Former Syrian Prisoners: In Their Own Voices (Keffah Ali Deeb, Artist/Writer)
Thousands of Syrians are languishing in the numerous security branches scattered throughout Syria. At the same time, hundreds of Syrians have been kidnapped by vicious armed groups. Beyond all other issues, the cause of the detained and kidnapped is one of the most pressing issues arising from the Syrian conflict.
In a special series, Al-Akhbar shares the tales of a few Syrians who have had first-hand experience with the brutal, labyrinthine process of detainment by the regime’s security apparatus, as well as stories of those who have been kidnapped and suffered horribly at the hands of armed groups opposed to the regime. Al-Akhbar cannot independently verify the following accounts.
Keffah Ali Deeb, 32, is an award-winning artist and writer from Damascus. She had been working with the internal opposition organization, the National Coordination Body, during which she was arrested and detained on four separate occasions. After her final arrest, she left Syria and went to Lebanon.
The following is her story, edited for length and flow:
My first arrest happened during the early siege of Daraa. It was at the Arnous Square in Damascus. We had signed the ‘Milk Declaration’ and held a silent protest, it was all women and young girls. We raised up slogans and banners in the middle of Damascus that had to do with calling for the end of the siege of Daraa, calling for allowing milk into Daraa, stressing that Daraa was a Syrian city, and that the Syrian Arab army should not invade it.
There were a lot of arrests at that protest, but I was not arrested until a few days later when we tried to have another protest. The moment the first few people showed up, the security forces attacked. That was when I was arrested, but only for a few hours. Everyone was released, because they had only arrested 25 people. We were sent to the Khatib Branch.
They held us for a couple of hours, and before they released us, they had a ‘seminar’ talking about how we were destroying the country, how we shouldn’t be involved as intellectuals. Then they released us at night.
The second arrest was also for a few hours. It occurred when we were holding a wake for a Syrian filmmaker, Basil Shehade, at his family’s house in Damascus. A large number of intellectuals had come. The security forces, as usual, didn’t allow us to gather. I was arrested with two friends by security forces from the Air Force Intelligence. Like the first arrest, we were released after the security forces held a ‘seminar’.
They proceeded to lecture us for being artists, writers, and intellectuals. It’s like the security forces were shocked that we were all intellectuals who took stand.
The seminar during the first arrest was conducted in one room with all those who were arrested. We all stood in a semi-circle in the middle of the room. A high-ranking officer came in. He looked like a typical officer. He proceeded to lecture us for being artists, writers, and intellectuals. It’s like the security forces were shocked that we were all intellectuals who took stand.
The second seminar, by that time I was actively involved in the National Coordinating Body (NCB), revolved around my role as a political activist and the official kept on saying that Shehade was a “terrorist” and a “supporter of terrorism” and so on.
“I hope I don’t see you again at these useless wakes,” the security officer had said to us, and then proceeded to release us all.
The third arrest took 18 days. It was the longest one of them all. It happened in the earlier part of the summer of 2012. It was me and this young man, who is still in prison since the arrest; it’s been more than a year and half. It was on the Mezze Highway. The arrest occurred after a man we used to work with was forced to give our names after extensive torture.
The accusations was that I was illegally distributing goods, that I was involved in demonstrations, and I had relations with Daraa and Homs. Yes, I did demonstrate in Homs and Baba Amr, Beyada, Daraa, and Damascus. I’m proud of everything I had done. But I had never done anything revolving around weapons. Despite this, some of the accusations said I was distributing weapons. I completely denied this because it is simply not true. For me, I never even supported or encouraged anyone to take up arms.
It was 18 days. I spent it in a single room on my own. The state I was living in, relative to others who have been detained, could be considered very decent. I had space. Food, which wasn’t bad in terms of amount, was filthy. I know that I was treated in a completely different way than other prisoners because of my background as a writer. The security forces are not entirely ignorant. They do background checks on everyone they arrest – finding out what their profession is, and so on. And my treatment was also shaped by the fact that I was politically active and well known.
In most cases, the men who die by torture are unknown.
Sometimes, when someone’s face is known throughout society, the security forces are cautious about the treatment. This is why, in most cases, the men who die by torture are the unknown.
Torture would happen outside the door of my room. I was not tortured, I was not hit once that time. For me, the actual torture was the sounds I heard.
The room was small and empty. There was a bathroom. The first few days I slept without a blanket. Later they gave me a blanket, which was infested with lice. There were rats. I would wake up at night and see them all over me.
I heard things that were perhaps some of the worst things that could happen to a human being.
I heard things that were perhaps some of the worst things that could happen to a human being. The screams. As long as there was torture happening outside the door, the smell of blood seeped into the room.
One memory that remained in my mind was during Ramadan. I would always hear the sound of a man who was clearly old in age. He was begging the guards, saying, “For God’s sakes my son, just some water. God help you my son, God save you my son.”
He kept on begging.
