|Ghayesh was beaten and interrogated after trying to return home from a weekend trip to visit friends [Facebook]|
Khaled el-Ghayesh had never been to jail before. An Egyptian-born 25-year-old who works in Lebanon as a technical consultant to a banking software company, he had gone to Syria in late March to visit friends.
(Skip to the stories of others imprisoned in Syria.)
Despite the unrest that had erupted across the border two weeks earlier, he decided he would make a weekend trip to Damascus and Aleppo.
He expected to see some sign of the protests.
“I come from Egypt and I’ve been in Egypt during revolution days and I went to Tahrir,” he said. “I was expecting to see many protests, I was expecting this from the youth, but I didn’t see anything.”
Ghayesh quickly realized that dissent in Syria was underground, particularly in the country’s two largest cities.
His friends were not activists, and his weekend was tame. They walked around the capital’s old city, ate at restaurants, sipped tea at cafes. Ghayesh saw one protest, in support of Assad.
On a Monday, three days after he arrived, Ghayesh left for Lebanon. At the border, his Egyptian passport caught a Syrian guard’s attention. Inside were numerous Lebanese visas.
They searched his belongings and found his camera. The images from Syria were innocuous, he had only taken photographs of his friends, but in Ghayesh’s bag were CDs containing footage of Egyptian protests.
The suspicion was obvious: Here was an Egyptian computer engineer traveling in Syria with a camera and video clips of Tahrir Square.
The guard sat Ghayesh down for some coffee and began asking questions. He was amiable, but after a half hour, the bus that was to take Ghayesh to Lebanon pulled away.
Soon after, he was put in handcuffs and led to a car.
“Don’t worry, this is normal procedure,” a man said. “We’ll send you back to Beirut soon.”
‘For them I was a spy’
The car took Ghayesh to Homs, near the border with northern Lebanon. He felt angry about the prospect of missing work, but that irritation was soon eclipsed by the fear of Syrian prison. None of the stories he had heard were good.
When he arrived, Ghayesh was struck by the number of people held inside. The other inmates assured him he would be out within a day or two.
But the next day, he was blindfolded, handcuffed, taken to a room and beaten, unable to see where the next punch would come from. His interrogation lasted about two hours.
“They were slapping me, punching me,” Ghayesh recalled. “They said, ‘No, you’re a liar, we know people like you, tell us everything or else you’ll never see the light again. We’ll put you in a jail where nobody knows.”
Ghayesh swore to himself he would never admit to anything he didn’t do.
His interrogators questioned every visa in his passport. They asked why he had been in Egypt during the revolution and whether he used Facebook.
To Ghayesh, their knowledge of the internet seemed stuck in the 1990s.
“For them, Facebook was just like a bad thing that causes revolutions,” he said. “I tried everything with the guy, everything I can, and all I was getting was: I’m a liar, I’m a spy, I was working with certain people who were trying to topple the Syrian regime. For them I was a spy.”
Sunlight through a vent
None of the guards or interrogators came for Ghayesh for the rest of the week. He was kept in his concrete-floored cell, roughly two meters long and one meter wide. Syrian inmates were taken for torture, Ghayesh said, and he could hear screaming through his door.
A wall surrounded the prison compound, which was somewhere outside Homs and covered in posters bearing Assad’s image. High on the wall of his cell was a vent, and Ghayesh had to peer up from underneath to catch a glimpse of the sky.
“This was the only connection between you and the outside world,” he said.
There were about 20 cells on Ghayesh’s floor, and each held three or four people. It seemed to him that the prison was a temporary holding facility and overcrowded. Different detainees rotated through Ghayesh’s cell. He met Egyptians, a Syrian and an Iraqi. Most told him they had been picked up from the street for no reason.
Every meal came with a loaf of bread. Lunch featured a bowl of rice, dinner a small potato. They drank tap water from the bathroom. Ghayesh guessed that the one toilet was serving 70 or 80 people. Sometimes, guards would make a prisoner lie on the floor of the bathroom and say he would not be allowed to get up or leave until he confessed.
Not going back
Ghayesh never went before a judge. He interpreted the mass arrests as a demonstration that the regime was still in charge and an effort to intimidate protesters, not a legitimate attempt to put lawbreakers through a legal process.
On his eighth day, he was released without fanfare.
“After eight days, you feel like you spent your life there … It felt weird to see the sunlight again. I realised how disgusting I was,” he said.
The experience had also made him paranoid.
“After eight days, you get brainwashed into thinking you’re a spy, and walking the Syrian streets, you feel everyone is watching you, and you need to get out of Syria the fastest way.”
Ghayesh thought of going home to Egypt, but that meant finding a flight and spending more time in Syria. Instead, he took a taxi straight to the Lebanese border – the same crossing he had been to before. This time, he wasn’t stopped. Relief washed over him as he entered Lebanon.
Later, he would find an article about himself on a Syrian website, accusing him of being a spy.
“I’m never going back there in my life, of course,” he said.