A Few Thoughts on Torture in Syria
If one follows certain Middle Eastern “experts” such as Joshua Landis, or As`ad AbuKhalil (a firm detractor of the “lousy” Syrian opposition) or even Miriam Cooke, good friend of Bouthaina Shaaban, (Shaaban whom I once wrongly thought a writer if not a “scholar”) one could be fooled. Maybe one could believe the amazing leftist propaganda that the Baathist regime Syria is the protector of Arab honor, stable and stalwart against Israel. Yet, the Syrian regime consistently acted to factionalize and weaken the Palestinian resistance.
As for torture and illegal political detentions, Syria has long earned a fearsome reputation. There is nothing new, novel or surprising here. The government’s crimes against its own people – against humanity and morality – have gone on for decades.
I want to sketch just two incidents that illustrate Assad’s “honorable” system. One was detained in September of 1993. It’s long ago, and I had been sick the previous month with “summer fever.” I was enjoying a walk in the area just below Sha`lan with my daughter and my ex-husband. Suddenly, he saw something that we did not, and pushed us down the street and into a doorway. I poked my head back out and saw several men pushing another man clad only in a towel around his waist. My ex-husband was extremely upset, but waited. Once the group had disappeared from sight, he rushed up into the building from which they’d emerged. He yelled at us to wait. The man’s mother was in their flat, crying. They had pushed her around and forced him out from the shower into the street. No-one knew where they had taken him. My ex-husband made inquiries. Others made inquiries. We thought he might be suspected of being a member of the Maoist-oriented student group, although my ex-husband said he was not. This is the first time that I ever contacted Middle East Watch. I wrote them and then, while at the Middle East Studies Association meetings, met with Joe Stork. I realized that at the time, Human Rights Watch (Middle East Watch being a sub-division) had little presence in the country, but that without documenting his disappearance, nothing could be done. He was released about six months later. He had been interrogated, of course. In the interim, we were harassed by security forces in the middle of the night several times. There was no email at the time, and I said nothing over the telephone and nothing to other researchers I met in Damascus or elsewhere in Syria. I never forgot his mother’s despair at not being able to find out anything, not a shred of information while he was “in.”
Years later, I encountered another “lucky” former prisoner. He had survived thirteen years in a hell-hole run by anti-Arafatist Palestinians under the full authority and knowledge of the Syrian governement. Torture to his face, his ears, his genitals via electrodes, he’d lost most of his teeth and had to have implants. He’d been beaten, burned, and held in the “coffin” (a horizontal holding space where one can only lie down) He’d learned to amuse himself by crafting little toys. He’d lost his youth. He watched another prisoner become incontinent while the guards mocked him for soiling himself. He’d lost his reputation in the political movement, for even with his return to his own family, some people suspected or claimed that there was some valid reason that the Syrian government allowed his abduction. He was released only because he made friends with one of his guards. When that guard went on holiday to visit his family member in Amman, he made a telephone call to the prisoner’s family member who was able to connect with the Red Cross. The Red Cross had never been allowed to see him or come into the facility, but suddenly, it was arranged. I don’t know if he gave his testimony to Middle East Watch, as I urged him to do – probably not, as he hadn’t worked through his experience as yet and did not want to disparage the Palestinian movement that he still believed in. It is possible that there are still 50 or more prisoners in that particular, special facility.
Now just imagine the thousands who are the newer recipients of torture, as this regime exerts itself to stamp out protest and opposition. Say a prayer for them. Or at least pity them.