Syria – A Journey to Hell : in the heart of the Syrian Intelligence Service prisons (Le Monde, 7.6.2012; L'Espresso, 8.6.2012; Le Soir, 11.6.2012; Neue Luzerner Zeitung, 23.6.2012)
© LB-Pierre PICCININ
[photo : Tal-Biseh]
To write is a heavy responsibility. It is therefore important to be able to recognise one’s mistakes, correct one’s omissions, especially when they concern the life of human beings…
On the 15th May 2012 I entered Syria for a third observational visit, whose aim this time was to map and describe the exact state of the opposition’s bastions and to evaluate on site the actual potential of the Syrian Liberation Army (SLA) and its capacity to overthrow the regime.
In order to do this I first paid attention to the frontier areas, where the attacks of the Syrian Liberation Army are concentrated against the regular army, that is the towns of Deraa, Zabadani, Qousseir, Tal-Kalakh, Homs, Tal-Biseh, Rastan and Idleb, either entirely or in part in the control of the SLA, which get logistical support from its rear bases in Turkey and Jordan and from supporters of the Hariri clan in North Lebanon.
On my previous visits to the area, in July 2011 and subsequently in December - January, I had received approval from the authorities and got a visa from the Syrian Embassy in Brussels. This time this was not the case, and, using a different route, I crossed the Lebanese frontier at the Masnaa site, proceeding to Jdaidit where, strange though it may seem, with a bit of luck it is possible to obtain a visa without any formality. So it was that I entered Syria quite legally, from Lebanon (where, making use of my route, I was present at the confrontations which the Alawites of Tripoli were raising against the Sunni Hariri, who were laying siege to their area, a revelatory event showing how the Syrian conflict was extending into the neighbouring Lebanese territory).
Having hired a car in Damascus I began to move around the country. I was able to get to Homs and photograph the ruined rebel areas bombarded by the Syrian army at Tal-Biseh, held by the opposition, where I had the chance to talk with fighters of the SLA and also with the staff of the area commander, which was well organised, equipped and in logistical communication with other positions under rebellion control, then to Rastan, where the army is drawn up opposite the town, itself completely in the hands of the SLA, and where I watched battles but was unable to enter. I even reached Hama.
On the 17th May I presented myself at the regular army’s check-point in front of Tal-Kalakh, in the area of Homs. I waited almost two hours for permission to go into the town when some armed men arrived: I could go in on condition that they accompanied me and that I travelled in one of their vehicles. This I accepted.
The trap closed within a few minutes and my journey to Hell began on that day towards five in the afternoon…
Indeed, scarcely had I got into their vehicle than I was handcuffed, with my hands behind my back, and taken to their offices, where I was left for several hours in an overheated concrete cell in the full sun. My portable phone was removed from me: I no longer had any means of communication and it was impossible to know where I was.
From there, in the evening, I was moved to the centre of the Intelligence Service in Homs, where my personal possessions were removed from me in the first building, in which, already, I could hear muffled cries which troubled me, and I could well imagine what was happening there.
Soon after, two agents led me to another building. The cries had stopped. There they were washing the ground of what was quite clearly blood. Everything there was dirty, squalid, old, ruined: the doors, walls, floor-tiles, everything was filthy.
First of all I was left to sweat it out, in a small room. Still handcuffed, sitting on a chair in front of a desk covered with traces of blood, vomit, bits of nails and metal needles. After perhaps an hour of this conditioning an English-speaking officer came in, followed by a subordinate, whom he pretended to lecture, and who at once cleaned the desk of what was on it, whilst his superior smiled at me.
The latter then went through a routine identity check, and then led me by the arm into another office, where the handcuffs were removed and a very friendly interrogation took place. Since I had nothing to hide I answered all the questions and thought I had satisfied the officer, until he showed me on a portable computer in a neighbouring office, the area commander’s, photographs he had extracted from my USB, photos taken at Tal-Biseh, in which I was in the company of SLA fighters, “terrorists”.
Still, he assured me that he understood well that it was entirely normal, in the framework of my research, and that within a few hours I should be freed, he would help me in this situation even if I had committed a crime in meeting these “terrorists”; “You are our guest and this place is now your second home”, he said to me. I really had no idea how to read his smile.
It was then suggested I should rest, not in a cell, but in the security agents’ dormitory, where I was given a bunk.
