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Sleeping or Dead – Part 3: Thought is the Crime

PHOTO: Public Domain from Pixabay.

PHOTO: Public Domain from PIxabay.

This is the third installment in “Sleeping or Dead”, a six-part series by activist Sarmad Al Jilane about his experiences in a Syrian prison. Read parts one and two.

You memorize your executioner’s face from the sound of his footsteps. We’re falling all the way from the seventh sky, at least so it feels, when he unlocks the chain suddenly, then the handcuffs. He pulls us up and drags us to the door kicking and screaming.

Screams and moans fill the corridor. Your senses merge together in your ears, and deep down everybody trembles in fear. Only death roams freely, in tranquility, not afraid of the executioner or the victim, caring neither about the hanging, nor the cable, nor the tire, unconcerned about the interrogators or the “traitors”, not even about Mohammed, who chokes the remaining life out of us.

We return to our cell. Two steps, and we collapse on the floor. The others wipe the blood off our hands and feet. Each one of them has saved us a little piece of bread; they feed us and we fall asleep till death, or beyond.

For three days that was our routine, repeated in every detail. Day four, the roll call begins, the roll call ends, and our names aren’t called. Being in prison is harder than you imagine. Heavy are the days and heavy are the nights. Heavy is the darkness. Even if they don’t torture you, the mere act of waiting does. Have they forgotten us? Are we going to stay in here forever? Why haven’t they called us today? Have they found the mobile phone, the laptop? The never-ending stream of questions you ask yourself.

The day passes. All days are the same: the stench of rot and blood, the moaning around you. You memorize every crack in the other prisoners’ skin and in the identical walls. The repulsive familiarity of everything.

Same routine on day five, until the afternoon. The guard opens the door, calling: “Sarmad, out!” I step out, bracing for my head to be covered and my wrists handcuffed. I cross the corridor into a room. I imagine it being similar to the first one. “Down on your knees!” I kneel with my head down. The squeak of a pen writing slowly on paper accompanies the oration; there are now two persons. “Sarmad, Oh Sarmad. Honestly you look well-off, you even look older than your age, and being the son of a doctor, I assume you must have been well brought up too. Why carry a weapon, then?”

He starts with a charge of weapon possession, expecting me to confess at least to participating in protests. “I didn’t carry a weapon and I’m not willing to.” One stroke of the whip from behind and I fall to the ground, and someone—a third person, apparently—sits on top of me. His knees press down right under my shoulders. “Answer the interrogator with respect so that we keep respecting you!” he says, trying hard to disguise his original accent.

The Interrogator continues: “Look, Sarmad, you can tell us everything calmly. We’ll even get you a cup of tea. I’m going to believe you: you didn’t carry a weapon, but don’t tell me you didn’t go out to protests and filmed, or you’ll make us mad.” The person sitting on my back gets up. “Yes, I protested, and I still do.” Blows rain down on me from my back down to my feet for several minutes, before he decides to stop.

“Well, Sarmad, let’s listen to this together.” He plays a video of me participating in a protest. “Are you listening, Sarmad? We don’t treat anybody unjustly here. That’s your voice, and this video is taken from Al-Jazeera”. The thought springs to mind: “The same Al-Jazeera you claim fabricates things? This must be fabricated then.”

That statement marks then end of the oral interrogation, and he starts talking to me in the only language he understands. He starts beating me, continuously, with occasional short breaks. After what I estimate to be about an hour, he finally stops. Reeling, I go back to the cell.

It takes a kick to wake me. It feels like I’ve been asleep in a state of torpor since the first interrogation. Head covered, hands cuffed, and we travel the same morning route, in the same direction. Same voices echoing again. I kneel. I have a paranasal sinus problem that causes me to breathe noisily. “If you cannot swallow your noise then you better stop breathing, else I’ll stop it for you!” I guess he is busy doing something. I breathe in very slowly and out as quietly as possible. I’m shaking: out of fear or cold? No difference, it still sets my teeth chattering. “OK, Sarmad, why don’t you just confess and let us get it over with so I can finish this and go home and give you a release so you can also go home? Who else was filming with you? How did you send the material to the TV channels? Anything else we don’t know? Though we know everything already, I’d still love to hear it from you.”

There’s no room for thinking here: the faster you answer, the less they doubt it. “I didn’t film anything. I could’ve simply denied everything and said I didn’t do anything, but I told you I did go out on protests because I believe they are for the good of this country.” He gives the order for them to uncover my eyes. “See? I’m better than you, I’ve uncovered your eyes so you can see me. Take my advice, Sarmad, you’re still young and the future is ahead of you. We can either shut all the doors in your face or open a thousand doors for you; you’re free to choose. Have a seat, here’s a laptop: log in to your Facebook account or this Yahoo thing or whatever you use to send your videos, and tell me to whom you send them, and let us both get it over with.”

