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Conversations: One Man’s Memoirs of Detention in Damascus

Thousands of civilians are thought to be in custody of both Syrian state security and opposition groups. Once a biology student in the Syrian capital, one man, now free and living in Istanbul, takes us through his seven months of detention in centers around the city.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and a 28-year-old Damascus man taken into state custody in 2012 after protesting against the Assad government. Once a biology student at a university in the city, he spent seven months in various detention centers in the city. He was then released and fled to Istanbul.

I was asked to go to the university registration office. The employee was taking my papers, then suddenly the president of the student council came in and he said, are you so and so? He said my name. I said yes, and he said, give me your ID, your phone. He said it’s nothing, it’s not a big deal. Then they closed the door and I stayed there with the two of them.

Then I went with a few other people outside to the Baath Party office at the university, then from there to the local political security detention center. The fun part is that before I went there I was in the lab at the university, and my friends told me, we’re going to make some coffee. I said make me a cup, and I told them I’ll go out and come back in five minutes to have my coffee. After six months, I had that cup of coffee.

I never went to a police station. I went directly to the political security center, and I stayed there for about a month. The first thing when I came in, there was a little hitting, they hit me with their hands. Then I went to the investigation office, and confessed very easily to protesting and doing peaceful anti-government actions. I did it quickly because someone had [told on me] before, about my activity. So I couldn’t deny it. Then he told me, you’re going to hear some people screaming. These are the people who don’t confess easily. I said, Why are you telling me that? And he said, just in case, just so you know.

After I confessed they handcuffed me to my bed, by my left hand, for five days. I was in a corner. They’d bring me a small amount of food and water if I asked. I was allowed to go to the bathroom, in those five days, a couple of times. I didn’t drink water for 48 hours. I didn’t want to have to go to the bathroom.

Then they moved me to a bigger cell with more people, and I stayed there for a month.

They took me to another detention center. In that one, it was hell. Really hell. It was the state security detention center. I stayed there for almost five months. You can recognize the brutality of the things you’re going to face inside a certain detention center from the beginning of your entrance. If they are welcoming you very nicely, it means the place isn’t very bad. If they are welcoming you with hitting and sticks, then you know that it’s really hell.

I came in with another guy, and the guards hit us a lot. Then they put us in a cell with 60 other people. It was very small. We had to crumble into each other to sit. There are no bathrooms in the cells, so every day they sent us to the bathroom three times. We’d get in line and go three by three, and on the way to the bathrooms, there were three guards standing on the way. Each one has a stick with him, or something else. He hits you with the stick until you reach the bathroom. You sit there for two seconds, then you have to come out. If you don’t come out rapidly, you’re going to face some torture. You’re also going to be hit when you leave, until you reach your cell.

The food was terrible, but the more annoying thing was there was no air. Put the food aside: in that cell, the main problem was the air. We were 60 people and the air smelled, because we were all sweating, and we were sitting over each other, so you really can’t breathe. In the winter it got really cold and we were almost naked, only wearing underwear, so we wouldn’t sweat. In winter, at the end of 2012, we were shivering all day long. It’s kind of a sport [for the guards].

You can hear others being tortured outside your cell. I wasn’t tortured, but others who were with me had been. One was taken from the cell in the middle of the night: most of the time this happened in daytime. He went out and stayed for two ours, and when he came back he was all blue. His fingernails had been taken off two fingers, and his eyes were black and blue. Cigarettes had been put out on his arms.

Another guy, they boiled water then spilled it on his back. His skin was red at the beginning, then got infected. He wasn’t being taken to a hospital or given antibiotics. The guards used to come and open a small window in the cell door. When they looked through the window, if they saw you talking – talking is forbidden – they would make that guy put his hands through the window and they’d start hitting his hands.

Sometimes they would hear a noise inside the cell, and one would tell the prisoners to stand up and face the wall and push each other towards the wall so that they occupy just a quarter of the space in the cell. We’d stay like that for hours. Or they would tell us to stand on our knees and raise your arms behind your head. You’d stay like that for six hours. My knees were injured by the time I got out of jail.

One detainee stole a tomato from a bag outside the cell during a bathroom break. The guards saw him on security cameras, and then guards came in the room. They started handcuffing us, standing and pushing against each other, for three days. That was the punishment. There was no anger towards him from us, not really. But we were like, Did you have to steal the tomato?

Sometimes now at night, I remember the sleeping formation. We slept like sardines, on our sides. Then a guy comes to the back of us and pushes us closer so more guys can sleep.

One day, they called my name. You almost forget your name in there. But I stood up and yelled, Here I am! You don’t know where you’re going. I was taken to a court, then to the central prison. The beatings stopped there, and we were thinking, we’re almost free. We weren’t being hit and our families knew we were there. I was there another month.

A policeman came and said, You are going to be released tomorrow. I said, OK, so? You stop thinking you will be released. The policeman who yelled my name the next day wanted some money. They gave me my belongings back. My MP3 player had been stolen in the detention center.

When I walked out, maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t feel much. We were in a police station, about to be released. We kept thinking, Say my name, say my name, but we were scared because we knew we could be a few minutes from release, but when they discharge you, they look [in the system] to see if you’re still wanted at any other detention center. If yes, then you’re back to day one. If no, you’re out. Luckily I was out. But one friend was sent to the military because it came up in the system that he still owed military service.

The first thing I did was to go buy croissants from a shop near the station. I wanted something that I didn’t have in the prison. They were very good croissants. And I was sick, of course.

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