At my door, there was a small keyhole I used to observe what is happening. I saw them take him out. The water fountain was next to my cell. When they took him, he would pass my door to get to the water fountain. When I looked through that hole, I saw the lower part of that man’s body. He was in his underwear, and the guards were hitting him the whole time, from his door to the fountain and back. Even then, despite the beating and humiliation, I’d hear this old man blessing the guard after drinking the water.
“God quench your thirst, my son” the old man said.
“God quench me? God take you! God willing you die, you son of a dog,” the guard replied, with other insults.
After 18 days, the guard told me to get ready to leave. I noticed that behind me was a man crouched in a fetal position. When they transferred us to another building, and we exited the jeep I realized that this man was really old.
We were in an elevator, me, this old man, and a security personnel. This old man was blindfolded. I was not blindfolded. They removed his blindfold and he saw that I was a woman with him, and he started crying.
We were both in the interrogators room. They started giving him his possessions. He seemed like he was 70 years old, very small in build. The interrogator told this old man to not take it personally and that he was arrested by mistake.
This old man replied, “It’s okay, I completely understand.” From his voice, I realized it was the same old man that was in the cell beside my room. The old man added, “It’s okay, I understand because I used to serve in the army.”
I don’t think he really forgave them, but what else could he say.
I was released. It was around midnight. And a friend of mine picked me up. This was all happening at the Kafr Sousseh Branch.
My experience wasn’t terrible. It was what was happening to others around me that was despairing. After this arrest, I returned to humanitarian work. This situation in Damascus was deteriorating and we couldn’t do much, so I became more involved in politics. As I was part of the NCB, and I had good relations on the ground with Syrians, I often spoke with the office of UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi. I usually talked to them about political issues and often went to have meetings in the office.
Once, and this was my last arrest ever, I was exiting the UN office and security forces were waiting for me outside. The office was in the Sheraton Hotel and the security forces were at Ummayad Square. I rode a taxi and they followed us for a good distance.
Now this arrest, even though it was only a matter of hours, was violent.
Throughout the journey they were beating me.They forced my head down to the floor. They started elbowing my back.
They stopped the taxi with their weapons. They pulled me out of the taxi. They were four. They blindfolded me with my scarf. They put me in the car. I was in the backseat in the middle, on both sides were two big men and in front there was the driver and another person in the passenger seat. Throughout the entire car journey they were beating me.
They forced my head down to the floor. They started elbowing my back. They were mocking and insulting me.
There were a lot of insults, about my sister, about my mother, all the way up to my tenth ancestor.
We arrived to the Political Security branch. There was a heavy smell of mold. I was taken inside. They placed me by a wall. The person who was holding my arm slammed my face on the wall. Another person tried to burn me with a lighter. He brought it close to my lips and cheeks. They forced me to the ground. One of them kneed me in the back.
They never told me why was I there. When I tried to speak, they hit me.
After a session of heavy beatings, it got quiet. Someone else had walked into the room. I stood up. This new person took me by the hand slowly to another room and sat me down on a chair.
He asked if I was comfortable and I replied I was not. He asked why. I told him to remove the blindfold and untie my hands so we could speak face-to-face. And he did. I saw that he was a colonel, around 50 years old.
He took down my personal details. As this process was going on, I slowly understood that the news of my arrest had arrived to the UN office and they were pressuring for my release.
In the end, they told me that my arrest was a mistake!
But what happened next seemed like a joke. When I was arrested, I had with me a children’s book I had written. This high-ranking officer saw the book and was intrigued by it and wanted it. I told him he could take it for his children. He was happy about that. Then, he asked if I could write a dedication in the book.
I stood there as if I was stoned. What does one write as a dedication to a security official? Do I write, “With all my love”? “Sincerely”? “Regards to the Security Branch”? “To the security officer who was torturing me moments ago?”
He saw my hesitation and implored that I write a dedication. So I took the book and opened to the first page, and wrote:
“We are all going to die, and Syria will remain.”
It seems because I was able to leave through UN pressure, which the authorities were unhappy about, I was not allowed to fly out of the country and I was being followed. Not long after that, I quickly found a way to leave.
After these experiences I became obsessed about highlighting the cause of the detained. I sleep, eat, dream it. Whoever I talk to I mention it. It is the most essential cause that we must never forget it.
The detained person is not alone. Behind him is a family and society that are affected.
And those who have been kidnapped are just as important. With those who have been detained by the regime, there is a sense of structure, and apparatuses that can be pressured. With the kidnapped, there are many battalions, backed by many fronts, and it’s harder to pressure. And the kidnappers are at times motivated by their own self-interests.
The cause of the kidnapped is as equal as the detained. My cousin was kidnapped by the Free Syrian Army in al-Hasakah. He was a soldier in the regime’s army and was not involved in anything. The Free Syrian Army went to the base, kidnapped him and the other soldiers around him. And he is still missing. It matters to me.
Both, the detained and the kidnapped, should be freed immediately.”