During the three years she spent inside a Syrian government prison, Rasha Sharbaji saw a fellow prisoner tortured to death in front of her, gave birth to twins via forced caesarean section and witnessed guards as they doused female prisoners with boiling water.
But the hardest moment, Sharbaji says, was six months into her imprisonment when officers took away her children, who had been arrested alongside her in Damascus in May 2014, and placed them in an orphanage in a nearby town.
“I cried for an entire week,” the 34-year-old tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar from Idlib province, where she has reunited with her husband and five children since her release three weeks ago.
Sharbaji’s case gained worldwide attention in 2015 when Samantha Power, the then-ambassador to the UN, named her as part of the “Freethe20” campaign to shed light on unlawfully detained women around the world.
An agreement between the regime and the Free Syrian Army finally freed Sharbaji from the basement of Damascus’s Mezzeh prison earlier this month.
Sharbaji and her children on February 13. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Media Center.
Her detainment, she says, was part of an effort to capture her opposition-linked husband, “who was accused of being the largest weapons trader in Syria.”
Now, though safe and surrounded by family, Shabarji’s children hardly recognize their mother after more than two years in the orphanage.
“They’re always begging for me to return them to their caretaker back at the orphanage, who they believe is their real mother,” Shabarji says. “They cry to me, ‘we want our mama who’s in the orphanage!’ This hurts me deeply.”
Q: Describe the day you were arrested. Where were you? What happened?
On May 22, 2014, I was at the immigration and passport center in Damascus, applying for passports for my children. I was with my two sisters-in-law and my three children: Mohammed, Mona and Batool. I was also pregnant with my twin daughters Marwa and Safa.
When I handed our paperwork to the employee, he summoned a security officer, who took the papers and asked me to come with him to the supervisor’s office.
The supervisor confiscated our things and our cell phones, and called a police squad to escort us immediately to the Aviation Department, which hosts the senior leadership of the Air Force Intelligence, where we were interrogated multiple times.
After I told the interrogators some information about my husband, they blindfolded me and led me somewhere downstairs, where I was interrogated by another person. The officer played some of my husband’s phone conversations, which were obtained with the help of the Lebanese government.
Then I was taken to the Mezzeh Military Airport, where I was assigned the number 714. They told me that my real name wouldn’t be used inside the prison and from now on, I’d be referred to as 714. They gave my children numbers as well, and placed us in a cell by ourselves.
I never received a trial or even the reason for my detainment. I didn’t participate in any political activities. But I did support my husband, who worked with the opposition since the start of the revolution.
What I understood is that they were holding me because of my husband, who was accused of being the largest [opposition] weapons trader in Syria. They detained my family to pressure my husband to turn himself in.
Things in prison were extremely, indescribably difficult. It wasn’t clean, and the food was horrible. We only ate it so we wouldn’t die. Most of the time I ate boiled potatoes. Some days I’d get bulgur or olives.
Blankets were infested with lice and other insects.
Interrogations were terrifying. Whenever officers interrogated me, they threatened to make me have an abortion if I didn’t tell them what they wanted. They threatened to beat and torture me if I didn’t tell them about my husband’s whereabouts. They always threatened to kill my children and throw their bodies from the window if I didn’t give them every detail.
The mental stress I endured wore me down. I surrendered and told them everything about my husband’s work and partners. They wanted to know the smallest detail, down to what he ate and drank, what hour he woke up in the morning.
Q: Can you tell me more about your husband? Why was the regime interested in him?
My husband used to work in Darayya, but then moved to Qalamoun, then to Wadi Barada and Lebanon. I was arrested while he was in Lebanon. He eventually moved to Daraa and then smuggled himself to the north of Syria and settled in Idlib.
My husband worked with the opposition from the beginning. He was a member of the Darayya-based rebel group Liwaa Shuhadaa al-Islam. He also worked as a weapons trader, smuggling weapons to rebel areas. He helped rebels move the injured to Lebanon and he delivered humanitarian relief supplies as much as he could.
Sharbaji and her children on February 13. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Media Center.
Q: What were some moments or events from your detainment that stick with you the most?
