This is the fifth 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, three and four.
We are transferred to Homs, AlBalony area, and arrive at a large yard full of cannons. It is my first time seeing such large artillery. They bring us in, barefoot and naked as usual. We get dressed and they divide us among the cells, more than 400 people in each dormitory-like space, the biggest cells I’ve ever experienced in prison.
There are three bathrooms at the back of the cell, which is on the criminals’ floor. So you feel even more imprisoned inside your cell as it is full of supporters of the regime. Thieves, looters and rapists awaiting release and talking loudly about “the few dogs trying topple the regime in a protest spree” and who crashed their “safe” cells. It’s hard to get used, even for a few minutes, to the continuous sound of artillery bombing. They tell us that the bombing is targeting Baba Amr. Time comes to a complete standstill.
The next transfer date arrives exactly one day later. I think over and again how these entry and exit ceremonies are more like worship rituals performed to get closer to the leader. They carry them out as though they are religious acts, and they overdo them as much as possible.
We reach Damascus, the Military Police branch in Qaboun. They spread us over a narrow corridor and start assigning us to the cells right under the stairs. 235, I hear the number and have no idea where that is, but I know its name is 235. We’re transferred to the back of an eight-seater vehicle. I don’t know any of the men with me, except for a young man from Al-Raqqa I’d met in the Military Police branch in Aleppo.
We arrive at Palestine Branch, who have the reputation for being “professional murderers”. We enter, no longer needing to await the commands, as we’ve now memorized them by heart: belongings in bags, stand naked, two security checks, assigned to cells.
Several days pass and surprisingly they are not the worst, but rather almost the best. When you get used to a certain level of torture it becomes your natural limit—anything less seems like bounty. An interrogation, a question about whether I would consider changing any of my confessions, then back to the cell.
The following day we’re transferred to the interrogation in the same way. We make a stop that takes hours in a platoon of the Military Security in the Mezze, to bring along some “company”, as our assigned guard put it. We head to our final destination—a point they emphasized in their conversation and made sure we heard clearly. We enter a large yard of which I manage to get a glimpse before they remove my mask as I reach the top of a low staircase. We descend into a big lounge; we number over a hundred.
Everyone strips down as soon as they arrive, clothes are inspected and we’re assigned to cells. 124/1 is my number. We enter a smaller hall, then into “One-Wood” as one of them called it. There are 86 of us in a small room. Two light bulbs caged in with metal bars hang from the ceiling. Even the lights are imprisoned in this country.
Uday, Bilal and Mudar, three young men from the countryside of Deir al-Zour whom I know well, have reserved for me a place next to them. “You’re lucky, as some were transferred out today, before we had shifts for standing and sitting. Currently we are managing by squatting and sleeping on each others’ shoulders.” Bilal, the one who is almost my age, tries to soothe my shock.
It is Friday; I know that from the orange which is to be shared among every five prisoners, and the teaspoon of jam at lunch. “Here, they give us an olive each and a loaf of bread for every four, and some days, depending on the situation, potatoes or tomatoes. They are spoiling us these days. I know that you don’t eat such food. No problem—jam and bread days are for you and we will figure out our situation.” Mudar gives me an idea of the food situation as he is the eldest among us.
No new developments for several days. We wake up in the morning for the daily roll call. We are permitted access to the bathroom twice a day, for no more than ten seconds, as the bathroom is close, right to the left of the cell. We have a five-liter bottle of water that we fill when we go to the bathroom. It should last us the whole day. We also have several empty cans for emergency urination, for the many elderly who can’t wait for a long time. Most often we have two meals, sometimes reduced to one; but if you gather all the food they give us it wouldn’t make one proper meal for an ordinary human being.
“It’s OK, you needed a diet for a long time now, this is a forced diet. You don’t like your big belly but I like my shape. We’re a perfect match,” says Uday, trying to join with Mudar and Bilal in comforting me.
The instructions start: you have to take off your clothes, turn them inside out as lice live in the inner parts, right where the stitching is. You also need to pull your socks over the bottom of your pants so that lice can’t enter. “My grandmother used to say picking lice is for those who have nothing to do; now we’re doing that. Try not to get disgusted and scratch. Just get used to it as we have.” Mudar carries on as normal and picks lice from his T-shirt.
I go out to my first questioning, with my head covered and hands cuffed behind my back. As I stand in the yard I hear the sound of screams, moans, investigators, whiplashes, electricity. Different sounds, but they all indicate the same thing. The investigator arrives. “I won’t strike you. Just stand still, feet apart and your head to the ground.” I hear only this sentence. Time passes. An hour. . . two hours. I try to pull myself together, although I almost collapse several times. No use. I fall to the ground. The kicks and beating go on for minutes. They make me stand again and this cycle continues until dawn, with no questions asked. They take me back to the cell.