Very quickly two agents whom I had not previously seen came to collect me and led me to a room where an officer was waiting. This man made signs that I was to remove my shirt and my shoes. Very worried by the sudden change of direction, I obeyed. His two assistants strapped my hands to a pipe in the ceiling. Things were getting clearer... A fourth man brought in two buckets of water and some cloths, while my ankles were being chained, and went out closing the door behind him. One of the assistants removed my socks, which he pushed into my mouth. Then I was beaten on the back, the kidneys the abdomen and the torso: one could imagine that that is not very serious but after only a few blows the pain becomes so fierce that on several occasions felt I was stifling and losing consciousness.
While his men were hitting me the officer asked me questions in very poor English, whilst at the same time telling me to be quiet. But, gagged as I was, how could I have answered him? Above all I didn’t really hear him.
After I don’t know how much of this treatment the gag was removed; I was untied, handcuffed and seated on a chair at a desk on which an officer tipped open a box of metal needles. He left me time to get my breath back while he was playing with a needle between his fingers.
Each of the assistants seized a forearm and a wrist which they held flat down on the desk. The officer took my left index finger between his fingers and put the needle under the nail without pushing it in, just moving it slowly around under the nail. He spoke about my links with the “terrorists” and why I was travelling on my own in Syria, taking photos; if I was working for a foreign intelligence agency, for the French; why I was moving from one place to another occupied by “terrorists”…
I repeated all that I had already said which seemed to satisfy him. But he ordered that I should again be hung from the pipe and gagged, while he called out in the corridor. A man came into the room with a fat torch which had a big button and dials. He applied two little openwork metal clips to my chest, attached to the case. Then he slowly turned the button on the case: at first I felt only slight tingling, but a few seconds after the pain became acute; the more he turned the button, the greater the burning sensation, a piercing burning, became apparent. The officer approached me and spat on my torso; with his fingers he moistened the skin which was in contact with the clips. This occasioned a rapid increase in the electric current and a violent pain. The agent played with the button, diminishing and increasing the intensity of the current. They removed this equipment and untied me, cuffed my hands behind me, and lay me on the desk still gagged, without asking me a single question.
The agents held me firmly, one by the shoulders, the other two by the ankles, still chained. The officer told me to calm down, that everything was all right; only one formality remained. He grabbed a white plastic rod which was hanging on the thermostat of the radiator, my legs were stretched out flat on the desk, my head hanging downwards and he inflicted twenty-three blows on the soles of my feet. I counted them. The officer looked at me with an almost friendly smile “You don’t need handcuffs now”…. His assistants took me back to my bunk to which they nevertheless tied me.
How long had all this lasted?
I had a lot of pain. But I came through it well: bruised ribs and a few light burns ; almost nothing compared to all that I was going to see and what my companions in the Bab al-Musalla prison cell, in Damascus, were going to tell me. “Because you’re a westerner, they said to me, they dared do no more; if you had been an Arab you would have had the same treatment as that journalist from al-Jazeera: he was there a few days before you; they crushed his hands and broke both knees.” Yes, I had a lot of pain but it was nothing, a mere slap by comparison with what I was going to see during the remainder of the night.
The head of my bunk was by the door of the room leading to the corridor. A few minutes after having been taken back there I heard a great commotion on the other side of the door.
And the noise of blows beginning, the beatings; and the screams; very loud at first, then quieter, muffled by gags. The cries, the groans, while the torturers allowed their victims to breathe, when the sound of beatings ceased for a moment. And the blows stated again: “ halas, sidi; halas, sidi!” “Enough, sir; enough, sir!” And the weeping.
I understood, now, that strange thing, why the agents in their dormitory slept with the radio turned up to full volume. Actually I had suspected it.
At first, the agents who took it in turns, coming and going in the dormitory, were careful to shut the door; later they no longer bothered about my presence; the door remained wide open on many occasions: I heard everything and I saw everything.
The most absolute horror; without any cover-up; unveiled; naked; plain; just as the cinema, with all its special effects, cannot show it; and such that, at the moment I am writing this, I cannot manage to put into words. And for that I seek the forgiveness of those lying in that corridor in their own blood, urine and vomit.
I was there; I saw it all; and I did nothing; terrified, like a coward I said nothing. While a huge despair overwhelmed me.
An agent suddenly came into the room; he stared straight at me; in one hand he had two pairs of handcuffs and in the other a double electric cable with bare wires, at the end of which was a plug. I thought this was for me.
