Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Not So Brief Taste of Prison

This is my first post in the last six months. It is triggered by a long comment left two days ago by Sammy on one of my old posts from 2006 titled A Brief Taste of Prison.  Reading his comment sent a chill down my spine as dark memories, twenty four years old, were brought back to life.  Sammy had it much worse than me but both of us were extremely lucky.  To those who wonder why bring up such stories from the past, I say: these are recurrent stories, from our past, our present and, unfortunately, our forseeable future. I am not one to dwell on the past and always ready to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but are things really different in Syria now than they were a quarter of a century ago? Ten years on from the promise of the Damascus Spring and the hope of a new leadership, is Syria's government any less opaque or its citizens any freer than they were a half century ago? The gloves are now made of silk but they still hide an iron fist; autocracy-lite is still an autocracy. 

With Sammy's permission, I repost his story:

My story is a magnified account of yours: I was studying in the U.S (TAHT EL ESHRAF). I came back to visit my family in Beirut after 2 years absence during which I neglected to renew my military service deferral paperwork.One day we were riding our motorcycles through Bhamdoun and got pulled over at a Mukhabarat checkpoint. I produced my Syrian passport to the spick mounting the checkpoint and was asked about DAFTAR AL ASKARIEH (military service booklet). I told him it was not in order. He told me to get off the bike and told my friends to get lost. He then put me in his mercedes and took me to a nearby detention centre. I was shown to an empty room with few blankets on the floor. Later I could hear the guards hurling insults at a few guys they had pulled over. Then the screams started. The guards were beating up whoever they had in that room. I kept thinking that I was going to be next. Later that day I was taken to Ramlee Al Baida. Level 6 for interrogation and then taken down to the same cell Abu Kareem was taken to except when I walked in I counted at leat 50 inmates. It was August, the room felt like an oven. I walked up to one of the walls and banged my head against it. The sudden loss of freedom left me completely dazed. Floor space was so tight we were unable to sleep on our backs: we each slept on our side effectively being sandwiched between the guy in front and the one behind. Dinner consisted of one super bowl filled with rice and another filled with some red stew. It was put in the middle of the room for everyone to fight for their share. The next 5 days were a repeat of the first but I managed to strike conversations with the other inmates which helped pass the time. One day the guard comes in and asks me to go up with him to level six. I went in and found my parents waiting for me. We chatted for a while and before leaving my father whispered in my ear that things are being taken care of and I should be out of there soon. Before leaving they handed me a roast chicken with salad. I went back to my cell and sat on the floor ready to devour the chicken. I looked around and I saw couple of dozen eyes staring at my feast. I felt shame and asked them to join me. They all obliged. Anyway, the next sunday a few of us were told that we will be moved to a detention centre on the lebanese-Syrian border. The building was effectively the customs building. All the offices had been turned into holding cells. On my first night, they shaved my hair and interrogated me. Conditions here were a bit better,we were at ground level and had natural light. By that time I had accepted my fate: 4 to 5 years in the army, no going back overseas, no degree. I learned that the only way I am going to make it out of there in one piece is to socialise and stop thinking about my loss of freedom. Every inmate had a story to tell (most of them are interesting). I think I was the youngest in the wole building (I was 19) and some of the inmates took it upon themselves to cheer me up and point out the bright side of things. Another bonus was that I did not get beaten up by the guards in any of the 3 detention places. Finally, on saturday (14 days into my ordeal), a guard comes in and asks me to accompany him. I was taken to an office where I saw some of the officers I'd already seen, my father and a decorated officer.Him and my father walked up to me and asked me if I was OK. The officer then pulled me to the side and asked me if anyone had beat me. My father then came to me and told me it has all been sorted out and I should be out of there in the next day or so. Next day (sunday) I was woken up at 6 in the morning and taken to the office where I was given back my posessions and shown to my parents' waiting car. The feeling of being free was truly undescribable. One week later I was back in the U.S. It took me fourteen years for me to set foot in Syria again.

You got to feel for those incarcerated in Syrian jails. I imagine their lot is not much better off. No wonder most who get a chance, end up living in western countries: the smart and the not so smart.

The part that upset me the most was when my father told me the price he paid for my freedom: 5000 lebenese liras or the equivalent of USD1200.00 in those days. That covered three ranking officers and their side kicks. The top officer on the take had his own demands: he told my father thst he needs to buy him a fridge, a washing machine and the use of the family's Volvo for a month (which later dragged on for more than 3 months and was only returned after my father escalated the issue through our neighbour who was a colonel in the lebanese army). I could not beleive that a measly 5000 liras could buy so many officers. How on earth can such an army win any war?