Monday, 21 December 2015
Drawing the horror of a Syrian detention centre
' "Every day there would be about eight new bodies. After a week I managed to get closer and count the number written on a body's forehead. It was 5,530 - and after a month and a half, the number on another body was 5,870. I got used to it. The first night I saw a dead body and smelled it, I felt so sick and sad I couldn't sleep. But later on we were eating while a dead body was next to us. I remember leaning on a dead body and thinking, 'When are they going to remove it so I can have more space?' "
Sami was arrested twice in the years after the Syrian uprising in 2011. His crime was coming from a town, a religious group and a family that had revolted against President Bashar al-Assad. "I had long curly hair when I was detained for first time. This modern look was a sign for the government that I belong to the co-ordination committees that organised protests. The security officer dragged me by my hair and told his boss, 'We've got one of the co-ordinators sir,'" Sami told me.
"I was picked up on my way to work, my head was covered and I was put in a car. I don't know where they took me but they put me in a hall while my hands were tied with wires. They started beating me up madly. Then I reached the detention centre. I was bleeding, bones broken, ears damaged so that I couldn't hear properly. The place was like Dante's inferno. You are constantly tortured and you hear the cries of people being tortured. I was kept in the basement maybe seven storeys down."
His wife, Fidaa (not her real name) had the difficult job of finding the right person to bribe. It took $3,000 simply to find out where Sami was being held. Then she had to pay money to ensure that Sami would not continue to be tortured. One of the people who promised to help ensure Sami's release disappeared after a week, forcing her to look for another contact who might help.
Sami has lost 40 members of his family, all killed by the regime. He moved home twice inside Syria looking for a safe place to live with his wife and daughter. His own house and another belonging to his family were burned down by government forces in the Damascus suburb he comes from. Many have argued that this sort of treatment drives poor young Sunnis into the arms of Islamist radicals - though Sami says he personally never encountered any Islamists in Syria. "I didn't see any Islamists or jihadists or radicals in prison. I just saw ordinary Syrians. Needless to say, almost everyone in prison is Sunni. Men from the city with money are treated differently than those coming from poor and rural areas. The more money and connections you have, the less tortured you are."
The threat to him, he says, came exclusively from the Assad government, and it was the government that drove him eventually to leave the country. He and his wife and daughter are now in Europe, where Sami is recovering from his ordeal. "I try to get over my fears by drawing or playing music," he says. "This is the only way I can survive." '