Amman, Jordan – Syria’s civil war isn’t just being fought on the ground but also in its prisons. Activists accuse the government and the opposition of arbitrary arrests and widespread use of torture.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, more than 12,000 Syrians have been killed under torture in detention since the beginning of the conflict. The group has been able to verify 51 such deaths and 841 cases of arbitrary arrests in the month of May alone.
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“There were detentions before the revolution but it’s never been this gruesome,” said Fadel Abdul Ghany, the head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Mohammad Al-Abdallah of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre was imprisoned by the Syrian government. He is concerned that accountability for torture may be overlooked as different parties attempt to end the conflict.
“When the biggest priority is wrapping up of the conflict and reaching a settlement there is a big fear that justice will be sacrificed,” he said.
“All parties are involved in torture … It is up to the armed group on how they will treat the arrested person and it is exactly word to word copied from the government’s book of torture.”
The effects of torture can remain even when a prisoner is released from captivity. Physical pain, nightmares, paranoia, sleep deprivation and emotional withdrawal have all been observed by health workers.
The psychological consequences of detention and torture are often worse for those living as refugees.
“There are impacts of the experience of torture itself and there are also impacts of multiple and cumulative trauma that refugees have encountered in their lives and continue to live through …,” explained Annie Sovcik, of the Centre for Victims of Torture, an organisation that offers psychotherapeutic and physical therapy to refugees in Jordan.
“The crushing realities of living … as a refugee … and encountering all sorts of extraordinary stress … is such a source of additional trauma, it makes it hard to go beyond the past trauma and be able to heal and move forward.”
Victims of torture and family members of those who died during arbitrary arrests share their stories.
Yehia, 29, Deraa
‘The screams of the women were unbearable’
“It was five in the morning. Dozens of policemen came and surrounded our neighbourhood. I was asleep at the time. Someone removed the blanket from my face and dragged me and my two brothers out of the house and bundled us into a car.
I was taken to what looked like a military basement. Sixty-five people were put in one room. First I was there with my three brothers. Twenty-four hours went by and we were given no food or water. We weren’t even allowed to go to the bathroom. For 16 hours the men would come and ask us questions. The investigators would come at 4pm and interrogate us until 12pm the next day.
I was blindfolded and my hands and feet were tied. Sometimes they would use electric cables and give us electric shocks. They would beat us with iron rods after pouring water on our bodies so that it hurts more. They would keep beating us for four to six hours. They hit me on my neck and on my back. One officer jammed a rod in my knee so hard that it’s left a permanent injury in my leg.
I was scared of dying. I was scared.
I reached for the kitchen knife and tried to slash my wrists. My wife screamed and ran to stop me. I don't see any meaning to my life any more.
The voice of the women from the next cell haunted me more. There were at least 50 women next door. The screams of those women were unbearable. My friend Mohammad and I would bang our fists on the wall and try to do something to stop [what was going on in there] but we just couldn’t tear down those walls. I can’t forget it.
One day, while I was being moved from one prison to another, I peered through from under my blindfold. I saw a young man, probably 24-25 years old, lying on the floor with his head next to the drain. Something was leaking from it and I realised it was blood. He had a hole in his head. His body was kept next to the drain so that the blood didn’t spill on the floor and so it could drain out. I can’t shut that image out of my head.
These days, I can’t work because of the injury on my leg. I work once in 10 days and then my body gives up. I am working in the construction business but I work only for four or five days in a month because I cannot move.
I have two sons and my wife is pregnant with another child. My legs start to hurt so much, I don’t have any work now.
When my young son asks for chocolates, I cannot give him anything. I feel helpless.
Last week, I reached for the kitchen knife and tried to slash my wrists. My wife screamed and ran to stop me. I don’t see any meaning to my life any more.”
Abu Yazan, 24, Deir Az Zor
‘Torture was an everyday routine’
“I was working on my land when they [the Syrian government] arrested me and everyone else around me who was working at that time. I was detained for 40 days. It was very tough. They accused me of being involved with the armed groups.
They kept asking me where the fighters were in our area, who are from the Free Syrian Army.
They asked all of us the same questions. They would beat us. They would rape women in the other rooms and make us hear their voices, their screams. They didn’t let us sleep.
I was in a room with four other people, my friend and my brother were with us at the time. My brother-in-law was also arrested. It was a collective and random arrest. We could hear them torture them in the room next to us.
My brother-in-law died of torture. They beat him to death at some point in the other room.
I was released after some time. I went back to my village, I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
In June, 2014, ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) showed up in our area.
A few months later in September, when I was working on the land again, the fighters came. They wanted information about the regime and the Free Syrian Army. Every interrogator would accuse me of something different. I was detained for nine months until August last year.
They put me in one of their safe houses along with 200 others. It was an old army airport outside the city. There were people from all the provinces across Syria. Torture was an everyday routine.
They slaughtered four people who were in the same room as me. They were from Raqqa who either had information or criticised them in Raqqa. They were accused of being agents.
Every two or three days they gave us a little bit of food – just enough to keep us alive. We slept on the floors. There was a toilet in the same room. It was disgusting.
They would beat us. They would rape women in the other rooms and make us hear their screams.
One day the regime soldiers came and clashes broke out. They let everyone out of the prison. There were 70 or 90 of us left at that time.
