' “The colonel told me he wouldn’t accuse me of gun possession,” my cellmate Nabil Shurbaji told me happily one evening in June 2012. We were sitting in a dark, damp corner, in our torn clothes. Our bodies were covered with blisters and open wounds. Some were caused by daily beatings and electric shocks, some by scabies. Bed bugs swarmed over everything.
We cleaned our bodies and clothes twice a day, under a faint lamp. We took turns, in groups of four or five, but there were always more bugs. They were among our worst nightmares, in addition to the jailers above us.
The bug-infested cell where we were held was part of an air force intelligence center near the Mezzah military airport in Damascus. The center was under the supervision of Maher al-Assad, the brother of President Bashar al-Assad and one of the most feared men in Syria’s security services. After the revolution broke out in March 2011, the airport became the site of interrogations of members of the opposition.
Nabil was thrilled about not being falsely accused of gun possession, a charge that was being leveled against many of those held alongside us. Gun possession charges, we believed at the time, could lead to a life sentence, or worse, a death sentence. (I later discovered, while investigating Syria’s prisons, that being accused of using a gun can often be better than being a peaceful activist, doctor or journalist. One former jailer cited a twist on a cliché: “The pen is more dangerous than a gun.”)
Nabil and I had gotten to know each other well. Being stuck in a hellish cell with someone means you must often place your leg over his, or let your shoulder or back rest on his. There were 57 of us.
The colonel, who was a senior interrogator in the infamous Air Force Intelligence Investigation Department, didn’t know Nabil as well as I did, but he surely knew he couldn’t accuse him of possessing a gun. Nabil was famous in his city, Daraya, for defending peaceful protest, and for condemning violence.
Nevertheless, Nabil was referred for trial in a military field court on charges of contacting “enemy” news media and spreading false information for the purpose of inciting violence. The judge sentenced him to nine years in prison. He didn’t make it that long. He died in May 2015, after only a little more than three years in prison.
I was lucky enough to survive. Before I was arrested in February 2012 and sent to the cell with Nabil, I had been the supervisor of the detainees section of the Violation Documentation Center, an independent organization that has monitored human rights violations in Syria since April 2011.
I couldn’t bear being inside one of the jails that I used to report on as a human-rights activist without documenting the detention of those whose names I used to type while sitting at my computer safely in the center of Damascus.
I decided I needed to write the names and contact information of all those who were with me in that cell. When I told my cellmates about this plan, they wanted to help.
We had no pens or paper. I figured out I could write on torn scraps of shirts and pants, and use chicken bones as a quill. But we needed to figure out what to use for the ink.
We tried soup and the liquid from the few tomatoes we received as rations, but they didn’t work. We were about to give up when one of my fellow inmates us stood up and said, “Give me a piece of a plastic bag.” We used to keep one or two plastic bags filled with salt to treat our wounds and blisters.
He took the plastic piece and went to the toilet area. He came out after a couple of minutes holding a tied-up piece of plastic with red liquid inside it. He had squeezed blood from his gums and put it into the plastic. All of our gums bled because of malnutrition.
The blood left a trace on the cloth when we wrote on it with the chicken bone, but it wasn’t solid enough. We scratched flakes of rust from the iron bars in our cell and mixed it with the blood. It worked.
We split the tasks among five of us. Three of us gathered the names of our cellmates. Among them was Manaf Abazid, who was detained for 27 months for training his friends on how to photograph and film demonstrations and upload the footage to be published online and in media outlets. Manaf and I were the only two who survived among this group of five. He now lives in Paris, and I am in Sweden.
Nabil had the best handwriting, so he took responsibility for using the chicken bones and blood to write out the names on the pieces of shirt. We hid the pieces inside the cuffs and collar of Nabil’s shirt, which he kept folded and clean, ready to wear when he would be released. We agreed that the first one to make it out of the cell would wear Nabil’s shirt and smuggle the names to be documented, and to contact their families.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the jailer called my name, and shouted through the hole in the steel door: “Get your stuff ready, and wait by the door, bastard!” I knew that meant I would be released for good. I put on Nabil’s shirt. A few minutes later, the cell door was opened, and I went out with the names of my cellmates, and their pleas to not be forgotten. I was taken to a military police center, where I spent 13 days, wearing Nabil’s shirt, stuffed with our makeshift notes, the whole time. Then I was sent to another prison on the outskirts of Damascus. On Feb. 5, 2013, I was released.
Once I got out of prison, I started contacting the families of the men with whom I’d been detained. I added their names to the database at the Violation Documentation Center.
Among the people I contacted was Nabil’s fiancée. Nabil had talked to me about her almost every day while we were imprisoned together. “She was the only girl who understood me,” he used to say. He dreamed of her almost every day, and thought of the family they would build together when he was finally freed.
I told her that Nabil was alive. She asked me questions, but I tried to spare her some of the painful details of his situation. I told her that I had read his palm, and had told him that he would not die before 15 years had passed. Of course, neither believed in such methods, but they clung to this prophecy. They didn’t have any other hope.
After two years, Nabil died. He died in the Saydnaya military prison after a jailer kicked him in the chest, sending his soul to heaven and body to some mass grave or, perhaps, an incinerator.'