Things had become clear in my mind: I no longer hoped to get out of the place; not alive. If they had let me witness all that it was because the decision had been taken: sooner or later they would start work again on my body, more violently this time, going to the end, searching for the maximum of information, and finish me off. What really was there to prevent them, moreover? They’d lay the blame on the opposition, the SLA.
Just prior to being kidnapped I had given two interviews, while waiting at the check-point entry to Tal-Kalakh; one with Jacques Aristide of Voice of America; and one with Laurent Caspari of French Swiss radio, the last barely a few seconds before my arrest. I had explained to Laurent Caspari that I had just got the authorisation to enter Tal-Kalakh, a town partly controlled by the rebels…
The man with the electric plug had gone away: it wasn’t for me. A few minutes, the light bulbs illuminating the room faltered again and screams tore the air, overwhelming the other cries. Again the door opened and I saw: the burns were deep; the electricity goes through the flesh, carbonising where it passes.
Dawn arrived; a little daylight penetrated into the room through a small skylight. Not far away I heard the firing of government tanks, on the Baba Amr area I imagined because I had heard that several pockets of resistance were still active there.
I was certain of it… I no longer had anything to hope for; it was there that everything was ending for me: that everything was going to finish gradually in those appalling sufferings which I had been witnessing throughout the night. In that dirty, squalid place.
I turned my face to the wall opposite the door and, with my thumbnail, I inscribed a little cross in the plaster: being catholic I made my confession to God. I promised Him that if I escaped I would speak everywhere of what I seen during that night; and I also promised that to those lying in the corridor; I said my prayers and waited.
The cries had ceased; I heard nothing other than some groaning through the door. The agents had returned to the room, one after the other; they had gone to sleep; the radio was silent. Towards 9 a.m. (I saw the time in the van) they came to get me: the agent untied me and made me understand that I was to put on my shoes and shirt. When he opened the door I blenched at the sight of the lifeless bodies hanging along the corridor. The agent looked at me as if he was surprised by me reaction and pushed me down the staircase, towards the exit, into a police vehicle, which took us, four prisoners as well as me, to another centre of the intelligence service in Damascus. The whole journey was accompanied by the sound of patriotic songs at full blast to the glory of Bashar al-Assad.
It was the centre of Palestine branch, which had been bombed a few days earlier.
After having been completely undressed and submitted to two meticulous physical searches, I was again interrogated. This time nobody laid a finger on me. I received only indirect threats: while I was being questioned, just beside me a man was tapping on a metal cupboard with a long wooden slat; and, right next to me, many agents were torturing an old man whose eyes had been covered; they pushed him in order to make him fall, beat him on the ground and then started again.
No bunk this time, just the cold ground.
When the Syrian authorities understood that I was no danger to them I was thrown into a basement, the civil prison of Bab al-Musalla, to await removal from the country.
I was transferred in a van with blacked-out windows. A boy of between fourteen and sixteen, hands cuffed behind him, was opposite me. His bare legs had been burned with electricity, and were covered with black holes the size of trouser buttons.
I was removed from the vehicle before him. I know neither where he was taken nor what happened to him. Nor do I know his name.
I was shut up in a cell with political prisoners who had amazing solidarity: they took care of me, gave me something to eat, helped me wash, and lent me a mat and blanket.
Some of them had been in this basement for more than two years without even a small window, not seeing the sun nor knowing if, outdoors, it was night or day. The majority had been tortured before finishing up there. Ahmed told me of his twenty-eight days in the hands of the intelligence service, how he had been beaten several times a day with blows from cable and sticks for more than a month, an unending martyrdom.
In that prison I met prisoners of all nationalities: Algerians, Saudis, Iraqis, Sudanese, Somali, Palestinians, Syrians of course, of whom many realising they were going to be expelled, were waiting for eternity, a human eternity of imprisonment, an order or help which would remove them from this rat-hole. The most touching story was that of Mohammad, a Kashmiri, locked up for six months: for the Indian embassy he was Pakistani, for the Pakistani he was Indian. Since all his family were dead he was alone in the world. Several times a day he sat in a corner and wept silently. There was also Ali, a Kazakh, arrested, his passport lost: his embassy had informed him that he did not appear on the register of population; for months he had been languishing there with no identity; he no longer existed. Abandoned to his fate just like many refugees nevertheless profiting from a UN passport: the Syrian UNO bureaucrats responsible for the Damascus refugees, rotten to the core, deal only with the files of those able to pay the kickback.
