By Yazan al-Saadi
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.
Ahmad Zaghloul, 29, is from Damascus. He was working as a purchasing officer for a company before the uprising began in Syria. During the first year of the uprising, he quit his job in order to help the opposition movement. He was arrested twice, and put in detention for approximately three months respectively.
The following is his story of his first detention on 17 April, 2012, edited for flow and length:
“In it’s first moments, the revolution was basically demonstrations. There was this campaign called the Peaceful Tsunami, which I and other activists in Damascus were involved in. The idea was to have simultaneous protests in different parts of the city. I was working for the campaign in Damascus and its suburbs, mainly at night because I had a job during the day. I was involved with social activities like helping internal refugees pay their rent, and other things like that.
I was arrested twice. The first on 17 April, 2012, for about three months, at the Air Force Intelligence Branch. The second arrest, also for three months, was on 23 April, 2013 at the Palestine Branch – 235 Division. The first, of course, was the worst.
I was arrested because of my activities. I was involved in medical work. At first I was doing individual social work and gradually joined up with medical committees in Damascus. In the end, I was working with two medical clinics in Kfar Sousseh. We prepared medical supplies, emergency rooms for the injured, and setting up first aid kits. I was just preparing these materials.
For my own security, I only dealt with the doctor and the driver who delivered the medical supplies. I didn’t know anything more, and we all used pseudonyms.
The doctor I was connected to was arrested in the afternoon that day. We were notified immediately. The contingency plan was that when someone like this doctor is detained, the clinic had to be emptied immediately.
Our biggest mistake was that we didn’t put a watcher at the end of the street. Because of the chaos, we just forgot. We were frightened.
After the cars [which came to clear the clinic] left, we were only five people in the make-shift clinic. We just needed two more cars to empty out the remains. As we were doing this, the security forces came, and the young doctor that was arrested was with them.
There was an agreement between all of us; if anyone is arrested, they should try to remain silent for at least 12 hours, and then talk as much as they wanted. But it seemed that the torture was intense for the doctor and he didn’t realize the time. He thought it was around eleven at night, but it was much earlier.
An entire division came for us. They put us, the doctor and the five of us, in a small white van. There were three security forces in the back beating us. Two more in the front.
It was a big division. The area was supposedly under the control of the Free Syrian Army, so the regime forces came in scared and fully armed. I couldn’t see the exact number of them because they blindfolded our eyes and tied up our hands behind our backs and put us in the van.
They took what was left, bags of cotton and other things that were not important, and we were sent to the Air Force Intelligence.
For about six hours they recorded our information. There were a few beatings. Soon after, a senior figure came. We couldn’t see him because we were blind folded, but we heard him tell the others not to get close to us.
“If anyone gets close to them, they will go down with them,” he said.
We went through a security procedure. We had to take off all our clothes, and be completely naked, so they can check for any sharp objects. This all took hours. It was around 1 or 2 am by then. One of the reasons it took a while to take us underground was because there was a line-up for the bathroom and they fed us dinner.
Interrogation began the next day. We were taken, separately, up the elevator to the fifth floor.
We personally didn’t know one of the men who was arrested, and he didn’t know us either. He tried to save himself by making up stories about the doctor and me. For example, he told them we had black garbage bags with five million Syrian pounds to buy goods. It was a lie.
But anyways, in the first interrogation they asked me about the five million pounds. They kept on asking me for two days about this and I had no clue about this lie until much later.
They gathered us one day and beat us all. The first day I was there I was beaten with something we called “Lakhdar Brahimi.” At the Air Force it had another name at the time because [Brahimi] wasn’t working yet. It was a green metal pipe.
I was electrocuted along my upper body, my back, my legs – my friends were electrocuted in sensitive areas, I wasn’t. Being electrocuted is the weakest method, because it’s brief.
After a few days, as they were going through my phone, they found pictures of a demonstration in Zabadani I had gone to. When they saw that, they called me up and hung me on something called “al-Aris”. Aris is a metal platform, weighted at the bottom, and you are hung upside down, arms outstretched.
While you are hung, you have about four people hitting you on the chest, and one hitting your feet. I was like a punching bag. They fractured one of my feet. Eventually it healed.
After two months came “al-Shabh”. There are different forms of Shabh. One friend of mine experienced a form of Shabh that involved a rope tied around each wrist. When the other side of the rope is pulled, your arms are spread out wide to your sides.
I was Shabhed on a window for around half an hour. They handcuffed my wrists to each side of the caged window as I stood on a chair, blindfolded. Then they kicked the chair suddenly and down I went with all my weight.
These are the different styles of torture that happened. It all depended on the guard and his temperament.
The Air Force prison, compared to Mezze Airport Prison, is much better. The cell block was better. I could sleep easier. The food was terrible but plentiful. We had the ability to take a shower once a week, and freely go to the bathroom. We were allowed to shave at least once every two weeks.
At the Air Force Intelligence, I didn’t get sick. In Mezze, I saw people with boils and other skin diseases because it was filthy.
We were transferred from the Air Force Intelligence to Mezze and stayed there for two weeks. As usual, we were interrogated. I barely slept.
The cell block was smaller, the number of people there was larger. There was no place to sleep, sit, or stand. People were practically sleeping on top of each other or in turns. The quality of food was somewhat the same, but the difference is that anyone newly detained wouldn’t eat. And in Mezze, the majority of people were freshly detained so I had a lot of food, so much that I gained weight!
There was nothing to do. You start reminiscing. You re-examine your life. You get consumed by the day-to-day actions like eating. Eating wasn’t about hunger, it was more about doing something while you were there.
Also since we were civil activists, we secretly encouraged discussions between the prisoners. When I was in Adra [Central Prison], for two days, between my transfer from the Air Force to Mezze, I had discussions with the various prisoners there. I wasn’t religious, I don’t pray. This guy came to me and said that he dreamed that I had prayed; it was his way to convert me. I started talking to him about the idea of accepting differences.
We also tried to lessen sectarianism. We pointed out that the guards were not all Alawites. We would say that the guards were from Homs, or Daraa, or Deir Ezzor, or Damascus, or wherever. The guards were mixed, really mixed, from various sects. There was even a guard from Suwayda. Through this way, we were able to lessen sectarianism with those around us.
A third thing we did was try to find out which activists were still alive in the prisons. There was a friend of mine who had been missing for six months, we all thought he was dead, and I met him at one of the prisons I went through. This tactic allowed us, when we were released, to tell friends and family members who was still alive.
Most of the people in detainment had nothing to do with the uprising. From what I saw, activists or members of the Free Syrian Army did not amount to more than 10 percent of those detained. Maybe a good number were at a demonstration when they were detained, or were in an area where demonstrations occurred. These people do not deserve to be in prison for a year – and there were people there for that amount of time.
I remember I even saw a young man whose back was burnt by boiling oil.
There are so many stories. There are a lot of people who had nothing to do with the uprising in such places. I forgot most of their names now cause it’s been so long.
Later, we were transferred to the Justice Palace. At the time there was no anti-terrorism courts, so we went through the civil courts, and were sent to Adra Prison for a couple of days until a judge was ready to see us.
When we faced the judge, our lawyers told us to declare that our confessions were made under torture. The charges that they had against us in court had nothing to do with what we were arrested for. It was based off political charges, such as attempting to create disarray against the regime. We saw the judge individually, and he released us.
I found out that my file was passed to the anti-terrorism courts after I left Syria. It seems that a lot of the cases that went through the civil courts in the past are being reopened by the anti-terrorism courts now. I don’t know if they’ll come after us now or the what the procedures are for such courts.”