The lines of all prisoners’ testimonies intersect in your mind at a moment like this. The value of your life is inextricably linked with the value of the lives of those around you. You start prioritizing: who should be kept safe no matter what? And who could be sacrificed if you absolutely had to? My mother always used to talk about “calamities you don’t wish even upon your enemies.” This is one of them. I don’t wish anybody to  go through what’s happening to me.

“My email is for nothing but casual communication. Here you are, I’m logging in.” After receiving a series of smacks on the back of the neck for entering wrong passwords—despite having prepared this fake account beforehand for situations like this—I manage to log in on the third attempt. Dating websites, chat rooms and dozens of online forums. He is not convinced. “Who the hell do you think I am? A lousy criminal investigator? You don’t really understand what Military Security Branch Investigator means, do you? No problem.”

He covers my eyes, puts on the handcuffs, takes his things from the table and leaves. Minutes pass, with no one to count my breaths, no jailor, no whip to lacerate the life out of me. The door opens. “Down on your knees!” The voice changes. He squeezes a tire over my body and starts whipping me. Starting at the feet and working his way up. Screams burst out of me uncontrollably. He goes on, with short breaks during which he douses me with pailfuls of very cold water. He carries this on for hours, during which time he prepares himself a drink that I could hear him sip; I can also smell cigarettes. Unfortunately the room is non-smoking, so he has to stub them out on me.

I am exhausted, so he decides to let me go, on condition that I can stand up without help. I manage to, after several attempts. Dragging myself, he leads me back to the cell. I walk in and faint.

This is merely one anecdote from a hare-brained system that perceives thought as a crime, and thinkers as criminals who deserve to be thrown in prison. A system that wants us to quit hallucinating about freedom, a freedom this dictatorship hates, as it exposes the truth.

“Sarmad… Sarmad, you cannot just keep sleeping, you need to wake up and wash yourself.” It’s Abdel Rahman. Apparently I have slept into the following evening—except for a brief moment during the usual roll call. “Easy now, man, they will either transfer or release you like all the guys here,” he says, smiling.

Abdel Rahman is a young man from the city of Tabka. He is one of the few intellectuals here, he speaks to everyone with a smile that never fades. He used to work at the cultural centre of Raqqa, which gave him the chance to read many books. They broke into his house and found some prohibited books and photos of him at protests. That was enough to get him detained.

Some newcomers arrive the next day. Everybody talks about Taher, who has been transferred to the solitary cell near ours. “They couldn’t arrest him without shooting him in the leg. He made it even harder for them by cutting his carotid artery with a blade,” says one of the newcomers, impressed by Taher’s strength. He continues: “He’s tall and big, he was a good match for them.”

Hours pass before they call Taher out for interrogation. We rush quietly to the tiny hole in the door to catch a glimpse of him: a tall, broad-shouldered young man with leg braces to keep the bones shattered by the bullet in place, and stitches on his neck. Guards were afraid of him!

They bring him out into the corridor. We’re all silent, waiting to hear anything that could be heard. Nothing! Waiting to see what’s going to happen with Taher breaks the routine. They seem to have taken him to the far interrogation room. Time passes without anybody saying a word. Everybody returns to what they were doing, which is nothing, but what else to do when there is nothing to be done but sit and wait.

The corridor door lumbers open. Sound of the guard’s footsteps gets closer. The cell door opens, for Taher to be thrown onto the floor among us. The door is shut. We wait for the guard to walk away, then start cleaning Taher’s wounds from head to toe. If we were dogs in those faraway lands we would be sitting by the fire now, eating and getting pampered, even being protected. But here, as a human, you wait your turn; you either clean their wounds or they clean yours.

In less than an hour Taher wakes up, and in a few minutes he manages to stand, barely. He puts his hand on the door slot! It is more like the window of a grave. None of us has dared to get this close to it before as it is for the sole use of the guard and his friends.

“Hey, Mr. Interrogator! I used to be a wayward young man who fooled a bunch of girls. Could your sister be one of them? Is that why you are so mad at me? Could I have beaten the hell out of you once and you’ve held a grudge against me since? If you had told me we could’ve just resolved this amicably outside. You didn’t have to go through this trouble.”

Taher screams and laughs. I could hear the heartbeats of the guys around me and was almost sure they could hear mine too. “We only live once, and only have one God. From the beginning we knew we might die. At least let’s die scaring them. Do you think all those killers around us kill only because we fear them? No—they are more afraid of us than we are of them.”

He speaks to us loudly so the guards can hear. Three guards wrest the door open and barge into the cell. They hit Taher savagely, then drag him out.

That was the last time I saw Taher in the Military Security Branch of Deir Al-Zour.

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