we are going to throw you away.”

I realized then that we were heading to the 227 Branch for the military security forces. The 215 was terrifying, and 227 was bearable. In 227, the food was less. From sheer hunger, whenever we heard the knocks on the cell door, we salivated. It was just a loaf of bread a day, and one or two olives.

I got really sick there, marks appeared on my body.

I was taken to the interrogator, and again I was not hit. Same questions asked.

After a week, I was called up for another round of interrogation. This time was different. They wanted me to confess over weapons. This was the first time this was mentioned. I had nothing to do with this; it was my personal red line because I was opposed to the government but against militarization.

That day they nearly killed me. They used something, which we jokingly call, “Lakhdar Brahimi” – it was a green water pipe, very well known.

The rest of the prisoners and me were all in our underwear. You really couldn't hide anything. At that point, the sores on my body were painful and festering. Any touch burned. I called out to the guard to ask for water to wash the open sores. I didn't care anymore. It was a matter of survival and nothing to do with courage. I kept on calling and calling, and finally they came to get me. I really regretted calling them.

Two men came and pulled me out of the cell and threw me to the floor. One stepped on my head, while the other proceeded to beat the infected sores with Lakhdar Brahimi.

After that experience, my heath deteriorated. I thought I was finished. My weight dwindled; I couldn't even stand. I thought my days were numbered. It wasn't true, of course, but this is how you think in such a situation.

They called my name after sixty-five days in 227 and took me to the military police station. It's a place were people go before being transferred to another branch or the courts or elsewhere. There I met a nine-year-old boy. He had been in the 248 Branch for about two months. We were in the same holding cell. From his accent I think he was from Damascus.

It was horrible. There were the usual beatings in the military police station. You walk in, they say hello with a slap or two. I was there for three days.

Finally, I was sent to Adra prison for about three months and my situation improved greatly.

In Adra, you can see the sun. You can watch television. But you are surrounded by drug users, criminals, and others. You couldn't interact with people there. But the food was good.

Once I met up with someone who was transferred from 215 to Adra, who told me a massacre had taken place in the branch. It seemed that the prisoners were in such a dire situation and they rioted. In the end, thirty to forty people died it seemed. He had told me that in my cell that had 90 people had ended up holding 120.

After, I was taken to the courts. What's funny is that the judge never brought up the charge regarding weapons. My charge was basically joining demonstrations and having ties to terrorism.Nevertheless, I was released. I was stunned when I got out. It was weird; when I was transferred from the 227 Branch to the military police station I was happier than how I felt when I was released into society from Adra. It was surprising to feel that.

I decided it was time to leave Syria. There was a constant state of terror that at any moment they'll come and arrest you again. So I left.

I learned rage during my arrest. Personally, I'm not an angry person but the environment there forces you to change. I understand how a person who gets out of these prisons has extreme views.

Without a doubt, the majority of people I had seen and met in the prisons had nothing to do with the revolution. They were picked up at checkpoints or they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And most of the people that are dying are not dying from torture, but the environment they are in. It's terrifying. I don't know the right words to describe it. There are simply a large number of Syrians who are on the brink of death.”

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