This is the fourth installment in “Sleeping or Dead”, a six-part series by activist Sarmad Al Jilane about his experiences in a Syrian prison. Read parts one, two and three.
Despite everything we’ve been through this past week: the beatings, the torture, the denailing, the electrical currents that run more powerfully through our bodies than through the prison wiring, there are still people amongst us who have the power to revolt against their tormentor.
On the eighth day they take us out, Abdul Rahman, myself and many other prisoners. At the cell door the interrogator places some papers against the wall and hands us a pen: “Sign quickly.” I try to read the little I can make out of the handwritten text. It looks like an interrogation report. He interrupts my reading with a few slaps and blows with a metal bar he’s holding. “Sign without reading, you donkey,.I told you to sign, not read.” He carries on with the insults. I sign. We all finish and go back into the cell and wait.
We’re not from Afghanistan, and we’re not terrorists. None of us knows how to plant an improvised explosive device, and none of us have declared a scared Jihad; for us this is a revolution for freedom. We have not accused anyone of apostasy, nor is our goal to cleanse the world. We are not murderers; we have hurt no one . Our only collective sin is that we thought out loud, and announced our demands loud and clear.
Days pass; we depend on our own improvised calendar. One vertical line for each day that passes. The fifth is a horizontal line that crosses all four. We put a small circle to mark the day one of us gets released. But it’s not the best calendar, as I found out later, for people like me who have been transferred from one prison to the other and left behind our lines and blood decorating the walls.
The guard comes and takes Abdul Rahman, after ordering him to pack his belongings. Abdul Rahman is taking with him verbal messages for our loved ones, along with as many phone numbers as he’s been able to memorize, to convey to our families a few words of hope. They leave and I remain, alone now along with 37 other lonely souls.
Many days later the promised day arrives: the guard comes in for the roll call but my name doesn’t come up. “Sarmad, pack your things and come with me.” He neither covers my head nor hand-cuffs me. In my happiness I almost forget the numbers I’ve been asked by my cell-mates to memorize. We go out into the yard. The same welcome rituals, surely for the farewell this time. They put our valuables into bags and tether us to a long chain. I feel my heart beating in the soles of my feet. “Damascus chain is now ready, drag them to the door. They’ll be transferred there after spending two days in the Military Police branch,” a guard says, full of pride. He adjusts his red beret and we all board the bus.
We exit the prison gates. I see my grandparents’ house, I pass right in front of it! Some cities embody the drama that is your life story, they write your fate even before history begins, turning the peaceful home of your childhood and adolescence into the bloody address of your sacrifice. The revolution weighs heavily upon me as I travel in the bus and see my family home right before my eyes, only meters away but a world of tyranny apart. Me and my home before me, separated by an entire regime, as though a teenager who has just come of age that year were the cause of all that has happened to our country. It was then that I cried for the first time.
We enter the Military Police branch in Deir Ezzor. We leave the bus and alight in a small garden in the yard. Eight guards sit there, each holding a whip. Tires of all sizes are strewn about everywhere. One guard takes our papers and our valuables and the rest handle the intake. They un-chain us. Each guard selects one of us, picks a matching tire, and “tire” us, as they call what they inflict on us with the tires.
Mine squeezes me in a tire, throws me to the ground and starts hitting me. He keeps going until he sees blood, provided it does not take fewer than 15 strokes. They take us into the prison which comprises three massive units connected by a big central hall. A big bathroom too. The buzz of the inmates’ voices gets louder. In a few hours it will be lunch time, any requests? We are surprised to learn that here you can pay the guard to get you whatever you want, but the money is the bags they confiscated, so what’s the point? Lunch is served, and we finally break our diet of bulgur, potato and chicken bones along with the rest of the inmates.
Visitations begin. One of the inmates knows my uncle; he receives from his wife and asks her to call my parents. She does so, and within an hour a guard arrives carrying 1,500 Syrian pounds and a new pair of pyjamas that’s too big for me, or maybe my size, pre-prison. No problem, what matters to me most is being able to relieve some of the tension and anxiety, and, most importantly, relieve the burden of caring for the blue jacket by packing it safely folded between my sweatshirt, now that have the new pyjamas to wear.
