Amnesty International published a report in 2016 that documented the extent of human rights violations in Syria’s so-called “torture prisons.” On the example of the Saydnaya Prison – where more than 13,000 people have been executed since 2011 – former inmates and guards described their time in the facility that’s run by the Syrian government.
Brahim was 22 year old when he was wrongfully arrested in Syria due to the confusion of his last name with someone else. Such confusions happen a lot but are impossible to solve because of the lack of a fair judicial system within the country, Brahim said. He ended up spending nearly three months in prison, which he describes as “hell on earth.”
I’ve read numerous articles, reports and books about people who had been tortured. Reading the printed words of someone’s nightmare creates a convenient distance to the matter – at some point, you just close the book or put the article away and continue with your life. But what if the victim sits in front of you? How do you react to their story? How suitable is a basic “I’m sorry to hear this?”
On my last day in Greece, Chokri and Rida, two refugees I met from the City Plaza (an abandoned old hotel in Athens, now occupied by refugees) invited me over to say goodbye. We were sitting in Aboo’s lovely room full of arts and crafts and drank sweet tea. Chokri and Aboo smoked and I already felt my throat clogging up again. After a couple of cigarettes, Chokri got up to bring his friend Brahim.
He returned after just a few minutes and brought a slackly and pale young man in a worn out red t-shirt, jeans and baseball cap. While most Syrians I met greeted me with a left to right cheek kiss, Brahim gave me a very loose and wobbly handshake while looking on the ground.
“You can interview him,” Chokri said. “But he doesn’t want pictures or video. I translate for you, he doesn’t speak English.”
While Aboo started to boil another round of tea, I asked Brahim the usual set of questions to begin with: “When did you leave Syria? Where is your family? What made you leave Syria?” In most cases, people began to speak freely about what happened to them and shared details of their stories without me asking. Brahim was very reserved and spent most of the time staring at the floor or out of the window.
“Because I was in jail.”
I asked him why he was in jail and what about the experience wanted to make him leave Syria.
“Because of a mistake,” he said briefly. “And I didn’t want to go back to jail.”
I asked him about the mistake and why he would possibly be sent back to jail. His short and vague answers continued. I thought about my interview with Hiveen, a young woman from the Skaramagas refugee camp, which ended in tears. I didn’t want to push things again. Eventually, I tried to find something he might be more talkative about and asked him about his future plans, his hobbies and passions.
He said he didn’t have plans. He didn’t have anyone except his parents and doubted he would ever see them again. Back in Syria, his passion was soccer, but now he had back pain and a rupture in his lower stomach. He suffered from the pain but hadn’t been able to see a doctor because of the long waiting lists for refugees. His asylum in Greece was denied and he would be deported to Turkey soon – a place with no future for him.
Chukri and Aboo noticed the mood becoming darker and took over the talking for a while. We caught up on the jail story again. Aboo explained that the regime arrested young men who refused to join the army and tortured them until they agreed to join. But that was not the reason for Brahim’s arrest, who had already been serving in the Syrian army for two years. He said government officials would casually check the ID of people walking on the street. That particular day and time, he was just unfortunate to be carrying a name similar to someone’s else’s.
Brahim seemed to warm up slowly and contributed more to the conversation.
“When you’re in jail, you’re out of the world. Nothing can help you. You’re alone,” he said. “They beat me with so many different things and in so many different ways.”
I asked what kind of things he was beaten with but he just responded, “too many.”
He said the soldiers put a big picture of a ladder on a wall and requested the prisoner to climb up the ladder – otherwise, he would be punished with beatings. They would make fun of the prisoner’s attempts to climb the wall and beat him up for failing.
Brahim recalled that one prison cell housed more than 70 people at once. When the inmates wanted to sleep, they slept like “sardines in a can” and couldn’t move at all. The ages of the men ranged from 17 to 43 years old. Many were sick and suffered from injuries.
“When you’re sick and ask for a doctor, the soldiers pretend to take you to a doctor, but in truth, they beat you up until you promise to say that you feel better,” he said. “It happened to me.”
He described another incident in which a father was beaten in front the other prisoners, including his 12-year-old son, who the soldiers have brought in to watch.
“After I got out, I didn’t leave the house for 10 months,” Brahim said. “I was too scared they would arrest me again.”
“Why would they arrest you again after just releasing you?” I asked.
“They don’t need a reason, they can do whatever they want,” he said. “Sometimes they just arrest random people and beat them up to set an example and scare people to not make enemies with the regime.”
Chukri turned to me and said that a majority of young men in Syria had stories like Brahim and that his case was far away from being a rare case.
“He is depressed and traumatized,” Chukri said. “When I met him, he didn’t leave his room. He cried all the time. I took him to groom his hair and beard.”
The conversation was slowly coming to an end and I tried to find the right words to finish it. But no matter what I said, I would be the well-off first world person telling a torture victim how sorry she is for what had happened to him – while my part of the world didn’t do anything to stop things like this.
“You only feel the fire when you touch it,” Brahim said. “You can’t even imagine what it is like.
I just nodded and looked at my empty teacup.
Suddenly he continued, “I know what it’s like and now I suffer because I know what my brother is going through.”
He explained his only brother was arrested because Brahim escaped Syria – a common practice that blackmails escapers to return in exchange for the release of jailed family members. Upon return, escapers face even more terrible torture or even death.
“He would be in jail for five years now,” Brahim said. “But nobody has heard from him. Not my parents. Not me. We don’t even know if he is still alive.”
He turned his head to the balcony and looked outside. The sun was shining on his face, which looked much older than the face of a 28-year-old.
“Even if I can go to a better country like Germany and get a job,” he said, “I will live with guilt for all my life.”