A decade has passed since I first tasted real freedom.
It was March 18, 2011, when I received a phone call from my then-20-year-old cousin, Bashir. In a shaky voice, he asked me to come down to the city centre of Baniyas, 10 minutes from my home village of al-Bayda, telling me only: “The birds are gathering, you have to come.”
I was 15, but I understood what his coded words meant. I had watched the protests in Tunisia and Egypt on TV. On March 6, they had arrived in Syria, when residents of Deraa protested against the arrest and torture of 15 students for writing anti-government graffiti, and on March 15, there had been more unrest in Damascus. Now I understood that it was the turn of my city.
Overhearing our conversation, my father, a retired military officer, told me: “Stay home, stay safe.” He knew only too well the corruption and brutality of the regime as, decades earlier, his cousins had been detained for 12 years. Now he wanted to keep me and my siblings safe.
But I desperately wanted to be part of something so important. It wasn’t even because of the corruption of the regime, which had been so normalised I barely noticed it, but because all of my classmates and friends were taking part and I wanted to join them.
My father believed in the need for a revolution, but he was afraid for me. I channelled all the excitement I felt into persuading him to let me go. Perhaps it was the hope in my eyes that finally changed his mind. He agreed to drive me into the city on his motorcycle.
As we drove there, I thought he would join us, but he just dropped me off, telling me: “Hide your face, a million people may die.” I watched him as he drove away.
A white rose and the feeling of freedom
As I approached the protesters, someone handed me a white rose. I remember vividly the smell of that rose as it mingled with the sea air. It seemed to me to add more beauty to the protest and to our demands for freedom.
As I sang that word – “freedom” – in Arabic and English, I felt immovable. I couldn’t believe the feeling of strength it gave me. But there was also fear there in the crowd. I noticed the way protesters looked anxiously around, from one side to another, as though they were waiting for something.
And then that something arrived: Thousands of Syrian army soldiers and operatives from the intelligence services, all armed.
I was confused. Despite all the stories I had heard, I’d never before witnessed the regime’s brutality myself.
The demonstrators turned to face the military peacefully, chanting: “The Army and the people are siblings.” But our siblings opened fire on us that day, killing a handful and injuring many more.
Among those killed was my 16-year-old school friend, Alaa.
The protesters dispersed. Women opened the doors to their homes so we could hide inside. I remember the feeling of gratitude I felt upon finding refuge in a stranger’s house. Later, after the army had left, we returned to the city centre to continue our demonstration.
In May, Baniyas became the site of a seven-day siege by government soldiers in which several more people were killed. The regime said it was targeting “terrorists” but the Syrian opposition knew it was a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Bread, brutality and Bashar
But before that happened, I was arrested for the first time. On April 12, my family, unaware that government forces had arrived in our village, sent me out to buy bread.
My hands were tied behind my back and I was thrown to the ground alongside more than 500 other men who had been rounded up at the same time.
Soldiers stamped and jumped on my head and body, forcing me to scream out my “allegiance” to the president: “God, Syria, and Bashar!”
I had said those words for the last five years at the start of each school day, but this time I finally understood the true brutality implicit in them.
I was held in a detention centre and tortured for two days before being forced to give a false confession and released.
Over the next year, I was arrested five more times and held for days or weeks until my parents could take advantage of the corruption of the regime to bribe my father’s former colleagues to let me go. I was made to sign papers saying I wouldn’t demonstrate again – but I always did.
Learning about dictatorship in ‘the branch of slow death’
Then, in November 2012, I was arrested for the last time – alongside my cousins: Bashir, 22, Rashad, 19, and Noor, 17.
We were moved from prison to prison, eventually ending up in the notorious Branch 215 in Damascus, which we called “the branch of slow death”.
I saw both Rashad and Bashir die in prison, and heard that Noor had also been killed.
While I was imprisoned, the regime also killed my father and my two brothers, 15-year-old Osman and 19-year-old Mohammad, and set our house on fire. It bombed my school, imprisoned my childhood friends and unleashed slaughter in my village. My mother and sisters were among those who managed to escape, eventually making their way to Turkey.
In prison, I learned more about the reality of dictatorship than I ever could have done on the outside.
The guards created an environment in which you had to turn on other people just to survive. My cousins and cellmates were forced to hit me as hard as they could. To eat, you would have to take somebody else’s food. To drink, you would have to take somebody else’s water.
As a child growing up I had learned that a father would sacrifice his life to save his child. But in prison, I witnessed a father killing his child so that he might survive by eating his food. I saw a boy fighting with his twin brother to get a space to sit in as the rooms were too small to house the number of prisoners there.
In those prisons, you either die in pain or you live with the pain and the survivor’s guilt.
In the darkness and filth of my cell, I had many nightmares – of guards executing me or of being forced to kill my friends and family. But I also had dreams. There were nights when I saw the dictator on trial, when I saw myself standing in front of him in a court, when I saw him being thrown into prison.
Becoming those who will rebuild Syria
Then, on June 11, 2015, after three years in prison, I was smuggled out by guards who had been bribed by my mother. They did it by staging a mock execution.
Ten days later I made my way to Turkey, where I was reunited with my mother. But to get medical treatment for the tuberculosis I had contracted in prison, I had to make my way to Sweden – first journeying across the Mediterranean in a dangerous rubber boat.
In Europe, I began to build a new home and a new life. But what I had endured in prison continued to haunt me – in endless nightmares at night and in the knowledge that those of us who have escaped still have to look over our shoulders during the day.
One of my former prison guards found me through social media. He called me and threatened me to stay silent. In that moment, all the pain came straight back to me but I somehow found the presence of mind to record the call, hoping to use it in any future legal case against him.
The narrative that the regime puts out is that Syrians who have left their country have forgotten it, but that is not the case. We still remember and are working hard to become the people who will rebuild Syria when the time comes.
In the last few years, my fellow survivors and I have provided testimony to Swedish police, German prosecutors and to European war crimes investigators about the brutalities of the regime so they can build cases against it.
One of the results of that has been a series of prosecutions against Syrian war criminals caught in Europe, such as that of Eyad al-Gharib, a former intelligence officer captured in Germany. In February this year, he was sentenced by a German court to four-and-a-half years in prison.
My fellow Syrians and I have used our trauma as a driving force. We have adapted to our nightmares, and turned them into new dreams. We have made our fear work for us.
I look at my mother who, despite her losses, has managed to start two new lives in two new countries – Turkey and Sweden. She was the one who, despite her pain, made me feel safe when I was reunited with her; the one I could call when I had a nightmare; the one who told me: “What you went through, and what I went through, is worth remembering.”
It is worth remembering.