PART VI Former Syrian Prisoners: In Their Own Voices

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A fighter of an Islamist Syrian opposition group scans the area controlled by pro-regime forcers on a frontline in Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor on January 22, 2014. (Photo: AFP Ahmad Aboud)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Friday, February 14, 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.

Amr Mohammed Rafik al-Sbe’ie, a 55-year-old actor from Damascus, was kidnapped in the middle of the afternoon at a public market in a Damascus countryside town called Beit Lahm in November 2012. He was held for more than 12 hours.

The following is his story, edited for flow and length:

“My kidnapping happened in late November 2012. I was in an area called Beit Lahm. My in-laws live there, and I had just moved in. I escaped from an area called Harasta, which was being shelled heavily. My family and I left Harasta to stay at my in-laws for about three or four days.

While there, I went to the market to get things for the house. It was around 2:30 pm.

Suddenly, five men with rifles and guns surrounded me. There was a car parked next to us. The trunk opened and it was empty.

“Get into the trunk,” one said.

They looked civilian. Normal. I remember that their leader pointed his gun to my head.

I told him that I was an actor, they must have been mistaken.

He said, “Shut up. Get in the trunk.”

I felt like he was going to shoot me, so I got into the trunk. The car was Korean, Daewoo or something. They asked me for my car keys. I gave them my keys.

They closed the trunk, and sped off. To where we were heading, I didn’t know. It was around a half an hour drive.

I could hear what they were saying. I was vigilant in trying to listen to any turn of phrase so I can find out who they were. I wanted to know how I should talk to them.

When the car stopped I heard someone say, “Abu Bakr.” Immediately, I thought they must have been Islamists.

They got me out of the trunk, and blindfolded me. They never hit me. I was completely obliging. I did not resist. I had accepted the fact of the matter.

They took me up to a first floor apartment and placed me in the living room in the middle of the apartment. I sat on the floor.

The apartment was sophisticated. It felt modern. It had new furniture. It was clean. I had seen it later when they had removed the blindfold after some time.

Two men entered. One called Abu Bakr, the other Abu Duraid.

Abu Bakr, the leader of the battalion, said to me, “Eh, what news do you have for us?”

I replied, “What do you want me to tell you?”

He said, “How are you and the regime?”

I didn't want to throw words recklessly about, so I said, “It's the regime or chaos. What do you want me to say?”

He replied, “Are you joking around with us?”

I said, “I'm not joking. I'm telling you the regime or chaos. What does one choose?”

He snapped back, “So you love Bashar al-Assad?”

I had touched a nerve. I became more certain that these men were Islamists.

I said, “Damn Bashar al-Assad, and his father, and his father’s father.”

I continued to curse out this regime and praised the Free Syrian Army, hoping they achieved victory.

Abu Bakr said, “Yeah, yeah. You say this when you are trapped.”

I said, “I'm saying the truth. Ask about me. Ask if I have links with the regime or not. Show me any evidence. Show me.”

They had taken my mobile. Abu Bakr went to the next room, searching through it. He had a laptop and was using it to send messages to other brigades asking about me.

I said again, “I live in Harasta. Ask all the guys in Harasta and you'll see if I have any links with the regime or if I work with them.”

As an actor I had nothing to do with anything. I always made sure I wasn’t close with anyone, whether the FSA or the regime. I was independent.

From time to time, Abu Bakr would come to the room and threaten me, “We will grind you.”

Both men were Syrian. Abu Bakr was a muscular young man. He looked like he was in his early thirties. Handsome, not ugly. Abu Duraid was short, thin. Nothing much to look at. He used to be an official for the regime.

I knew this later because they told me eventually once they knew that I was not pro-regime.

Anyways, before all that, I was still sitting in the salon, blindfolded. Abu Bakr came back from the next room, and said to Abu Duraid, “Come on, we have to do the afternoon prayer.”

I did not pray at that time, but when I heard him, I saw an opportunity.

I yelled, “I want to pray the afternoon prayer! I want to perform wudu!”