Everything has to be paid for. On his arrival the prisoner empties his pockets and opens his luggage if he has any. The warders go crazy: their eyes glitter at the sight of banknotes. They confiscate anything they fancy: clothes, shoes, perfume… They split part of the money between them, sometimes all of it. In my case they took all that had been returned to me by the intelligence service. Anybody who does not have relatives outside, to pay, gets nothing more than one meal a day, always identical, and not every day: slices of bread, onions, a bowl of rice is stuck in the middle of the cell and the prisoners rush for it.
No soap. No toothbrush. No clean clothes.
Moneyless and banned from using the telephone I myself was in just that Kafkaesque situation: as a person going to be expelled it is necessary, in order to get out of that gaol, for somebody to produce an airline ticket in the prisoner’s name, in order for a team to take him to the airport prison to await the flight. But nobody knew I was in Bab al-Musalla…
With the assistance of my prison-companions I managed to get a message outside by bribing a warder. The Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs at once started the process to get me out of Syria. I was freed on May 23rd.
The day before my liberation a young Syrian had arrived in Bab al-Musalla. He had been arrested by the police because he had got himself a false passport and hidden himself in order to evade his military service. “They are going to force me to kill innocent people” he told me, “but I’d rather kill myself.” So I left prison for freedom, while he was left to the intelligence service. He gave me his name and through his Facebook account I have been trying since then to contact him. In vain.
The six days of Hell I lived through, the night in which I was tortured, in Homs and above all during which I saw my companions in misery being tortured in a much more violent manner than I myself had been, were moments of intense physical and mental suffering. Nevertheless I do not regret having witnessed all that: now it is my job to make witness in the name of all those I left behind me.
Until now, as far as Syria goes I have always defended the principles of Westphalian law and those of national sovereignty and no intervention. I have denounced neo-colonial wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq or in Libya, led by economic motives and geostrategic considerations, whose “humanitarian” aims were no more than crudely dressed-up pretences.
But in view of the horror I have witnessed, for each of those men I have seen atrociously mutilated by barbarians serving a dictatorship whose outrages and degree of ferocity I could never have imagined, I now join in their call for military intervention in Syria, which will overthrow the abominable Baath regime: even if the country has to sink into civil war, if that terrible descent is necessary, it must be pursued in order to put an end to forty-two years of an organised terror, of whose proportions I had no idea.
I would never pretend to speak for the Syrians. I am merely passing on the unanimous message which was given me by the fighters of the SLA, the prison companions tortured to death, the friends in Bab al Musalla: Bashar al-Assad has his supporters among the Alawites among the Christians and the other minorities, also among the Sunnis who fear radical Islamism; but “the majority of the population no longer wishes to live in this country which is not a country but a regime. The SLA is prepared. It already holds many bastions and also has a presence in the big cities. In Damascus and Aleppo, unseen, awaiting the moment for a general insurrection. But that moment can only occur if the western democracies provide real military support. The SLA lacks the military power to confront the regime’s army, an army well equipped that has imposed itself for more than a year without having even used its special armoured units, its planes or its helicopters; an army fashioned by the regime in order to remain faithful to it. The SLA can only destroy the regime if the West destroys its heavy material, the tanks and the planes. And, if the West provides its support, floods of people will pour out on to the streets and quantities of soldiers themselves will join in the revolution; but at the moment they know that the regime is strong and that it is gaining the upper hand and they are frightened. Unfortunately nobody wants to help us. The western counties talk a lot; they watch but do nothing. For there is nothing to be gained here. The regime knows this. It is for that reason that it does hesitate to torture, to kill and bomb. It knows that nobody will do anything. That it has nothing to fear. We are alone.” (J., at Bab al-Musalla)
Syria has no economic value to attract the western powers and motivate them to intervene. Quite the opposite: from a geostrategic view the government of Bashar al- Assad has the actual support of the United States, which has been conducting a policy of rapprochement since 2001; of Israel which congratulates itself on this outspoken neighbour but provides it with a strong frontier along the Golan; of the European Union which purchased 98% of Syrian oil and looks anxiously at the destabilisation of this pivotal power in the middle East; of China and of Russia, for whom Syria is the only remaining Arab ally, and with a window on the Mediterranean.
A western military intervention, which would force the Russian position, would certainly represent a unique case of the engagement of powers in an enterprise from which they could acquire no profit whatsoever. Incha’Allah.
Pierre PICCININ (Political scientist – Historian – Brussels)
Lebanon and Syria (12th to 23th May 2012)
Translation : Tony DAVIS
© This article may be freely published under condition of mentioning the source (www.pierrepiccinin.eu)