I’ll never forget seeing a male prisoner getting tortured to death in front of me. I saw women detainees beaten with clubs. Officers poured boiling or ice cold water over them.
There were several times that I thought I was going to die. At one point, I was placed in solitary confinement. I felt that I would become just a number, a statistic, along with all the other detainees who died in regime prisons.
Q: Describe your experience giving birth to your twin daughters in prison. What happened to the twins after they were born?
Two weeks before I gave birth, I was moved to a prefabricated trailer with my children and my sisters-in-law. They took me to the military hospital to give birth, and left my children behind. My children cried a lot in my absence. I felt that I wouldn’t return to them.
In the hospital, the doctor forced me to undergo a caesarean section because I was pregnant with twins (Marwa and Safaa). The post-natal services inside the prison were deplorable.
The period of time when I was in labor/giving birth was one of the hardest parts of my detainment, and I would prefer not to go into detail.
Q: What was the most difficult part of your time in prison?
When the officers took all five of my children away from me. I felt like I was going to die without them. I cried for an entire week and went on a six-day food strike. I had blood loss and lime deficiency, especially after childbirth.
I only cared about my children, all five of whom were suffering. All of them stayed in the same prison cell with me, in addition to my husband’s two sisters, who stayed with me for the length of my detainment and were released alongside me.
At one point, they moved my children to an orphanage in [the Damascus suburb of] Qudsayya, under the pretense that they were going to vaccinate them. This was a shock to me.
I kept asking to see my children but the guards wouldn’t let me. They told me it was impossible.
Q: While you were held in prison, regime forces continued their blockade and bombings over your hometown of Darayya. In August 2016, the last remaining residents were evacuated to Idlib under a truce deal between rebels and the regime. Were you aware of what was happening to Darayya and its residents? Did you know anything about the destruction that occurred during your time in prison?
No, I wasn’t aware. I stayed in prison for two years, eight months and 15 days, and I had no communication with my husband or my family. That was forbidden.
Q: Can you describe how you felt when you arrived in Idlib and saw your family for the first time in almost three years? Were you able to take your children with you? What was your family’s reaction when they saw you?
When the intelligence officers informed me that they would free me, my children and my sisters-in-law, I was numb. I couldn’t believe what they were telling me.
I had lost all hope of ever leaving, so this felt like a dream. Even now, I still can’t believe this happened. Thank God for my luck. I was freed on February 8, 2017.
They freed me and my children and my two sisters-in-law through a deal with the regime. Their names were included within a list that was part of a prisoner exchange deal between the regime and the Free Syrian Army.
I forgot all my exhaustion and my sadness in the moment I encountered my family and my husband. It’s impossible to describe what I felt then. It was like heaven. My husband is everything to me, especially since he helped carry out the negotiations to free me from my nightmare.
Sharbaji on February 10. Photo courtesy of Hadi al-Abdallah.
Q: How are you and your children coping with life in Idlib, now that you are out of prison?
My children are psychologically exhausted, and they don’t know how to adjust to being by my side again. They got used to life in the orphanage. This is especially true for my twin daughters, who were raised far away from me.
They’re always begging for me to return them to their caretaker back at the orphanage, who they believe is their real mother. They cry to me, “we want our mama who’s in the orphanage!” This hurts me deeply.
I’ve started communicating with someone in Idlib who specializes in psychological support. He’s coming to visit us soon to help me and my children process all the shock that we’re going through.
I feel exhausted. I haven’t found happiness, even though I’m free, because I still have friends detained inside Assad’s prisons.
Q: In 2015, as part of her “FreeThe20” campaign, US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power included your name on a list of 20 women political prisoners from around the world who deserved to be freed. As a former political prisoner, a woman and a Syrian, what is your message to the international community?
My message to the international community is to shoulder its responsibility for the Syrian people, and to stop this criminal, butcher-like regime. The regime has tortured people, destroyed the country, dropped chemical weapons, bombed homes, killed civilians and driven men, women and children out of their homes.
I urge international human rights organizations to enter the regime prisons and force the release of the female prisoners. They need to document the methods of torture and inhumanity inflicted on all [the regime’s] opponents, and improve conditions in the prisons, as well as urge an end to arbitrary detainment—especially of women and children.