Hamam Rameeh still isn’t sure why exactly he was targeted for arrest in late April.
The 25-year-old father lives in one of the dozen or so towns within the encircled perimeter of East Ghouta, a besieged rebel enclave in the eastern Damascus suburbs controlled largely by the Islamist faction Jaish al-Islam.
Disputes between the Islamist faction and its rivals erupted into violent fighting on April 28, when Jaish al-Islam began launching attacks in Rameeh’s hometown of Arbin. The clashes followed an earlier round of infighting in 2016 that divided East Ghouta into two main spheres of influence: Jaish al-Islam on one side, and a handful of other factions—including Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra—on the other.
Just one day after April’s fighting broke out, Rameeh says dozens of Jaish al-Islam fighters “stormed” his home and transferred him to a prison in nearby Douma, East Ghouta’s de facto capital.
“They accused me of affiliation with Jabhat a-Nusra, and of working with a sleeper cell,” he tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.
But Rameeh says he never fought for Jabhat a-Nusra. A former student at Damascus University, he joined the Free Syrian Army in 2013 and left after just four months.
“This is just an accusation that Jaish al-Islam always throws around against people they want to arrest.”
Q: Tell us the details of your imprisonment by Jaish al-Islam. What were you accused of?
I was taken from my house in Arbin at one o’clock in the afternoon on April 29, the second day of renewed infighting in East Ghouta. Around 70 fighters stormed my house, all of them with their faces covered so that I couldn’t recognize anyone.
They told me to come with them so they could ask me a few questions, and that I would return home to my family immediately.
But after we left my house, they began punching me and hurling insults and accusations. Then they drove me to the security headquarters for interrogation.
They accused me of being affiliated with Jabhat a-Nusra, and of working with a sleeper cell. This is just an accusation that Jaish al-Islam always throws around against people they want to arrest. Previously, when they first took power [in East Ghouta], the usual accusation was complicity against the revolution and collaboration with the regime.
Jaish al-Islam fighters in East Ghouta, February 2016. Photo courtesy of Amer Almohibany/AFP/Getty Images.
Q: How did the investigation pan out? Can you describe conditions inside of the prison?
At first, the investigator began asking me many questions—for example, whether I was a member of Jabhat a-Nusra—and when I answered ‘no,’ he accused me of being a liar.
The questions revolved around Jabhat [a-Nusra]: ‘Who do you know in Jabhat a-Nusra?’ ‘What do you do in Jabhat a-Nusra?’
After a long round of questioning, he asked me what I studied [in university]. I told him I was studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree last year in Damascus University, but had to stop my studies because of the current infighting.
He then told me that [Jaish al-Islam] is against any studies, viewpoints, universities, schools and anything else that deviates from their own way of thinking—even the Islamic colleges must teach [Jaish al-Islam’s] approach.
As for conditions inside of the prison, I was kept blindfolded and could barely see anything. I was able to discern a long, vaulted hallway and many rooms to my right and left. On the second floor was the investigations wing, which took up a large portion of the prison. However, this was all I could figure out about [that part of] the prison before being transferred to the torture wing.
In the torture wing, I walked in with my eyes blindfolded. Some of the prisoners told me that the torture was ‘the same used by the regime—there’s nothing new here. Electrical shocks, hanging you up by your limbs, tearing out your fingernails.’
I sat down and heard the sounds of torture all around me.
Q: How were you able to leave the prison? Are you worried about being arrested again?
I was in prison for only two days because I have connections with the commanders of Jaish al-Islam. They released me after concluding that I’m not a member of any faction, and that I’m a civilian.
So my connections saved me from prison before they could start torturing me—I was lucky. Those who don’t have connections will stay in prison for a long time.
As for the future, I’m not scared of Jaish al-Islam. I’m continuing my studies here in Ghouta. After all, where else can I flee to? There’s nowhere else we can go.