The next day is a repeat of the same, and we go back to our lice-picking routine.
Several days pass. “Number 124/1 to investigation.” After covering my head and handcuffing me, he takes me into a room and unmasks me. The room is completely empty, three meters by two. A blonde guy, slightly shorter than me, 184 cm approximately, enters. “Undress quickly.” He isn’t carrying a stick. I strip down. He brings two chairs. “Sit down. What’s your story with terrorists and weapons, filming and organizing demonstrations? Imagine that I don’t have the portfolio of confessions that came with you, and repeat all that you’ve done over the last few months up to your arrival here.” In his hands is a piece of transparent nylon string, similar to the kind used for fishing lines, but only a few inches in length. He is very focused on this string.
“I don’t think I have anything more to add, if indeed I carried a weapon or took photographs or something like that, I would have confessed already. Believe me, the beatings I’ve suffered would lead a person to confess to anything you accuse them of, things they didn’t even do. But I’m quite confident that I did nothing and hope you believe me.” My voice trembles. Minutes of silence pass.
“You mean you’re not going to please my ears with anything new, apart from your usual lies?” I remain silent, fearing his sharpening tone.
“Stand up,” he saying, in an even stronger, more severe tone. He handcuffs me again, pushes me with all his strength against the wall, lifts my right foot. I’m trying to understand what is happening. He ties the big toe of my right foot to my manhood with his nylon string. It is surely a piece of fishing line, from the feel of it. He leaves me standing on one foot. Any movement or vibration would be enough to wound one’s soul. My soul shreds with pain. He sits on a chair opposite me, making sure I don’t rest against the wall.
I cannot tell how long this goes on, but I do know that this is the greatest humiliation I have experienced so far. I lose consciousness after a while, and wake up in the cell.
There is no paradise beneath the feet of his mother, contrary to the saying of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), the mother who raised such a monster, a murderer, a butcher. Those were moments when I felt so full of hate for everyone and everything. I pretend that I am still asleep so no one can see my tears.
Back then I was not waiting for somebody to grieve for me, or for those who were with me in this farce called homeland. I was not waiting for a smile or encouragement for what I was doing as a sacrifice for the revolution of a country. Back then I was Sarmad—just Sarmad, the 18-year-old whose torture was seen as a basis on which to build a country, and whose death under torture would be perceived as is a path to enter heaven. They plant hatred and spite in us whether we like it or not. They slice open our hearts and implant steel wires that divide the country and that grow into high walls of isolation nurtured by a desire for revenge.
Mudar, who has been charged with bearing arms, tries to comfort me. “This is all an honor to us; they are the ones holding the shame, not us. When you stood, everyone stood like you for two, even three, days. They are trying to insult your manhood today but they can’t, because they themselves lack manhood.”
He says this with a broken heart, he who has also been subjected to various kinds of torture. He had told me that the first time they covered his head with a plastic bag and tied it at the bottom, so that you feel that every breath was the last particle of oxygen left in this life; but one keeps taking those last breaths. There are many cases of fainting, he said, I had no reason to be ashamed. People are thrown back in the cell with an opened back, or bloodied feet caused by reverse hanging. Others are kept for days in a water tank with only a small hole to breathe; they pee in the water and drink from it.
This is a regime whose horrid stories of torture are true, a regime accustomed to barbarism, a regime that knows how to kill and is creative at it, a regime whose hands are covered in all the blood that has been shed in those cellars, forgotten by history.
“Laborers” in the branches and dormitories are the ones chosen to go out and bring bread and food from outside, but here they are a resident group of young people. Their beauty is the sin which they must carry throughout their lives. That young blond guy who of not more than 16 years of age has been raped. The officer who did it wasn’t Alawite, so sectarianism is not the issue here. However, I am sure such a man does not belong to any sect or religion or doctrine, he doesn’t even belong to the human race. I am sorry he was Syrian, from the same country as I.
That young man kept on being raped until we lost our manhood. He had been arrested during one of the arrest sprees in Homs. Bilal told me there are others similar to him, one who is barely 12 and who has been shunned by his family for months. After months of detention his father finally visited and discovered that his son was been subjected to rape, so he disowned him, backed by a long history of societal norms.
All of us have been raped, one way or another, from the time of arrival and while performing the two standard security measures, until the moment we are released. During that time every detainee lives naked, stripped of everything but our morals, which we pack and surrender along with our bags of valuables, praying to God they remain untouched.
At those times I have felt like I was suffocating. Those were eleven or twelve times—I’ve forgotten the number—moving between branches and provinces, and having every time to perform “the rituals of worship of the security branch.” Imagine that all these acts are not rape to them! They try to take our manhood, assisted by the masses that loathe us, but they are all but just a flock of sheep being led blindly along.