I went back to my village and took my wife and fled. I am always thinking about the things I saw in the prisons. I am scared of those thoughts.
I just want to go home where there is no ISIL. I want the war to be over. We know it will never be the same. Our house was bombed after we left. But I just want to work on my land and live.”
Bilal Al-Mashraf, 28, Homs
‘I was hung naked from the ceiling’
“I was studying French in Homs and graduated from Al Baath University. I wanted to do my PhD. I was teaching at a school and doing my master’s at the same time. During the first years of my course, the revolution began.
Throughout my time in the university, I felt the injustice. In Homs, a mere 5 percent of the population had control over everything. Students who had connections with the members of the Baath party possessed an undue advantage and got ahead. There was inequality even in the education system.
On April 18, 2011, there was a protest in the city centre. The day before security forces had shot and killed eight or nine protesters. I went to attend the funeral march. By 2pm, the crowd was huge, I think there were at least 10,000 people.
At that time the protests weren’t organised through Facebook or social media, it was spontaneous. I was arrested the next year. I was coming out of the university when I was stopped at a checkpoint. They took my ID and let me wait and then they started hitting me.
For the first one and a half months I was alone in a cell. They beat me badly. I was stripped naked. The first day no one spoke to me. In the days that followed, they started talking to me and joked with me all the time, while trying to get general information about me.
They asked me about the revolution and if I am supporting any militias or if I attacked a police station. I kept saying no, I am just a student. They tied my hands and hung me from the ceiling for two days. I was naked.
No one asked me any questions for two days. Then the beatings began. I would probably get rest for a few minutes to eat and then be beaten up again. They hit me in my leg and my private parts.
I was kept in an underground cell. For two months I did not see any sun. I would hear strange voices of people crying and screaming to Allah for help and for mercy. Desperate voices in the dark.
My faith in God kept me alive.
They tortured everyone. Whoever they tortured they would put him in the first cell so that everyone can hear his screams.
I was shifted to a tiny cell with six people where there was no space for everyone to sleep or sit together. We had sleeping shifts, each of us had three hours to sleep and then make way for the next person.
I was thinking of my family, my mother. She didn’t know where I was. I was afraid of my future. If I ever go out of prison will I ever get work? I kept praying, my faith in God kept me alive.
I was arrested for six months and then released after they realised it was a case of mistaken identity.
Sometimes, it all comes back to me like a nightmare. Some of the detainees had gangrene, one guy became crazy. They hung him from the ceiling for one week and then he started crying and he wouldn’t stop. He started cursing Assad and his country. His wife and son were in the next cell.
Five people came in and beat him for 15 minutes. He wasn’t the same again.”
Alaa, 32, Daraya
‘I would rather kill myself than go back there’
“I was coming back from prayer. They stopped me, took my ID and forced me into the car. I was first taken to the intelligence department. They blindfolded me and started hitting me on my stomach.
They tied my hands and kept me suspended from the ceiling for 10 hours. I was first taken to a jail with 30 other people. Twelve of us were put in small cell where we took turns to sleep. We were kept like that for a month.
We could go to the toilet only once a day and were given just a minute. One day, they didn’t allow us to go to the bathroom. We had to relieve ourselves in the cell and had to sleep in that and live in that stink.
During interrogation, I was blindfolded and made to sit on my knees with my hands tied behind my head. They kept asking me the same questions: ‘Were you in a protest? Do you know anyone who was in the protest? Have you ever been in a protest? Have you ever been to a protester’s funeral?’
Next time, another investigator came and asked me to locate locals who were part of the protests and become their spy. I said no.
It was hell. I would rather kill myself than go back to living the way I lived in those prisons.
The food was inedible. I didn’t take a shower for 30 days.
One time, they forced me to remove my clothes and do push ups. They started hitting my face, my stomach and my private parts until I lost consciousness.
We were transferred to several prisons run by different departments. I was kept in an underground cell during one such transfer. Fifteen of us were in a sunless, airless room. We were very depressed.
During those times, I kept thinking of my future, my mother and my sisters. I lost hope.
When I cried for the first time during one such interrogations, they hit me so much and one of them said: ‘I will kill you now.’
I thought I would die.
Most of my fellow prisoners were from Daraya. We talked about home. We used to love talking about food. Some of us had fiancees, we talked about them. Our friendship kept us alive.
It was hell. I would rather kill myself than go back to living the way I lived in those prisons.”
Miriam, 35, Damascus
‘All I want is to visit my husband’s grave’
“It was afternoon, we had just finished having our lunch. Eight soldiers came in and attacked my home. They called my husband’s name. He had a problem with his leg. When he didn’t answer, they barged in and started beating him.
The ... soldiers ... threw his body on the street and ran their car over him.
Noor, my nine-year-old daughter, ran to one of the soldiers and asked for mercy for her father. They pushed her away and kept hitting my husband. Noor was crying inconsolably. They hit him hard on his neck and he fell and died.
He wasn’t with the regime, he wasn’t with the opposition. He was a construction worker. He was a good man, a very good man.
We came to Jordan after his death. Noor, my daughter, is scared of everything. Her grief and trauma scare me. I don’t leave her alone. She is terrified of being alone. She keeps repeating what happened even if she forgets everything else. I feel sorry and sad for her.
We don’t know our lives any more. If there is a solution and if there is peace, all I want to do is go back and visit my husband’s grave. That’s all I want.”