|There have been reports of protesters being tortured by electric shock, among other methods, in Syrian secret prisons [GALLO/GETTY]
Arrested during a protest in the first days of the Syrian uprising, a young man endured acts of sadism and torture at the hands of Bashar al-Assad's secret police.
As his body was beaten, whipped, electrocuted and worse; the prisoner could think only of the girl he loves, clenching a note from her in his hand as the torturers did their worst.
Told largely in his own words, this is his remarkable personal story of endurance and hope in a place filled with darkness and despair.
A small piece of paper held tight in a clenched fist. A lifeline to a better place.
Days become nights become days. The kicks, the punches, the questions, the insults, the humiliation and the pain.
"She was always on my mind in the toughest moments during the torture. The only thing that relieved the pain was my belief that, at that moment, she was comfortable in her bed."
The beatings begun on the police bus driving arrested protesters to one of Syria's most notorious secret police branches.
"Your mother is a whore!" screamed one of the policemen, as he slammed the butt of his rifle into the prisoner's face. "We will f*** her and your sister!"
But the young man wasn't listening.
"In the first five minutes I was only thinking of her. I was so afraid for her. But when the bus drove off I saw her trying to phone somebody, so I was so happy that she's wasn't under arrest. I didn't know then that they arrested her a few minutes later.
"We were welcomed at the prison by beatings. Our hands were tied behind our backs and we were blindfolded. We were made to sit on our knees in the prison courtyard for an hour while they beat us continuously and kicked us all over our bodies.
"Then we were ordered to lie down on our stomachs and five or six security men took turns running and jumping on our backs while insulting us. Then they made us sit on our knees again for more than two hours while they whipped us. I could feel the moisture of the blood on my fingers."
He was later led into a room, still blindfolded, for the first of many interrogations.
"There were three interrogators and a fourth person writing down what I said. The interrogators wanted to know why I had gone to the protest, who I had gone with and what the slogans we had chanted. All, of course, under a torrent of insults.
"After that I was sent back to the prison yard and was made to sit on my knees until the evening - when I was again interrogated. I was asked the same questions and gave the same answers. Then I was led back to the courtyard to sit on my knees for another two hours or so."
That first night the prisoners were stripped naked while the prison guards made jokes about their genitals. The prisoners asked for food and water, and were refused.
"I would smile when I was forced to take off my clothes at night and I was shaking from the cold. How could I be cold knowing that she was enjoying the warmth? Since when can the cold find its way into our bodies while the warmth of love is filling our every cell?"
The young man was led to a corridor with prison cells on either side. For the next six days, when the interrogations were over, this is where he would be left, kicked and beaten with sticks by the passing guards so he could not fall asleep, his legs hunched up and cramping, his head forced back upright against the wall so that he could never lie down.
"I would only be allowed to drink water every second day. If I needed to go to the toilet I would be given 30 seconds. If I spent any longer than that they would tie me to a large tire and whip me."
'Humans and Monsters'
On the second day the interrogations grew worse.
"They were asking me the names of the people I had been with at the protest. But I refused to give any names. I said I had gone there alone and had not seen anyone at the demonstration who I knew."
Back in the corridor a man arrived and told the guards to untie the prisoner and take his blindfold off. He was ordered to strip naked again.
"First, the man applied the electric shock device to my chest. He then moved it to my nipples. It felt a bit like an explosion. You can't describe the pain. It was so painful.
"At first I was surprised. I didn't understand what had happened. Then, after two or three times, I somehow grew accustomed to it. My head was banging against the wall, but I didn't feel that until they finished."
After the chest, the man lowered the electric prod, slowly and methodically, applying the current first to the elbows, left and right, then to the wrists, left and right, then to the knees, left and right, then to the ankles, left and right.
"I saw him. He was so angry. He accused me of working with the US and Israel. I later found out that he was the head of the prison. He was shouting. Then I remembered her smile.
"At every moment her words were ringing in my ears and my chest was full of her rebellious spirit. It shaped my will, which can never be broken, as long as we defend the principles of right and justice.
"In the end I said: 'I beg you God, don't let them arrest my friends. I don't want them to be electrocuted like me.' In prison there is no female or male. There are only humans and monsters."
After the beatings on the third day, the young man thought he might die.
"I heard the guards, further down the corridor. They were talking about the demonstrations in Deraa. They were very upset and discussed killing me in front of people in order to terrify them and force them to stop their protests. That night the beatings continued until the morning."
On the fourth day, the young man again overheard the guards, this time talking about how the protests had begun to spread across Syria.
"When I heard the word 'uprising' I thought seriously that maybe this crazy regime will kill us all to stop this."
'An expression of fear'
The words of his two favourite Arab writers, Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish, came back to him.
"Deep down inside I was so happy because the words of the poets were in my mind, that if we die my friends and my family will live in peace and freedom. She will live in freedom and we'll meet in another world. That was a great feeling when I thought about it."
That night his interrogators forced a stick up his rectum, repeatedly.
"During the torture I remembered the words of Kanafani, which always reminded me of her: 'If the prisoner is beaten, it is an arrogant expression of fear.' Every single cowardly strike from the security police was another crack in my wall of fear."
Unable to walk after six days of torture and stress positions, the young man was taken to see the prison doctor.
"He asked me why I couldn't walk and when I told him the reasons he kicked and hit my knees and slapped my face. He asked: 'Does that make you feel better?'"
After the sixth night in the corridor, the young man was carried to a cell no larger than four square metres. There was a single blanket on the floor and two other prisoners inside, one of them a protester he had been arrested with. The other man said he was being held on a drugs charge.
"The next day the interrogators asked me about all the things we three had been speaking about in the cell. Then I realised that the third man had been put there to spy on us."
Days went by and prisoners would come and go, until nine men were forced to share the tiny cell. One of the prisoners was a lawyer.
"He told me all my friends at the protest had been arrested and that she had been arrested as well, but that they had been released after a week. He said the secret police had hit her. I cried for a week.
"I had a small piece of paper with me in the prison. Very small. It was from her. She had drawn something on this paper. All the time I would smell the paper and remember the hand that had drawn it.
The young man learned later that his parents had gone to each of Syria's 17 security branches asking for their son. All denied they were holding him.
Only when the lawyer who had shared the cell with him was released did the traumatised parents finally know of their son's whereabouts, just two days before his own release.
Though tortured for a month in appalling conditions, the young man has no plans to flee his homeland.
He's working hard to earn a living. And though he takes drugs to help with the pain in his back and knees, he says he sleeps well at night.
The girl he loves is safe and those "paper tigers" of Assad's security forces will be unable to withstand the wind of change, he believes.
Then he wants to marry her. If she'll have him. If she only knew how she had saved him. How she had helped him through all that about which he'll never tell her.
Source: Al Jazeera