' “I was beaten on my back by a torture device called ‘Flying Carpet’. My left foot was broken. My hair was cut with a knife. Cigarettes were put out in my hands. I was lashed with a whip on my back and hands as they beat me. My left hand needed 48 stitches. I bled for three months. I lost my eyesight for three hours, then I was transferred to a hospital where I underwent gynaecological surgery – I don’t know what they did, and I am a virgin.”
This is part of the testimony with which Amal Nasr opened her talk to students. She was not the victim in that case. The victim was a 22-year-old political prisoner in the Adra prison for women in Damascus, one of the largest prisons in the country. She sent a letter to Nasr, a feminist activist who since the 1990s has been defending the rights of women in Syria. She has been arrested several times.
Nasr was granted asylum in Switzerland more than a year ago after she had to escape from Syria because the security forces pursued her after she had left prison. She told the young audience that most Syrian women fled their homeland “to protect their children from rape, killing, kidnapping and detention”.
She explained that the last time she had been detained was because of her involvement in a peace initiative between women supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. But her dream of peace turned into a nightmare in the Adra prison after she had been charged with terrorism.
She found herself behind bars with about 800 women, “the sisters, mothers or daughters of young men who had to take up arms to confront the regime’s violence”.
“We experienced political detention before the revolution, but the detention after the revolution has been scary,” she said. “We were 12 women in a cell about two metres long and one-and-a-half metres wide. We could neither sleep nor sit. There were girls aged 13 and mothers aged 86 among us. I will never forget the day when a young woman entered the cell and shouted the number of a corpse outside: 15,940.”
The young woman knew the number because many prisoners, young and old, had a number on their back, explained Raneem Ma’touq, who was also detained in Adra prison where she met Nasr, a friend of her parents.
“I saw children in the prison with numbers on their backs, and of course the fate of each child or person with a number on their back was death under torture or execution. You can’t believe that those children were terrorists,” said Ma’touq, who took refuge in Germany with her mother and brother about a year ago.
“ Around 11 corpses would be carried out of the prison every day, and this was not done right after death: the dead bodies used to stay with the prisoners for several days to the extent that the smell of freedom became associated with the smell of death.”
In a quiet voice, she explained how detainees were often locked away in secret places so no information would be available about them or about where “the worst kinds of torture are practised, women raped and organs of detainees trafficked”.
Speaking about the “crime” that took her to Adra prison, the young university student said: “My activity in Syria was the organisation of peaceful student demonstrations demanding freedom and a civil state. For the regime, our activity was more dangerous than armed groups or the terrorism of the so-called Daesh [Islamic State]. Despite all our peaceful demands for freedom, we were always referred to terrorism courts.”
One person said: “I’m always touched by such testimonies about things we do not have here in Europe. We cannot imagine what this suffering means to these people. We can just try to understand it. This mother is here, but her daughter is still there in Syria (...). We don’t get the same picture of Syria if we read newspapers or watch TV. So when we listen to testimonies like these, it’s as if we’re discovering a new truth." '