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Worldcrunch

Syria: Inside Bachar Al-Assad’s Dungeons

Algerian journalist Khaled Sid Mohand spent 25 days last month locked up in one of Syrian President Bachar Al-Assad’s prisons. Questioned, threatened and beaten, here is his story.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Syrian leader Bachar Al-Assad

Friends tried to stop me. “You have enough contacts in Damascus to write your articles. Why won’t you use your network?” one of them said. But I wouldn’t listen. Relying on my network, I argued, implied obtaining the same information from the same witnesses of the three-week long uprising. Later, as agents of the Syrian intelligence services walked inside the Domino café to arrest me, my friend’s warning ominously echoed in my head.

Half an hour earlier, a young woman had called me on my cell phone to offer me information. She asked me to meet her in a café on Bab Touma square – on April 9, at precisely 5:30 p.m. Seven stout men arrived instead. They handcuffed me and took me to my apartment where they ran a search.

The man tasked with keeping an eye on me is as big and strong as a bull, but he tries to act friendly, almost caring: he makes me drink tea by gingerly holding the cup to my lips, he lights a cigarette for me. After asking me a mishmash of questions, and seizing my computer and other material, my captors shoved me inside of a taxi. They forced my head down between my knees, but a propagandistic banner on the side of the road tells me we are heading towards the southern part of Damascus. Our final destination, as I would learn after my release – 24 days later, is Kufar Sousseh, the headquarters of the Syrian intelligence services.        

Once inside, I am taken into a large second-floor office for my second interrogation. Strange questions are fired my way. “Do you know Osama bin Laden?” they asked me.

“Were you invited to the White House during your stay in the United States?” They think I am relaxed. Maybe a little too relaxed.

After two hours of questioning, the door opens to receive a man everyone greets with visible respect. The man shouts at me. “You are going to speak,” he says. “Because if you don’t, I’ll cut your balls off and tear your heart out with my bare hands!” He slaps me so hard I fall off the chair. He then turns his back on me and leaves the room. I understand at that point I am in for serious beating.

At first, my interrogator’s repeated slaps to my face fail to trigger any response on my part. Enraged, the man turns around me with a dark smile on his face and an electric cattle prod in his hand. He asks me questions about my activities and about my identity. His next blow is so violent that my dental bridge instantly flies out of my mouth. My phone suddenly starts ringing; the number on the screen suggests the call is made from Saudi Arabia. “Who is this?” the man asks. “A Palestinian friend gone to visit her family,” I reply.          

“Liar!” he screams. “You are in contact with Bandar bin Sultan [chief of the Saudi intelligence services]!” More slaps and kicks follow. No matter what I say, my tormentors accuse me of lying. Preferring their own paranoid scenarios, they say I went to Turkey not to write a story about legislative elections, but in order “to meet NATO American officials.” They also believe that I have been giving journalism classes at Antonins University in Lebanon because “I am linked to Samir Geagea.” A top Lebanese military official, Geagea is known for his anti-Syrian views.”

They help me back on my chair, blindfold me and put electrical wires on various parts of my body, including my genitals. Terrified, I am left waiting for a shock that will never come. It is a mock electrocution. The electrodes I imagined are in fact the wires of my computer.  

They tell me that, should I want to get a taste of it, they have the necessary equipment. This convinces me to reveal the pseudonym I am working under. My biggest fear is that they could torture me into revealing the names of all the people who trusted me enough to share their stories. I cling to the hope that my release comes before they translate and read my articles [In Syria, Khaled Sid Mohand has mainly worked for the French newspaper Le Monde and the French radio station France Culture]. I try to reassure myself by recalling that no foreign journalist has been detained more than 48 hours.

I am then taken to a cell hosting a group of Syrian prisoners whose bodies all bear the signs of repeated beatings. But there is no time for much conversation with them since we are all taken to our individual cells. The number 22 written above my door is the number they will use to identify me.

Loud shouting awakes me from my sleep. I recognize the voice of my interrogator – I figure he must be questioning someone. The only words I can hear are insults, and a “who?” But I know, from the former prisoners I encountered before my arrest, that these kinds of torture sessions are less about gathering information than about punishing, humiliating, and scaring their victims.

The voice of the interrogator is soon drowned out by the increasingly loud cries of his prisoner. I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. Fear paralyzes me. That is what they want.

My third interrogation follows the same pattern: slaps followed by insults. I am also told that I will no longer be allowed the right to an interpreter. “Tell me everything,” they ask. “What?” I say. “What do you want to know?” “Everything! Everything from the beginning… from the moment you were born,” they respond.

The interrogation ends when a bony-faced man comes in and tells my interrogator to “finish him.” Hatred and anger are written all over his face. How can he hate me so suddenly? I cannot help thinking about the striking gap between the gentle and nonchalant manner of the people living in Damascus, and this display of unwarranted violence and cruelty I am currently witnessing. This looks like a terrifying enactment of Hobbes’ Leviathan: no violence in the streets, the State holds a monopoly on it. 

The fourth interrogation takes place the following day, on April 11. It is the last date I can be sure about. Deprived of daylight or other indicators, one quickly loses all notion of time. This time around, my interrogator greets me with a repenting smile on his face, assuring me that no one will touch me. He asks me to translate for him the notes I had forgotten to destroy and finishes off by offering me a “job” spying on my Syrian friends in exchange of a visa and proper working papers.

Days and weeks pass by, each bringing its share of new prisoners arrested during the demonstrations. That’s how I know the contestation movement is not yet over, that it is spreading to other cities and neighborhoods in Damascus. They are all tortured and released, usually after about 10 days. I try to keep track of the days by counting the breakfasts I am served, but I eventually lose count.    

I try to speak to my fellow inmates, some of whom are in charge of serving the meals, or of opening the door to allow us to go to the toilet. We never have more than a few seconds to exchange information. “It is Friday tomorrow. They have to empty the prison of all the inmates,” someone says. But hope is fast replaced by disappointment. When Friday comes, instead of old prisoners being released, new ones are brought in. Lack of space means that sometimes up to three people are crammed into cells measuring just two square meters. Each new prisoner is tortured – until his interrogators get too exhausted. I try to start a conversation with some of them, but they are too broken to talk to me.

Then I meet Ali, a 21-year-old conscript arrested for attempting to attend the Friday prayer, which is banned by the military code. On the eve of what I thought to be my second week in prison, Ali tells me he has heard we are to be released within 24 hours. When the following day comes and goes without any change, I can feel a deep sadness in Ali’s voice, a sadness I am incapable of soothing.  

That evening, a new prisoner captures everyone’s attention because he has no cell of his own. He is forced to sit, his eyes blindfolded. For three long days, interrogators and torturers attempt to break him down, to no avail. Eventually I learn that he was arrested after he was found carrying CDs containing what the regime considers subversive information. He comes from northern Syria and he has probably come to Damascus to pass the information to one of the cyber-militant groups that act as a link between human rights associations and foreign media, on one side, and protesters in small villages and towns on the other.

Worried about my long detention, I decide to launch a hunger strike. The experience is a difficult one, like Ramadan but without a sunset or without an end to the fasting (especially since the food here is not so bad). I am surprised to see that, the same guards who usually seemed worried about our health – a doctor would come in the morning and in the evening with a suitcase full of pills to treat sick prisoners – and who would often use torture to put an end to hunger strikes, are now totally indifferent to my initiative. Maybe he knew that the decision to release me had already been made.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, I was released. It also happened to be the 10th anniversary of the start of my journalism career.

Photo - Abode of Chaos

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