When you spend time in Syria among people who were not dealt with kindly by the regime, who are no longer afraid to speak openly, the unpopularity of the President Bashar al-Assad's government becomes easy to understand.
Al-Bab, a town of more than 100,000 in Aleppo Province, managed to evict all of Assad's security forces in the space of two months.
What we came to understand was that the regime's attempts to suppress the uprising only succeeded in energising what the people of this northern region call a revolution.
"Six months ago, there was too much mukhabarat here," explained Hozaifa, a local activist, refering to the secret police. "In every family, there was one informer. Even though al-Bab was the third city to rise up [after Deraa and Baniyas] they took so many of our people to prison, it made them very afraid. Five months ago, there was nothing but protests and prisoners."
The business of putting people into prison was multi-faceted. There were at least five different intelligence services operating in al-Bab: military security, political security, air force security, criminal security, and state security.
According to locals, intelligence services had various specialisations that inspired fear in different ways. While the sir force security was the most feared overall, reportedly because it was the most likely to resort to torture, the military security was notorious for grabbing people at demonstrations, after which anything could happen.
Political security kept reams of files on everyone, with paid informers everywhere contributing to the stasi-styled system of total surveillance. In al-Bab, they had developed a policy of confiscating motorcycles used by activists to get around the city; we were shown a room in their now burnt headquarters where motorcycles were piled almost to the roof.
The headquarters of political security was also where the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - which now guards the base proudly - showed us the “thrashing device”, a sort of metal strip flail used to stripe the backs of prisoners. Political security had so many files on the people of al-Bab, the cupboards were filled to the brim.
Bargaining for freedom
The transactions worked in the following way: Once you had been seized by one of the intelligence services, in the absence of any real legal system, the bargaining started. It was bad enough being detained in one of the local prisons, but being sent to Aleppo was worse and being sent to Damascus was the absolute worst. Geography set the price scale.
Families - if they had the means - could bribe local security officials to keep their detained relatives nearby. Khaled Mohammed al-Sabagh - now a local FSA commander - was detained after a protest and his family paid bribes to Military Security so he was “only” sent to a jail in Aleppo.
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In Aleppo, where he was held for one month and five days, he was viciously tortured.
He's a solid, imposing man who doesn't like talking about it. He and other prisoners were transported around the various security headquarters in shipping containers so no one could see the scale of the detentions going on and the numbers of people the regime was locking up.
He says each security service in Aleppo tortured him differently. He was strapped to a board and his spine stretched almost to breaking point. He met others who were suspended by their hands for days. Almost everyone at some point was crammed into a tiny concrete cell with about 100 other prisoners - all standing up, unable to sit down or reach the toilet in one corner, left there in the stifling heat for days.
Finally his family sold his house to pay for his freedom. The equivalent of $50,000 USD went to his captors and he came back a free man, but his family was now homeless.
His story is not unique, residents say. Many people in al-Bab - and apparently across Syria - were arrested just to extort money from the detainee’s families. And this was not unique to the uprising - it had been going on for a long time, former prisoneers and regime critics say.
Hozaifa, another local resident, told me that a simple piece of paper to avoid an arrest carried out only on grounds of "suspicion" could cost a family $1,000 or more. Afterwards, the security service officials might pretend not to have received the paperwork and a family would have to pay the same money again. Or they would manufacture reports that you had been "overheard insulting President Bashar", with another $1000 bribe getting you out of trouble you had never made.
Sheer corruption and sadism
Locals told us that the sheer scale of the security services' corruption and sadism in the end proved their undoing.
"Some people were tortured too much,” explained Hozaifa. "If they came home, they sold everything they had to fight the regime."
As violence by the intelligence services against the regular Friday demonstrations escalated, and the death toll from the security officers firing into the crowds rose, funerals became the focal point for protests and anger. But the intelligence services - especially military security - shot at the people there as well, activists say.
Those who had suffered so much in jail felt they had little left to lose, Hozaifa told me.
"Some of them are now leaders in the FSA. They lost their fear. They went to the mukhabarat directly, to people working for the intelligence services, and told them, ‘either you stop spying on us, or you will be killed’".
"And then people started to buy arms. They sold everything to buy arms."
In late May, the police in al-Bab walked off the job, unable anymore to work for fear they too would be killed. And on July 19, in a final cataclysmic confrontation on the main street of al-Bab, the intelligence headquarters of the security services were routed. The security officials who survived were jailed.
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When I met some of the remaining members of the military security branch in a jail in al-Bab, I asked them why they took jobs in an institution notorious for its violence and repression.
They told me they were obliged to join because "economic necessity … extreme poverty and unemployment and the favouritism and corruption" meant that any government job offer was a chance at a better life. Only later - a commander called Abdullah told me - did they realise how they could turn the job to their advantage.
They built big houses, and drove nice cars. Everyone tip-toed around them; everyone feared them. Until today.
These former security officers are now being held by the FSA in an old school in the town. They were treated with dignity, as far as we could tell.
In the future, we will have to live with them again, said Omar Mahmoud, the man in charge of overseeing 16 regime prisoneers at the school.
Somewhere between 100 - 150 people from al-Bab are still missing, after being detained by security services in the past 18 months. The silence surrounding their fate has been so profound that some locals suspect they have been transported to Iranian or Russian jails for more sophisticated interrogation - or worse.
Somewhere in Syria, the answer on their fate will probably be in a file on a shelf in an intelligence office.
Source: Al Jazeera