Nahlah Ayed: The everyday brutality that is Assad's Syria

Syrian prisons are among the most fearsome in the world and the stories of torture are almost routine. That history of brutality gives some sense of the courage it took for Syrians to openly defy the Assad regime this past year, Nahlah Ayed writes.

When Mohammed K. was blindfolded and taken into the bowels of a police building last year, he could only anticipate the worst: a long incarceration, perhaps transfer to one of Syria's most inhospitable prisons and, more than likely, a few unpleasant sessions of torture.

He was interrogated five times, slapped in the face and beaten with sticks. He was held in a small, underground cell with several others shivering from the cold.

His cellmates, it seems, had endured even worse. He said one elderly man had a bruised face so contorted it was unrecognizable. Another had been dragged on the floor so often that his knees were full of deep cuts that had become badly infected.

They groaned all night with the pain.

All of them had been rounded up during the protests calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

All were now living a nightmare that had been rooted for so long in the minds of so many Syrians that few had dared to express dissent.

"My uncle spent about 15 years of his life (in prison)," Mohammed told me in an interview last week. "I met him for the first time when I was in the 9th grade."

Many of the prisoners Mohammed heard about — like his uncle — had medical problems, broken bones, and left jail mentally unstable. "They were psychologically affected by what happened," Mohammed said.

So, it seemed, was an entire nation.

Brutality everywhere

Syria's prisons are among the world's most notorious, fearsome institutions such as Tadmor and Sidnaya that have for decades hosted the most unfortunate of Syria's incarcerated.

A young Syrian protester in Lebanon holds a placard with a picture of 13-year-old Syrian boy Hamza al-Khatib, who activists say was tortured and killed by security forces in June 2011.

Untold numbers of Syrians fingered, rightly or wrongly, as being members of the country's long-standing, long-suffering opposition ended up in these places.

Many were locked away for years, tortured in unspeakable ways, and apart from the occasional attention shown them by some human rights organizations, their plight seemed to be of little international concern.

Bara Sarraj was one of them. He was apprehended at a Damascus university one day in 1984 on suspicion of being an opposition member. He was only 21 years old and spent the next 12 years in prison, nine of them at Tadmor.

"In Tadmor it is constant torture," he told me in an interview. "It starts with the entry to that prison."

One technique he endured required prisoners to fold themselves inside a car tire that is hoisted up before the beating begins.

"They beat you until you faint, until the flesh of your feet (is) showing. So that is the start. After that, every day, every day you have torture, morning, noon and evening and at night with different ways."

For decades, such stories dissuaded all but the most single-minded opponents from speaking out against the regime.

Mohammed says that Syrians were constantly "afraid that they might get into trouble and face the same detention and torture, which is inhuman."

That history of brutality gives some sense of the courage it took for Syrians to openly display their defiance to the Assad regime, a defiance that began almost exactly one year ago.

Yet the fact that such brutality was endemic also helps explain why so many Syrians rose up to begin with — they'd had enough of the torture, and with being afraid of it.

"I think it is a big factor," says Mohammed.

The current crackdown

Today, these same stories are re-emerging: first-hand accounts of torture and ill treatment from those imprisoned in the current crackdown.

Syrian authorities have denied systematic torture of detainees.

But in a report released to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising, Amnesty International documents the cases of many Syrians who underwent horrific torture after being arrested for simply protesting.  

"Survivors interviewed by Amnesty International in Jordan described three forms of electrocution," says the report in one of many chilling accounts.

"After water is sprayed onto detainees and the floor, an electric charge is applied to the floor and the current rushes through to those covered in water; via electric prods; and in one case in a metal 'electric chair.'

"Such methods often cause the victim to collapse and pass out."

It gets worse.

"I was crucified naked on the door for three days using metal handcuffs with my toes barely touching the floor," said one man, named "Karim," describing how Air Force Intelligence officials tortured him in Dera'a in October 2011.

Another Syrian, "Tariq," described this scene during his incarceration last July: "I was at the back so I couldn't see Khalid well, but they pulled down his trousers. He had an injury on his upper left leg.

"Then the official raped him up against the wall. Khalid just cried during it, beating his head on the wall."

Telling the story

Mohammed, the man I met last week, was relatively lucky. In the end he spent less than a week in prison, and left Syria as soon as he was released.

"Every time I see people in the streets protesting and facing all that danger with such huge bravery, that gives me hope. And then makes me forget what happened to me."

For many Syrians, the emerging evidence of the ensuing torture also steels their resolve. 

Sarraj, who is now an academic in the U.S., had remained silent about his experiences when he was released from prison —until the uprising started.

Amazed at the protesters' courage — and at the countless online videos Syrians have uploaded that widely publicized the kind of torture he once endured — he began to write his story, on Twitter, one memory at a time.

His followers encouraged him to keep going and his effort ended in a book.

"I felt that there are listening ears this time." The world, he said, was finally ready to hear what Syrians have known for generations.

But what reform?

It is that history of torture and brutality — not to mention the 7,500 or so deaths, and the nearly quarter of a million displaced since the crackdown began — that leaves so many Syrians incredulous that Assad is now speaking of parliamentary elections, and plans for reform.

Many say Assad missed several chances to alter Syria's history of oppression — first when he became president in 2000, and again in 2005, when the international community turned its attention to his country and its long-time influence and control over Lebanon, its tiny neighbour.

Back then, emboldened opposition members seized the opportunity and wrote the so-called Damascus Declaration, openly demanding democratic elections, the end of oppressive tactics and the release of prisoners of conscience.

In an interview at the time in Damascus, one of them told me that without dramatic change — which would be a miracle, he called it — Syria would be in for a period of great turmoil. How true those words ring now.

Faced with those demands in 2005, Assad chose a different path. He promised reform, and then repeatedly failed to deliver.

He also threw many of those opposition figures — some of them already former prisoners of conscience — back into prison.

Today, with so many more suffering from the regime's allergy to criticism, dialogue and reform now seem unacceptable options.

"They are asking a household to have a dialogue with a killer or a thief," Sarraj says. "That is … very disrespectful of all the people who are killed.

"The answer to this guy is just like (what happened in) Libya. He should be out. Period."