As It Happens

10 years into the Syrian war, this torture victim fights to bring the regime to justice 

Omar Alshogre survived brutal torture at the hands of the Syrian regime. Now attending Georgetown University in the U.S., he continues his fight to bring those atrocities to light, and the people responsible to justice.

Despite all the horrors he'd endured, Omar Alshogre holds out hope that Bashar al-Assad's regime will fall

Omar Alshogre, a Syrian refugee who was tortured in Syrian prison and is now director of Detainee Issues at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, poses for a photo on Nov. 11, 2020 in Stockholm, Sweden. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

Warning: The following story contains graphic descriptions of violence. 

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Omar Alshogre says he feels like "two different people."

There's Omar the former prisoner of the Syrian regime, who spends his days pursuing justice against the government that tortured him for years and murdered most of his family.

Then there's Omar the unflappable optimist, always smiling and enjoying life, and about to start school at the prestigious Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. 

But both aspects of his personality were forged during the years he spent behind bars in Syria with his cousin Bashir, his "favourite person on this planet," who died in his arms. 

Alshogre survived, eventually escaping to Sweden and then to the U.S. Now he works tirelessly to bring light to the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime over 10 years of war. 

Alshogre, 25, was 15 years old when the Arab Spring uprisings reached his nearby city of Baniyas on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

One day in March 2011, he received a phone call from Bashir, who was five years older than him and his role model in all things.

"He said, 'Omar, the birds are gathering. You've got to come down to the city,'" Alshogre told As It Happens host Carol Off. "I understood his coded words. He meant that there is people demonstrating."

The teenager was filled with excitement. He'd never seen a protest before, and he just had to be a part of it. He begged his father to drive him from his village of al-Bayda to Baniyas to join his cousin on the streets.

"My father said, 'Stay home, stay safe,'" he said. "And it's like, I can't. You taught me to be brave. You taught me to be strong. You taught me how to care. And you can't say to me, stay home."

His father relented, he said, but warned him while dropping him off: "Hide your face. A million people may die."

"As a 15 year old, I didn't take that seriously," he said. 

Alshogre at the age of 15, when he says he was naïve abut the state of oppression in Syria. (Submitted by Omar Alshogre)

At first, the protest was intoxicating. Throngs of people were singing and shouting about freedom, a concept he could barely wrap his young mind around. Someone handed him a beautiful rose, and he thought he would save it for the girl he had a crush on.

Even when the police showed up with guns and tanks, he says he wasn't afraid. "Police might be tough guys, but they won't kill, right?" 

Then he heard an officer with a microphone give the order: "Load. Aim. Shoot."

"And I just see people running away and my friend [who] was my age, from my school, dying next to me being shot," he said.

"There is blood. And I'd never seen anybody dying before, never seen anybody shot before, never seen as much blood as I seen that day, so I did not know what to do."

That day was the first of several times Alshogre would be arrested. He says the officers forced him and his fellow demonstrators to the ground in handcuffs, stepping on their heads and backs and forcing them to pledge allegiance to Syria, God and President Bashar al-Assad.

"When I was a kid in school, we said that every day … and I had no problem saying [those words] because I didn't understand, I didn't care, you know," he said. "But this time, when they were jumping on my body, forcing me to say them, I knew what's going on in Syria."

Forced to torture each other 

He would go on to spend a total of three years in 10 Syrian prisons, including one year and nine months in Branch 215, a military detention centre in Damascus, alongside his cousin Bashir. 

"Bashir, who the guards knew I loved the most and he loved me the most, they wanted to break this relationship," he said.

"So they forced Bashir to torture me for days and days. And they forced him to hit me as hard as he could. I remember Bashir crying while he's torturing me, saying, 'Omar, if I don't torture you, they will kill you. If I don't torture you, they will kill me. If I don't do it, we're both going to die.'"

They would also torture Bashir in front of him, he said, until he grew so desperate he gave false confessions. 