He agreed and removed the blindfold.

I went to the bathroom. Abu Duraid stood next to me, watching to see if I knew how to perform wudu.

And then we all prayed together, Abu Bakr in front as the imam.

Once we were done, Abu Bakr asked, “Why haven't you defected yet if you were against the regime.”

I told him how could I defect when I had a family. I've heard stories of people's families where it seems they are treated badly once someone defects.

“Give me a guarantee of security, then I'll consider defecting,” I said.

He said that he could guarantee security for myself and my family. That I would spend some time here and then fly off elsewhere.

I said, “I have work tomorrow. I'm bound with responsibilities.”

He said, “Forget it. What do you want?”

I asked for cigarettes, they got me cigarettes. They brought dinner and we ate together. It was home-cooked chopped-up zucchini. It seemed that there was an apartment, either a relative of theirs, living underneath or below us.

I sat there thinking of what to do. I couldn't do anything.

Soon the call for evening prayer rang out. We got up and prayed together. Abu Bakr was really knowledgeable. He recited long Koranic verses eloquently.

When we sat back down, they started talking to me about themselves. Abu Duraid told me that Abu Bakr was from an Alawi village and had defected and converted to the Sunni sect. And because he converted, his family faced a violent backlash.

Then Abu Duraid said that they were part of al-Nusra Front.

Abu Bakr interrupted, “No, not al-Nusra Front. We are the Qaeda of al-Qaeda.”

He said that he wanted a caliph for all the Arab lands. This was their narrow ideology.

When I heard this I felt Syria was heading to the abyss, that we were all heading to destruction. But in this type of situation, you are either with them or against them. There was no other way.

So I said, “God bless you. God grant you victory.”

I said these things because when I got into the trunk, I surrendered my soul. I thought this was the end for me. I had heard of those who had gotten into the trunks of cars, and the next day would be found in the trash in some alley. Others paid 10, 15, 20 million Syrian pounds. Anything is possible in that trunk.

I tried to appease them. I supported whatever they said in conversations. The whole time I was with just Abu Bakr and Abu Duraid.

It was midnight and Abu Duraid stood up and said he was going to do errands.

During all this, my in-laws were waiting for me to come to dinner. I had told them I was coming for dinner at seven, and I was still not home. My wife sent my son out to a friend of mine, Mohammed, who I visited by the market.

At midnight they realized I was missing. Mohammed went to young men he knew who were part of the FSA in the area to ask if they had seen me.

Some had told Mohammed that they had in fact seen an actor at the market, and saw that he was kidnapped.

“Idiots! How could you have let this happen? You are the FSA, and this is your area and you just stood there?,” Mohammed yelled at them, my son told me later.

When I was kidnapped, no one had lifted a finger to help me in that market. No one. In broad daylight too.

Mohammed threatened that he would contact another brigade to force them to release me.

That was how the FSA of Beit Lahm all went around looking for my car, searching for hours until they found it and started watching my car.

As Abu Duraid went out of the apartment and went to my car to use for his errands, the FSA came up to him and told him that if I was not released and in my car within an hour, they would attack.

Abu Duraid returned to the apartment. He looked terrified, and he and Abu Bakr started whispering with each other in the next room. It was around two at night.

They returned to the living room, and came to me.

Abu Bakr said, “The FSA want you, and we do not want to fight them. We have too many people to fight. We will release you. We are not releasing you because we are afraid. We are releasing you because you didn't do anything.”

I thanked them. They returned my mobile and my car keys. They drove me to about 200 meters from my car and parked. They pointed to my car and said that the FSA was waiting. They gave my a lighter to light my way. The area had no electricity, it was completely dark.

I walked to my car. As I got near, a few men appeared and questioned me. I told them I had been kidnapped and just released. More men with guns came and they started congratulating me. They apologized for allowing my kidnapping. They kissed me on the cheeks and took me home.

I left Syria four months later, at the end of March 2013, to Cairo.

I do not enjoy anything any more. I want to return to my country.”

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