A Syrian artist who was accused of being an opposition activist and tortured in a detention centre has drawn pictures of his experiences – and described how he became numb to death, as dead bodies were piled up in the cell he shared with dozens of other naked prisoners. Some readers will find his account disturbing.
It is dark, cold and there is an overpowering smell of death and disease. Nearly 70 men are cramped in a room measuring 3m by 4m – one of hundreds of cells inside Syria’s notorious detention centres. The men are skinny, naked and shivering with fear. They have no dignity. Day in day out, death and fear surrounds them till they accept it as normal.
“They used to bring the bodies from the basement and pile them in front of us,” says the artist, whom I will call Sami.
“Every day there would be about eight new bodies. After a week I managed to get closer and count the number written on a body’s forehead. It was 5,530 – and after a month and a half, the number on another body was 5,870.
“I got used to it. The first night I saw a dead body and smelled it, I felt so sick and sad I couldn’t sleep. But later on we were eating while a dead body was next to us. I remember leaning on a dead body and thinking, ‘When are they going to remove it so I can have more space?'”
Sami was arrested twice in the years after the Syrian uprising in 2011. His crime was coming from a town, a religious group and a family that had revolted against President Bashar al-Assad.
“I had long curly hair when I was detained for first time. This modern look was a sign for the government that I belong to the co-ordination committees that organised protests. The security officer dragged me by my hair and told his boss, ‘We’ve got one of the co-ordinators sir,'” Sami told me.
“I was picked up on my way to work, my head was covered and I was put in a car. I don’t know where they took me but they put me in a hall while my hands were tied with wires. They started beating me up madly. Then I reached the detention centre. I was bleeding, bones broken, ears damaged so that I couldn’t hear properly. The place was like Dante’s inferno. You are constantly tortured and you hear the cries of people being tortured. I was kept in the basement maybe seven storeys down.”
Sami’s second period of detention was even worse. He spent three months in a detention cell before being referred to terrorism court, set up under an anti-terrorism law issued in 2012. He was accused of inciting terrorism and threatening state security. He was imprisoned awaiting trial for nine months.
Eventually, Sami was able to bribe his way out. He paid nearly $15,000 to get out of prison and later out of the country.
“Your family pays money to find a key person inside the detention cells who can help keep you alive,” he says. “Money is paid so that prisoners are transferred from a detention cell to prison, where they are referred to the terrorism court.”
His wife, Fidaa (not her real name) had the difficult job of finding the right person to bribe. It took $3,000 simply to find out where Sami was being held.
Then she had to pay money to ensure that Sami would not continue to be tortured. One of the people who promised to help ensure Sami’s release disappeared after a week, forcing her to look for another contact who might help.