Friends forever: Syrians who survived its most notorious prison

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Like any old friends separated by distance and the COVID-19 pandemic, Amthal Alnwawy, Abdulhakim Almassri, and Mahmoud greeted each other across a computer screen, chatting about their jobs, their children, and the current whereabouts of people they used to know. The trio last met in person five years earlier in Jordan, where they shared a leisurely lunch.

Before that meeting, the last — and only — place they had seen each other was in a prison cell in the notorious Branch 215 detention center in Damascus. They met as detainees in the Syrian Military Intelligence facility in July 2012. Although the time they spent together there was a matter of weeks, it forged a bond that lasted through the years.

“We never discussed that we were together to support each other, but inside we all knew it,” said Mahmoud, who asked that his real name not be published. Alnwawy and Almassri are from Deraa where the mass protests first kicked off 10 years ago this month, spurred by the arrest and torture of a group of teenage boys for spraying anti-government graffiti on a school wall. The protests met a violent crackdown but quickly spread throughout the country.

At the time, Almassri was still living in Deraa where he was a professor of economics. Alnwawy was in Damascus where he worked as a hospital administrator. Mahmoud was also in Damascus where he helped run his family’s business.

Coming from Deraa, Alnwawy and Almassri came quickly to support the opposition movement, joining protests and, in Almassri’s case, writing for an underground magazine in support of the revolution. Mahmoud’s involvement came later. In particular, he began providing aid to displaced people who had fled to Damascus from conflict zones.

Mahmoud and Alnwawy first met in one of the detention center’s underground cells, a 4-meter by 4-meter box where 60 or 70 men were packed together in the stifling summer heat. Alnwawy had been arrested at work and was still wearing his suit jacket and a pink shirt.

As a result, Mahmoud recalled, when he came in many of the prisoners got scared and stood up, thinking he was a security officer. “But afterwards when he took off the jacket, we knew he was one of us,” he said. Alnwawy took a seat next to Mahmoud and they struck up a conversation.

“I had just gone through a shock and I wanted someone just to help me understand where am I, what is this place … what are the steps that might happen?” Alnwawy said. Soon after, Almassri was brought to the cell and the three men formed a trio that would become their support system in the time they spent together.

Such informal support groups have helped many detainees to cope, said Ahmad Helmi, a Syrian former detainee now living in Turkey, where he co-founded Taafi, an initiative that supports detention survivors. The support is both physical — sharing food and scarce supplies such as blankets and soap — and psychological. “It helps you to adapt to the situation you are in, it helps you to keep hope, it helps you to survive, really,” Helmi said.

Torture and Branch 215

Ten years into the Syrian conflict, the conditions for prisoners have been back in the spotlight, with the conviction of a former Syrian intelligence agent as an accomplice to crimes against humanity in a landmark trial in Germany last month and with the release this month of a UN report on detention conditions in Syria.

“For nearly a decade, first the government and later all parties deliberately resorted to arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment … to intimidate and punish perceived political opponents and dissenting civilians and their families,” the report found. Branch 215 has been specifically cited in international reports on torture and deaths in custody.

The worst moments were on the sixth floor, where the interrogations took place. On the sixth floor, there was more food and more frequent trips to the toilet than downstairs. But Almassri recalled, “Anyone who was being interrogated, you would hear the screams and the sounds of beating.”

In one interrogation session, on the last day of Ramadan, he recalled, the interrogator pulled up a computer screen showing a screenshot of his son’s face. Almassri’s computer had been hacked to surveil him before his arrest, and now his son had apparently opened the device.

“Then they put me in the chair that breaks your back,” Almassri said, referring to the so-called “German chair” – a metal chair set up to bend the back into an unnatural position, causing excruciating pain. The jailer took a whip and “started hitting my back and my legs and everywhere”.

Mahmoud recalled his last session on the sixth floor when the interrogator suddenly presented him with a new list of serious – and false – charges. Knowing if he confessed he would be agreeing to a death sentence, Mahmoud refused. “[The officer] shouted at someone. This person came and he told him, ‘I’m done with this guy, get rid of him, kill him,’” Mahmoud recalled. “I felt he was serious.”

As luck would have it, the guard who he had been handed over to was distracted by the arrival of cheese sandwiches — apparently a rare treat — and handed him off to someone else who took him back downstairs. Mahmoud spent days in terror that the guard would come for him and finish the job.

