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Damascus Imam Becomes a Master of Disguise

GAZIANTEP, Turkey / Sitting in the salon of a modest house on the outskirts of this southern Turkish city, a group of Syrian refugees congregate around freshly prepared meze. Jokes are exchanged. Mahmud al-Hosseini sits cross-legged, anxiously rubbing his wrists together.

Written by Martin Armstrong Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

This is a nervous tic he developed during the four months he spent sharing a cell with 60 other men in a prison run by Syrian intelligence agencies, somewhere on the outskirts of Damascus.

“It was a scene of misery,” he says. “A mass of decaying bodies – fleas, scabies, even gangrene. There was not enough room for people to lie down. We slept cross-legged, resting our heads on the shoulders of our neighbors. One morning after I woke up I was standing up to stretch my legs, and I realized the guy whose shoulder I had been resting on had died during the night. I hadn’t noticed. When someone died in that place, we used to say that God had blessed them. They were free.”

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Like so many others in this two-year conflict, al-Hosseini was once a carefree student at Damascus University. He then served as the imam of the Uthman bin Efan mosque in Tadamon, in the capital’s southern suburbs. As Syria descended into civil war, his increasingly vocal opposition to the Assad regime put him on the radar of local regime intelligence. “A week after the peaceful demonstrations broke out in Deraa on March 15, 2011 [the conflict’s unofficial start date], I led my congregation out onto the streets of Tadamon to show our solidarity. At the start, people didn’t think of what we were doing as revolution. In Syria people have grown up in an environment where it is impossible to express political objections.”

Al-Hosseini twice escaped imprisonment after being detained by Syrian intelligence, due to the intervention of a powerful clerical patron – Sheik Sari, imam of the al-Zeit al-Thabit mosque in central Damascus.

As security services became increasingly aware of his activity, al-Hosseini ditched his clerical garb, instead opting for baggy tracksuits, a baseball cap and large headphones to avoid detection. “You know, like a hip-hop style,” he says. “I started to walk with a swagger.” The disguise was to no avail. In November, al-Hosseini was detained for a third time – the regime’s final straw. This time, he was imprisoned.

In January 2012, he says, Damascus felt the first effects of the war that had engulfed the rest of the country. He says Alawites – the highly influential ethnic sect of President Bashar al-Assad – began to vandalize Sunni shops and homes in the area around Nisrine Street, home to many of Tadamon’s Alawite families.

With that, al-Hosseini’s peaceful revolution changed. “We bought four automatic rifles to protect ourselves during demonstrations and from shabiha [amateur forces loyal to the regime] in the area. At the time my sister was getting married. We used her dowry to pay for a portion of the weapons.”

In the summer of 2012, as rebel forces reached Damascus, Tadamon witnessed an influx of Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces, leading to regime shelling and a counter assault by the Syrian army’s fourth brigade.

“I met with the leader of the Douma Martyr’s brigade who asked if we needed support in the area,” al-Hosseini says. “They came with 150 men, destroyed three tanks in the area, and the army retreated.” In July, after the death of former Syrian Defense Minister Assaf Shawkat, the shelling became more intense.”

In August, al-Hosseini evacuated his wife and three children to Gaziantep, then returned to Syria. In Damascus, he met with FSA brigades to gain an understanding of how they were coordinating attacks in the capital. He says that by this stage, “My phone calls were being traced, and I was using a fake ID. I started wearing baggy tracksuits and a baseball cap” – unusual attire for a man of his religious stature – “to avoid being recognized.”

Despite his efforts to go undetected, al-Hosseini was picked up by Syrian intelligence patrolling in Tadamon. He was knocked unconscious during the course of his arrest, and awoke in an interrogation room in a security facility controlled by an anti-terrorist branch of the Syrian security services known as the Palestine Branch. “They accused me of transporting weapons from Turkey and co-ordinating the opposition in Tadamon,” he says. “When I refused to speak, they started torturing me. [Then] they took me to a cell in the basement. It was so crowded I couldn’t find a place to sit. I stood for the first 15 days.”

He says informants thrived in the detention center, providing guards with information on fellow prisoners in return for certain privileges like more food, and hygiene and medical products.

“When the jailer came in everyone would look away to try and avoid eye contact. You could be tortured just for talking,” he says.

“Sometimes they would put nine people in a cell one meter long and one and a half meters high so that no one could move. After a while I started to forget my whole life. My wife, my family, my friends.” During the darker moments of his incarceration, he would recite verses from the Quran to maintain his sanity.

In mid-March, one of al-Hosseini’s jailers approached the cell and called out his name, before placing a cloak over his head.

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“It is known among the prisoners that if you are taken at night, you are usually being taken to be shot,” he says. “When they placed the cloak over my head I began to recite the Quran. I thought that I was going to be killed.”

The bang never came. An influential businessman and donor to the charity associated with al-Hosseini’s mosque – which is responsible for providing accommodation and basic social services to impoverished families in Tadamon – had leverage in the Swayda regional branch of Syria’s military intelligence and had negotiated his release. (With the help, al-Hosseini says, of a hefty bribe.)

“They took me to [his] house,” he says. “I remember there was a Mercedes parked outside. When I realized I wasn’t going to die, I burst into tears and thanked God. I was shouting. I remember being inside the house, in the bathroom. When they came to take me I had been trying to clean myself with a piece of soap in the cell. Suddenly in the space of an hour I was in a bathroom with a Jacuzzi.”

A week later he left Damascus, reuniting with his family in Gaziantep, where he has remained since. “When I was a child I used to dream of standing on the podium and speaking out against the regime’s crimes,” he says. “Now I have taken my stand.” He is still wearing his tracksuit. He says it’s comfortable.

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