PART V Former Syrian Prisoners: In Their Own Voices

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Syrians gather with their belongings on the rebel controlled side of the Bustan al-Qasr checkpoint in Syria's northern city of Aleppo on February 5, 2014, awaiting to cross to the government controlled side. (Photo: AFP- Medo Halab)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Thursday, February 13, 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.

Yara Saleh, 27, is from Tartous. She is a reporter for ‘al-Ikhbariyah’, the Syrian News Channel. She was kidnapped on 10 August 2012 not far from Damascus by radical armed groups opposed to the Syrian regime. She was held for six days before she was able to escape.

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

On 10 August, 2012, we, the team from the Syrian News Channel – a driver [Hussam Imad], a cameraman [Abdullah Tabreh] and his assistant [Hatem Abu Yehya], and me – headed to al-Tell, a suburb about ten kilometers from the Syrian capital. We headed there to do a report on the clashes in the area and its affect on the civilians living under threat of the armed terrorist groups.

When we entered Tell, we were stopped by a group of armed men and they kidnapped us for about six days. They took us even though they knew we were unarmed; we obviously had a camera, a microphone, and other objects used in such work. They kidnapped us after they found out we were journalists for the Syrian News Channel.

Fifteen men appeared and surrounded our vehicle. Brandishing their guns, they forced us out onto the street. They attacked my male colleagues and started violently beating them. The fighters tied up the men's hands behind their backs. They slapped me sharply. It was very painful. I'm small in stature, so when they hit me it hurt a lot. They took all our phones and money.

Then they forced us back into a car. My three colleagues were thrown on the floor of the car and in between the seats. They made me sit in the back and demanded that I put my head between my legs. One of the fighters sitting next to me was forcefully holding my head down. I couldn't see where they were taking us.

They took us deeper into al-Tell. Once inside, we saw that there were hundreds of armed men in the area. One notable thing was that a sheikh that was leading them seemed unaware of local Syrian traditions. He had a long beard, no mustache, and wore a short galibeyeh (traditional Arab garment for men).

The rest had long beards, some shortened their mustaches. They looked like fighters. Some were dressed in military fatigues, and others weren't. They had a range of guns and grenades.

The sheikh told us that we were all to be executed because we were working with the Syrian government, as well as because of our confessional background. In fact, one of the first questions they asked was about our religious backgrounds, and we were mixed.

Because of the sheikh's decree, they shot Hatem, the cameraman's assistant. He was taken out of the room somewhere I don't know. They had taken him with the driver, Hussam. They had taken them somewhere close by. I heard the shots. I thought they had killed them both and that I was next.

Soon, they returned with Hussam. I had tried to ask Hussam about what happened to Hatem, but the fighters told me to be silent. I kept on asking what happened to Hatem and Hussam shook his head, his eyes were tearing up. I knew right away that Hatem was dead. Later on, Hussam told me he saw the execution, that Hatem was riddled with bullets.

This was in the second hour of our kidnapping.

It was disgusting the whole situation.

The fighters told us that they were in contact with someone in Turkey, and that the plan was to move us there. They were planning to negotiate our freedom with the Syrian Arab army and if the Syrian army did not accept the terms, we were to be killed. I had asked one of the fighters what would happen if the Syrian army had accepted the negotiated terms, were we going to be released?

He replied, “No. We'll keep you to demand more.”

This really bothered me. I hoped that we would die in a clash rather than be exploited or be a point of pressure on the state.

Throughout the six days, we were transferred to about three different places in Al-Tell. We experienced terrible physical and psychological torture. The men were constantly beaten, and because I was an unveiled woman, they forced me to wear a hijab and abaya. They called us “kaffer” (infidels). The forced the cameraman, because he was Christian, to pray as Muslims do.

The terms they used were horrible.

Sometimes they brought us food and sometimes they didn't. The food was moldy bread, bad yogurt, and other things.

Every room they put us in, the guard was armed, his hand on the grenade pin. We were not allowed to talk to each other. We were not allowed to go outside. We were not allowed to see light.

Every place they moved us to had no opening to the outside world and barely any light came through. Most of the time it was a basement apartment, underground, filled with rats. Sometimes we were moved twice or three times a day.