"I'll give you whatever confession you want to hear. I killed officers. I have helicopters, I have whatever guns, machines, whatever you want. I'm a spy for the U.S. or Canada, for Israel, for al-Qaeda, whatever. Just stop torturing him."

Alshogre says his cousin Bashir was his favourite person in the world. (Submitted by Omar Alshogre)

Still, when his cousin wasn't being tortured, he was smiling, Alshogre said. 

"I looked at him saying, you know, 'Why are you smiling?'" he said. "And he says, 'Oh my God. Look at everybody around you. Everybody's depressed. There's blood everywhere. Nobody can see hope anywhere, except what I offer them, this smile.'"

Eventually, it was all too much for Bashir. Emaciated and sick from the torture, he collapsed in Alshogre's arms.

"We fell on the ground, and if you fall on the ground, the guard will torture you. So while they're hitting me, I'm hitting Bashir in his face saying, 'Bashir, wake up. Don't be stupid. Like, it's not time for anything like that,'" he said.

"He did not move at all. Did not breathe anymore. He was dead."

It was not the only loss Alshogre suffered during the war. Another cousin also died in prison. And his father and siblings were killed in a massacre in his village. 

After Bashir died, Alshogre found himself smiling the same way his cousin used to. The other prisoners thought he'd lost his mind, he said. 

"He gave me strength," Alshogre said. "That hope was the tool I could use to survive."

And survive, he did.

In 2014, his mother, who had fled to Turkey, secure his release from Sednaya prison with a bribe. He made his way to Europe, and eventually settled in Sweden, where he connected with other Syrian victims of torture and their families to gather evidence, document atrocities, and bring them to light by any means possible.

Alshogre holds up a cellphone with a photo of himself released just after he was released from prison, emaciated from starvation and tuberculosis. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

Alshogre has given TED Talks about his experience. He spoke at the White House and testified before members of the U.S. Congress in Washington.

He joined forces with an organization called the Syrian Emergency Task Force, whose mission is to "inform and educate the American public and its representatives about their suffering, while addressing the colossal humanitarian crisis and promoting the development of the Syrian civil society based on respect from human dignity and freedom."

When Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council motion to bring the Syrian regime before the International Criminal Court, he and his allies turned their eyes to European courts. 

They scored a major victory in February, when former Syrian intelligence officer Eyad al-Gharib was sentenced to 4½ years in prison by a German court for aiding crimes against humanity. Gharib was arrested in Berlin one year after defecting from the regime.

"This is very symbolic," Alshogre said. "That delivers a message to the Syrian regime, telling them that we are following what you're doing. We're gathering evidence. And this evidence is not to keep just safe somewhere. It's to use. And we're already starting using."

The same could happen anywhere where Syrian refugees have made new homes, he said. According to the Globe and Mail, more than 80,000 Syrians have resettled in Canada during the war.

"They have so many relatives in detention centres in Syria. And amongst 80,000 people, there is definitely somebody who's been involved in war crimes," Alshogre said.

Alshogre, left, film director M. Night Shyamalan, centre, and head of the Syrian Civil Defence Raed Al Saleh, right, hold a press conference following a Senate foreign relations committee hearing about the war in Syria. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Alshogre now lives in Washington, D.C., where he's been accepted into Georgetown University, realizing the dream that his father had for him to get an education.

Despite the horrors he's endured, he continues to smile and seek out whatever joy he can find in life. 

"My smile is very much inspired by Bashir. It became my lifestyle," he said.

"I'm not smiling all the time. I can be sad. But when I remember Bashir, I don't remember Bashir and cry. I remember and I smile. Because that's how he taught me. He sacrificed himself to give me a life to enjoy. He didn't want me to be alive, to suffer.

"And I do that. I use this empowerment he gave me, the strength, to enjoy my life. And one of the tools I used to enjoy my life is helping other people."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. 

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