[Published here November 8, 2013]
This is a multimedia piece best experienced on the website itself, but I have also included the text below.
When the uprising hit Damascus, women were at the front lines of the demonstrations – which meant they, like their male peers, were arrested and detained by Syria’s feared security forces. Three of these women, held for their involvement in the peaceful, civil movement, spoke to NOW about their experiences. While their tales of torture are more psychological than physical, the scars remain. Almost incredulously, they call themselves “lucky,” knowing that the cases of more recently-detained Syrian women have become infinitely more gruesome and physically horrific. Though their names have been changed for safety reasons, these women’s stories remain a potent reminder of a terrifying tool still used by Assad’s security forces: detainment.
The first time, it was a mass arrest, the 28 of us. There were 10 women in a room that was less than two meters by two meters. We were five on one wall, five on the other, with our feet intertwined. I remember thinking it’d be better if I was alone. I could breathe, and I wouldn’t be responsible for everyone. In group holding like this, whatever you say will affect everyone.
The second time I was alone. They handcuffed me and brought me inside. It was two floors down a narrow, tight staircase. It was so, so dark. They took all my stuff – my belt, shoelaces, phone, everything, and they kept telling me things like, “We won’t hurt you. And you’ll cooperate with us.” But eventually it escalated and they took me into solitary confinement. When he opened the door, he carried me in like a bug by its wings.
They didn’t hit me. They had a post I had written. They pressed my hand against the table, hard. That was the only time they touched me.
It was psychological torture. They threatened my family and friends; we had to smuggle my brother out. The second time broke me.
It was surreal. Every night, I could hear this officer talk to his girlfriend on the phone. He would tell her, “We will live here, we will have this many kids, I talked to your father today…” I knew their whole love story. How could he do it? People were getting tortured in front of his eyes, grown men in their underwear – how could he say those things to her?
I heard things that I don’t think you hear anymore. There was an officer whose wife would call him all the time. He had left his wife and children in Latakia, and it sounded like he hadn’t gotten paid in two months.
They were like us, arrested like us. They couldn’t leave. They ate and slept like us. The only difference is they were hitting and we were the ones being hit.
They knew everything about me. They knew where I drink. All the bartenders are security anyway. I could tell they had been watching me. Where my parents live, there are many security forces and shabbiha. We’re used to them – they’d come every month to do a report. As kids, if they were late, we missed them. But this time, they came for me.
I knew I wouldn’t be raped. If I got hit, I knew it’d be a sign of how far I had gone. Homs girls from the Palestine branch, they were the first ones that got raped. They’d kidnap them off the street. Sometimes it would take a year for their parents to hear anything about them, sometimes they wouldn’t hear anything at all. Some are still lost.
I didn’t know what time it was or anything. Someone would come to the door, just to send us a message that they could come in whenever they wanted to.
Ten days and I refused to shower. I refused to eat. They threatened me with torture, so I was forced to eat some cheese. They gave me an orange which I just kept for the smell. I refused to see a doctor. I kept my shoes on. I would say to myself, don’t get used to it. I felt the ground was pulling me in. So I’d stand up and reach to the ceiling. I couldn’t breathe. But I needed to not get used to it.
There were broken buttons that people would use to write on the wall. Half my friends’ names were on that wall. The last day I drew half a line. I had no hope I would get out on that day because it was the worst interrogation. I had found out my friend had died while being interrogated. I was weak. I broke.
I used to create scenarios about the questions they might ask me. They would have past, present, future, everything. I created these scenarios about what they might ask, how I would answer. I would tell myself, if you don’t believe it, they won’t either. And I would add details till I believed it.
I spent five weeks, starting in May 2011. We were in a group and there was intelligence that we would be there. The security forces stormed it and surprised us. There were two girls and four guys. All of us got arrested.
They investigated us, the guys had their laptops with them with all their work on it.
First, they kept us in Branch 40, which belongs to State Security. Then to the Mudahaneh, because that was the branch that was in the area where we got arrested. Then to al-Khateeb, then to Branch 285. We got moved to four different branches total. They didn’t keep all the men together, but they kept me and the other girl together.