Around the third day, they woke us up with the butts of their guns. The fighters forced us to film a video about how they were protecting and defending us, and that Hatem was killed by a shell from the Syrian Arab army. Of course this was not true. They told us they killed him, and suddenly they wanted us to lie on the video. The video was spread all throughout YouTube.

They had completely ignored our freedom of expression, as journalists, our freedom of religion, and our freedom of life.

One of the worst things for me was that they threatened to use sexual violence against me. This was frightening. Thankfully, the situation did not allow them to do such a thing because there were constant clashes that didn't give them the ability to pursue this. If we weren't freed, I really think it would have been horrible.

During our time, we saw one more kidnapped person. He was refugee from the Syrian Golan Heights who had moved into the center of Damascus. He was kidnapped before we were and he was badly treated. We – the kidnapped – were from all parts of the country, of every sect, and we were supportive of the state. The kidnappers did not like this, and stressed that this man was not following “true Islam” because he was a supporter of the state and the army.

One of the ways they toyed with us was by telling us that a bombing had happened in Damascus, that 200 people were killed, or that they blew up Victoria Bridge which is in the heart of the city, or they had kidnapped our friends. It was different types of ways to toying with our emotions.

The beatings were very intense, especially in the first two days of our kidnapping. It only lessened when the negotiations happened because, according to the armed men, they didn't want to leave marks on the bodies.

Most of these acts would only happen with the sheikh was not around. When he was around, it seems like they were frightened of him.

A good number of these armed men were not Syrian. They were Saudis and one was Libyan. The Syrians were from different areas. We couldn't find out more because they didn't allow us to ask, to talk, to do anything. I would get hit if I wanted to go to the bathroom. But we could tell from the accents and style of speaking where they were from.

On the later dates of our kidnapping, the Syrian Arab army entered and surrounded al-Tell and the fighters were trying to escape with us.

I remember we were taken outside. One fighter held my arm in one hand and his rifle in the other. He told me that since I was a female journalist, the Syrian army would no doubt accept a deal for my freedom and life. He said that in order to do this, he was going to use me as a human shield as he faced the Syrian army.

When fighting broke out between the fighters and the Syrian army, I was able to escape from his grasp and ran as far as I can. I hid behind a sandy barrier so I wouldn't be hit from the flying bullets. I hid there until soldiers from the Syrian army called out for us. I slowly walked to them.

At the time, I did not know what had happened to Abdullah and Hussam, my other two surviving colleagues.

What I know later is that Abdullah was closer to the Syrian army position and was able to escape to them.

Hussam was still with the fighters, they had taken him into a hospital within al-Tell. It was a skeleton of a building, no windows, no electricity, decaying. They took him to the third floor and planned to kill him.

He was able to escape when his executioner had gone to bring him water, because apparently the fighters believed that a person should get a drink of water before being executed. While the executioner was getting the water Hussam jumped from the third floor and landed on burnt bodies on the ground below.

He ran to a nearby building – I'm not sure how far it was – and hid until the sun came up. Eventually, he left the building and met up with the Syrian Arab army.

When I saw the Syrian army, my whole body shook. A senior soldier came to me and said, “Welcome back.”

I asked him if they were the Syrian Arab army, and he said yes. I took a deep breath and then I looked up and saw the Syrian flag. I fainted.

The officer kindly helped me back up. I was crying. I asked him about my colleagues, and he said that Abdullah was fine. I saw Abdullah was alive and ran to see him. Hussam was still not found, and we told them that Hatem was killed by the kidnappers.

The army got us food and blankets and made sure we were fine. We were able to contact our families and co-workers.

I've been working for the Syrian News Channel for more than two years now. When I was kidnapped, I had been working for the news channel for about nine months. I was always unsure if these armed groups did these terrible things. After I was kidnapped, I'm convinced that these armed groups are treating other civilians terribly – even worse than what they did to us.

I was lucky.

I'm completely convinced today, more than any other day, that they people are outside civilization, outside the law. Yet, they should return to the right path, and if they did, all of us will accept them back.

We are not like them. We are not like them. I'll say it a third time: “We are not like them.”


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