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After 4 years in prison, recently released Damascene says ‘the vibrancy the city once had is no longer there’

It was 3am when Ayham a-Saad, an architect from Damascus, […]

It was 3am when Ayham a-Saad, an architect from Damascus, woke to find government security agents in his bedroom. The men pulled Ayham from his bed, handcuffed him and drove him to the Department of Military Intelligence’s notorious Palestine Branch in Damascus.

Accused of terrorism and conspiring against the state, a-Saad landed in Sednaya prison, a potent symbol of fear for many Syrians. Arrested in April 2012, he disappeared for four years.

“Before I was put in prison I was sure that those inside where guilty of some sort of crime,” a-Saad tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier. “Every inch of the prison tells the story of a different prisoner, charged on false pretenses.”

Abuses in the Sednaya prison are well documented.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent violations monitor, estimates at least 117,000 people have been arbitrarily arrested and detained since the uprising began in 2011. Thousands are thought to have died in detention, and thousands more are missing.

After four years, a-Saad’s father was able to find an intelligence officer willing to release his son, but only in return for SP10,000,000 ($46,000).

Out of prison since late June, a-Saad wants to leave Syria as soon as possible. “There is no future for anyone in war.”

  We want our detained colleagues back,” reads graffiti in Damascus. Photo courtesy of The Creative Memory.

For now, a-Saad says he is afraid to leave his house. “We live in a state of fear of what might happen when we pass through checkpoints.”

Q: When you left prison did you find many of your friends and family had fled the country?

When I left prison, I found my brother and a number of other men in my family had fled the country with their wives and children. Most of them left about a year after I was arrested. Most of my wife’s family had settled in Turkey or different European countries.

Q: How did this affect you?

I was most affected when I returned from prison and my brother had left the country for fear of being arrested.

I also hadn’t seen my son, who was born while I was in prison.

Q: How had your neighborhood changed?

The entire country has changed. Whole neighborhoods were erased by the regime when it lost control over them.

Many people are simply tired of the war, but still there are others who wish the revolution would continue. But many, like our neighbors, have decided it’s best to leave the country.

Q: Has Damascus changed?

It has completely changed. The vibrancy the city once had is no longer there. We live in a state of fear of what might happen when we pass through checkpoints.

The cost of living went up with a massive influx of internally displaced from around the country. The parks and squares in the city are packed.

Q: How did you get news while inside the prison?

The new prisoners would come in with the latest news. Whenever a new prisoner arrived we were desperate to get the latest news from him, just to know what was happening outside.

Q: Was there anything that sticks out to you about your experience as particularly shocking?

What shocked me the most was to see young men, 18 years old, come to prison charged with conspiring against the state’s security. They would come because their name resembled the name of another thought to be guilty. Those brought in would lose their whole lives just because of a similarity of name.

Q: Could you describe your arrest? What were you charged with?

I was arrested on April 12, 2012. It was 3am and I was asleep in my home when security forces broke in. It wasn’t until they were standing over me in my bedroom that I knew they had entered the house.

Even as they were driving me, I didn’t fully grasp the situation. They kept striking me in the head with their hands as I repeatedly told them I hadn’t committed any crimes. They kept saying “you dogs are trying to ruin the country” and cursing my family.

When the car came to a halt they brought me into the Palestine branch.

[Ed.: Palestine Branch is a widely feared branch of the Department of Military Intelligence in Damascus, also referred to as Branch 235.]

From there, they escorted me into a small detention room filled with dozens of detainees. The room was so overcrowded there wasn’t even space to sit.

There were also a number of children being detained; many were crying out of fear.

I stayed in the same room, trembling from fear and standing for 12 hours before the officers called me into an investigator’s room.

When I arrived the interrogator said: “Welcome. So you want to destroy the country?”

I told him I didn’t do anything. When I would respond, they told me to shut up. “You dogs, you’re going out protesting for freedom, but you’re conspiring against the security of our country,” he shouted. 

After hurling accusations at me, the investigator told the other officers to take me away. As I understood it, I was charged with being a terrorist who conspired against the state.

Q: So you spent four years in prison. Describe what your days were like.

Each morning would begin with the sound of guards screaming at us.

We weren’t allowed to respond, not a single word. We had to listen and obey. It was as though we were slaves or cattle.

Each day was different. What remained the same was that the quality of our day depended on one thing: the mood of the guard. Even food depended on his mood. If he wasn’t in a terrible mood, he would give us food without throwing it on the ground.

But often we ended up picking our bulgur off the ground.

They would often come with meals for 25 people, but the food wasn’t enough for five of us. What they brought could hardly be called food it in the first place. It was dirty, often crawling with insects. Honestly, it was simply filler for our stomachs—to keep us from dying of starvation.

Q: Throughout your four years in prison, how did you keep your sanity?

The things I saw in prison were beyond comprehension. The mind can’t grasp them. Every day the guards would pull dead bodies from our holding cell. Of course, you don’t know what happens to the corpse afterwards. Do they bury them? Where do they take them?

I broke into a panic after the first time I saw a dead body. It was terrifying, everyone looked on as though it was completely routine. I began sobbing and trembling uncontrollably. I went into shock.

I asked the other prisoners why they didn’t move to help him. They said this was normal. If I was going to survive, I would have to adjust. Even though I adjusted to the sight of death, I continued to cry. People would die in front of me, but there was nothing I could do to help.

The only way I would cope was to imagine my family. I’d picture my family, my wife and my kids. This what gave me the energy to look after my health. In the end I had no options. I would either be released or die.

Q: After you were released from prison, did you notice changes in yourself?

My time in prison changed my personality and worldview.

Before I was put in prison I was sure that those inside were guilty of some sort of crime.

When I entered I saw that every inch of the prison tells the story of a different prisoner, charged on false pretenses, completely innocent of any crime.

Q: How did you survive day to day without losing hope?

When I first arrived, I was completely hopeless. No one who enters the prison leaves alive. I felt completely defeated and constantly in pain. The only thing I had was hope in my family and the fact that I might see them again.

Q: Now that you’ve left the prison, what do you hope for your future?

There is no future in left in Syria. There’s no future for anyone in war. I’m trying to leave Syria, if, for nothing else, just to ease the memories. 

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