“These things are for you. You’re banned from receiving visitors, someone brought it for you.” Later on, after my release, I found out that Aghyad was the one who brought the things. The guard didn’t allow him in, and charged 1,000 Syrian Pounds to bring me the stuff. They record the ID of every visitor. If Aghyad has been allowed in we would have never come out alive. He’s a wanted man, and the interrogator focused on him a lot during the interrogation.
We go back inside. I’m wearing my new clothes. I sit and wait for the transfer. Two days pass, and on the third we get transferred to Raqqa—the Military Security branch there. The same rituals—they’ve all been fed the same depravity by the Baath party. Two more days and we move to Aleppo, the Military Police branch in AlJmaylie. That was the last time I visited Aleppo. I sneak a peek from the bus window as they cram my head between my legs. It was a moment of triumph, the triumph of sneaking a peek at the streets, the people, after having spent so many days longing for a glimpse of these things. AlYamani Coffee was the shop that caught my eye. That name is engraved in my memory, four years later.
We arrive at the Military Police branch. They cover our heads and untether the chain. We enter the building. A big room with 40 of us inside. “Everyone against the wall, strip down and perform two safety measures, fast!” says a spiteful guard as he lifts the covers off our heads. He’s scrawny, no more than 170 cm tall, holding a black stick almost as long as his leg. We are totally naked, standing still while he inspects. It’s the first time we are sodomized. He starts running the stick against our genitals and buttocks, tapping us provocatively. He sodomizes all of us, as though avenging an old demon. For them our triumphant chants for freedom have been a sort of rape, and now is their chance for revenge.
He orders us to get dressed again. They return our money but keep the bags of valuables. We’re distributed among the cells. We enter the cells to find tea and cigarettes, all the taboo items! After having believed for so long in that dream from which only a sip of tea and a draught of AlHambra smoke could awake you and bring you back to life. We order a five-litre pot of tea even though we’re only seven. We order cigarettes and a lot of food. You order food, and daily trivial things that are your basic rights, then you thank them for bringing you the stuff that you yourself have bought with your own money, while they imprison and torture you. I was wearing sneakers, so I took advantage of the others’ busyness and lifted the sole of one shoe and carefully slid one AlHambra cigarette under there— more about this later.
The two days pass quickly. They take us out to be transferred again. The same big room. Taher is here! They tether us all to a chain. The sound of a quarrel between Taher and one of the guards gets louder. “I told you, I have always been the head of my clan, and neither you nor anyone can change this. You will untie me and move me to the head of the line!” Taher screams with total disregard for anyone or anything. After a lengthy argument the guard unties Taher, moves him to the front of the line and re-ties him.
The Colonel behind the table starts stamping the transfer papers. Taher walks ahead slowly—all eyes are on him—and he pulls a bag of bread loaves from the cabinet next to the Colonel and starts distributing the bread to the inmates. The Colonel shouts at him. “Sir, I cannot wake up unless I eat something, and you know I can’t eat by myself while the others watch, so I thought to myself I better distribute some bread to the poor guys.” No matter how hard he tries to keep a straight face, there is always a smile on Taher’s face when he talks. A guard starts beating him until he falls to the ground.
He waits for the guard to leave and stands up with difficulty, then sits on the metal chair next to the table. The Colonel looks up, trying to contain his anger. A guard approaches quickly to strike Taher. “Sir, aren’t we all the sons of Mr. President, our leader? Do you accept it in your heart that your fellow brother of the same country and of the same father leader doesn’t get the chance to sit on the chair a rest a bit?” The Colonel couldn’t hold back the laugh that forced its way out as he hears Taher’s words. He finishes the stamping.
They take us out to the yard. We were expecting to find a bus, but instead waiting for is a big van of the kind used for transporting vegetables. We climb into the refrigerated cargo area, 93 of us, crammed into the back of the van like sardines. My friend shows me how to loosen the handcuffs, because the road is long. No one speaks. Silence and fear of what’s to come.