“In Syria, everything has a price,” says Umm Mohammed, a mother of three originally from south Damascus, who describes here how she ended up paying bribes to keep her youngest son in prison and out of the Syrian army.
In early 2014, Umm Mohammed hired a lawyer to organize a visit to her youngest son, Ahmed, at Damascus’s Adra Prison, where he had been held for more than a year. Just northeast of Damascus, the prison has a capacity for 3,000, but its inmate population is estimated at twice that figure.
Shortly after her first visit, Umm Mohammed says that the lawyer informed her that the regime would soon force Ahmed into military service.
“I asked him: ‘What can I do to keep him here? Don’t send him to the front,’” Umm Mohammed tells Syria Direct’s Omaima al-Qasem.
“How much can you pay?” was the lawyer’s response, according to Umm Mohammed.
Over the next two years, Umm Mohammed says she paid the lawyer SP8,000,000 (≈$14,545), money he claims to split with a prison official to keep her son in his cell and off the front lines.
Umm Mohammed admits she’s “never met any of the prison officials” and that “the lawyer handles everything.”
While Umm Mohammed is frustrated by the lawyer’s “exploitation” of the family’s situation, she says that “sometimes I think it’s better that Ahmed is here where I can visit him.”
“At least this way he won’t die fighting in the army.”
Photo courtesy of Salah al-Din Rebels Council and Creative Memory.
Q: When was your son arrested and how?
In early 2013, we moved to Jordan from Daraa because of the fighting there and because many young men were being arrested by the regime. We lived in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. After three months, Ahmed, my youngest son, went back to Syria. He was tired of life in the camp and all of his friends were in Daraa.
Two days after he left, we stopped hearing news from him. We started calling relatives in Syria but nobody had heard anything. Finally, after two months, Ahmed called his cousin to tell him he had been arrested at a regime checkpoint in Daraa and was being held at the Adra Prison.
At first we stayed in Zaatari. I was afraid that if I went back I’d lose my other children or put them in danger. But after seven months, my other son, Muhannad, went back to Syria to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He would always say: “When I came here I felt like a traitor. They threw my brother in prison and I’m just sitting here in this tent like a woman.”
I had no choice but to go back as well to be close to Muhannad. I didn’t want to lose him like I lost his brother. Muhannad lives in the rebel-controlled part of Daraa. Whenever the regime tries to invade the area he goes to the front where the FSA is fighting.
A month after we got back, I hired a lawyer and he organized for me to go to Adra to visit Ahmed. My family name is different than my children’s so I can pass through regime checkpoints.
When I saw him, it broke my heart. He had changed so much. He hugged me like a child and told me: “Please don’t leave mom. Don’t leave me here.” I was only allowed to visit for one hour.
Q: A few months after Ahmed was arrested, your lawyer said he would be sent into mandatory military service. You made the decision to pay money based on the lawyer’s promise that cash could keep your son from being conscripted, though you cannot verify any of this. Describe why you agreed to pay.
In Syria, everything has a price.
A year after Ahmed’s arrest, my lawyer told me that they had received orders to transfer him to mandatory military service. Ahmed was 20 years old. Before his arrest he had postponed military service to complete his studies. They said his service would begin at some point in early 2014.
In March 2014, I visited Ahmed again and I met with my lawyer. I asked him: “What can I do to keep him here? Don’t send him to the front. You can say he’s sick or that there’s something wrong with him so they won’t take him.” He just asked: “How much can you pay?” I said: “However much you want. Just don’t take let them take him to the front.” The lawyer said: “Don’t worry.”
That first time, I paid the lawyer SP3,000,000 (≈$5,454) My sister and I sold all of our gold and my brother transferred us SP500,000 (≈$909) from Kuwait.
Now, I visit Ahmed every three months and during each visit I meet with my lawyer to pay him. So far I’ve paid around SP8,000,000 (≈$14,545). Now I’m selling some of my husband’s land to get money for future payments.
Q: How does the lawyer keep your son in Prison? How long will you continue to pay?
The lawyer says he knows a regime officer at the prison. He gives him a portion of the money I pay him. He always says: “Don’t think I’m taking everything for myself.”
I’ve never met any of the prison officials. The lawyer handles everything.
I’ll keep paying until he is released from prison. [Ed.: It is not clear whether Ahmed would be released from prison or directly into the custody of the army for mandatory service.]
I’ve asked my lawyer several times to get him out so he can flee the country. I would pay millions, but he says he has no control of whether Ahmed is released or not.
I’m really tired of the lawyer’s exploitation of our situation. But at the same time I sometimes think it’s better for Ahmed to be here where I can visit him. At least this way he won’t die fighting in the army or trying to cross the sea.