They plan on this – you could be there two weeks before anyone comes to say anything to you. It’s psychological; they have plenty of files on everyone.
They would ask these questions randomly – what’s your link with this person or this group? What’s your opinion on civil society, on the opposition?
Direct torture? No. Psychological pressure, every day. The guys were getting tortured and getting hit right in front of us. Once, they brought the guy with the leather whip, and he threatened me. But they didn’t hit me.
The entire idea behind it… is that you might be able to recuperate physically. But the psychological torture isn’t as easy to recover from.
I wanted to go to the restroom. They refused to let me, then when a woman came they sent her with me. It was filthy, but eventually we got used to it. It became normal. She was looking at me and I had to ask her to look away.
A girl from Damascus is different than a girl from Deraa. I’m a Sunni from Damascus. There was some respect, just a little, because of my family. Most of the girls I saw weren’t tortured.
A Palestinian woman – they threatened her a lot. Whether you’re veiled or not plays an important role. The veiled got pressured more; they were effectively already convicted. Depending on where you’re from, too, there was more hatred, it was harder.
But it was different than the men. You would never hear a story of a man who left a branch without being hit. For us, maybe someone would kick us on the stairs, but that wouldn’t count.
When a group gets arrested, they wouldn’t let anyone go until they investigated everyone. They felt we were lying, but they couldn’t prove it.
Right after you come out, you feel strong. With time, you start to get scared. The more time passes, the more scared you get that it’ll happen again. It affects you, it affects how you work.
Now, arrests and detainments are harder. Now you’re more scared for your parents. The surrounding situation is harder, the atmosphere is scarier – so the groups fell apart. Everything has changed.
The first time I was detained I was kept in the Political Security branch, in al-Maysat in Damascus. I was the only women for the first 51 days, and I was held in solitary confinement.
They had all my phone records printed, every conversation I ever had. They asked me who I talked to, where I got my videos, who I would send them to. They asked me about Razan Zeitoune and Mazen Darwish.
They hit me once. The interrogator hit me against the wall. Now it’s worse. There’s physical torture for women. Now we can say there’s equality between the genders – they get hit, there’s electricity, sticks, everything. Maybe I was lucky. It wasn’t this monstrous.
But it was always psychological, every day. They’d wake me up at night and ask me questions. Where’s Razan? Where’s Yassin? They expected me to deteriorate. They threatened to refer me to the court for moral reasons, that they would call my parents and tell them everything. I told them do what you want.
The second time I was in Mazzeh. The Syrian Media Center for Freedom of Expression was stormed by armed men. It was the first time that had ever happened. They took our cell phones, they took us all, and they stayed with the computers. They took us to the Mazzeh.
The women were last, six girls in one room. They searched us, and they took us one by one, I was last, and then they blindfolded me. They asked me who I was… And when they found out my name and where I work, there was a man with a knife. He tore my clothes… I was scared, very scared. I thought of my friends and I didn’t feel alone. It was cold, I gathered my clothes back up and tried to put them back on.
They let us go the third day. But every day, we’d have to come back from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., every single day, to the Air Force Intelligence branch.
I couldn’t face my family. I had been kicked out of my previous job, and I preferred to flee. I moved out, I changed my phone number.
I began to see a therapist. I had anxiety and trauma, and I had to talk to someone. The sessions with my therapist were funny – he had been detained too. I would talk the whole time and we would both cry.
On April 21, they held us for very long. After 1 p.m., we could tell something was off. We heard an explosion and gunshots, and the room became closed off. It seemed like there was an FSA attack on the base, so we flipped the sofas over and hid under them…I had a mental breakdown then.
They moved us to the military police center, and we stayed in the Adra center for women for 22 days. I stayed in a holding cell with Tal Malouhi, which was an opportunity for me to check up on her.
I got out on May 12, 2012. I immediately decided to leave. I needed to be healed mentally. I needed to disappear from the regime, from my family, from my friends. It’s better for them if I’m gone.
I keep writing. I’ve been in Paris ever since as a refugee.
As far as I know, everyone who was with me left. No one stayed.