The informal support groups formed inside were particularly essential after such moments. “When someone would come from the interrogation, his situation would be bad, he would be wiped out,” Almassri recalled. “We would try to make space for him to rest.”

The packed cells

Apart from the torture, there was the danger of dying of neglect. At one point, Mahmoud got sick with a high fever that left him fading in and out of consciousness for days. Another time, the electricity was cut off overnight, stopping the turbines that normally created a small amount of ventilation in the packed cells. The air became suffocating. Almassri was on the sixth floor at the time, while Mahmoud and Alnwawy were on opposite ends of the cell when the lights went out.

“Every so often I would hear him saying ‘Mahmoud, how are you?’ and I would tell him, ‘I’m OK, how are you?’ and he would say ‘Thank God, I’m ok,’” Mahmoud recalled. They would later hear that some 20 inmates had died that night in another section of the prison.

Ramadan brought its own difficulties. The detainees who were fasting during the day would try to set aside their lunch portions for iftar, but Alnwawy recalled, “With the heat that would sometimes reach 50 degrees [Celsius], from 1 or 2 pm to 8 pm, six or seven hours, often we would get to iftar time and the food would have started to go bad.” Even so, the familiar ritual of sitting together and breaking their fast brought comfort.

“The nice moments would be when we would sit and talk and chat and tell stories and amuse ourselves with the conversation,” Mahmoud recalled. “Sometimes we would lie to each other, tell each other news that wasn’t true. But it lets a person live 12 nice hours and go to sleep and get up.”

When the friends were laughing or singing or telling stories, he said, he used to wish the guards, would see them and think, “‘With everything we are doing to you, you’re still laughing and still singing, and you are still going to love each other and take care of each other? What more can we do to you so you will stop being human?’ “They did everything to us they could for us to become inhuman,” said Mahmoud.

‘Helps them to endure’

Stephanie Haddad, a clinical psychologist with the Lebanese Center for Human Rights who works with torture victims, noted many of the former prisoners she sees were held incommunicado and were not able to form relationships with other detainees.

But for those who could interact, she said, “The social relation that they have helps them to endure what’s happening around them. Because of the torture and the situation, there is a feeling of being inhuman. They are treated like animals, which is why I believe that the social links that they have with other people, prisoners, can make them feel like a person and [help them] to continue living.”

The mutual aid sometimes continues once detainees leave custody. Helmi recalled when he got out after three years of detention in different facilities in Syria, he was able to escape to Turkey through the help of one of the friends he met inside; in Turkey, he found a job through another one.

Through Taafi, he is now trying to broaden the peer support networks available to former detainees. “Almost all survivors tend to support other survivors, even if we don’t know them,” he said. “We share the pain, the anger.” In many cases, the first act of solidarity is upon release when the former prisoner is commissioned with contacting the families of people he met inside, to inform them their loved ones are alive.

When Alnwawy was released, he memorized 17 or 18 phone numbers. “After the first meeting with my family, and after I saw my mother and father and wife and children, the first thing I did was to go to the telephone because I was afraid I would forget the numbers,” he said.

Apart from the torture, there is the danger of dying of neglect in Syria’s prisons

Free men in Syria

Alnwawy and Mahmoud each spent about two months in prison and both fled Syria after their release, eventually getting asylum in different European countries.

Almassri, whose charges were more serious, remained until January 2013 when he was released as part of a prisoner swap, in which some 2,000 Syrian detainees were let out in exchange for the freeing of 48 Iranian captives held by rebels. He headed to rebel-controlled northern Syria where he is now minister of economy in the Turkish-backed Syrian interim government.

Eventually, the men found each other on Facebook and picked up the friendship again. In 2015, it happened that Alnwawy was living in Jordan and the other two had come to the country for business and family reasons. Mahmoud drove from Amman to Jerash to pick up Almassri, and the three of them met up at Alnwawy’s house in Ramtha.

There, over a meal of roasted chicken, rice, salad, and yogurt, instead of the scant portions of boiled potatoes they used to eat together, the three friends caught up and reminisced. “I was really happy in that meeting because I was seeing a dream, one of the dreams we used to talk about became reality,” Alnwawy said.

Now the friends hold onto another dream: that they will meet one day as free men in Syria and share a meal in Deraa or Damascus. That dream, in part, Mahmoud said, is why he has insisted on keeping in contact through the years. “I really wish for this moment to happen, and because of that, I want to keep my relationships with the people with whom I hope to share it,” he said.

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