Surviving torture in a Syrian prison made me who I am today
My journey from Syria’s notorious Branch 215 prison to the US’s Georgetown University.
Suppressing political opponents through force and torture is what dictators do. Today, for merely calling for their freedom, more than 100,000 civilians are suffering in Syria’s detention centres. I used to be one of them when I was still just a child.
Dictatorship is sustained by fear. To establish and maintain its power, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad runs a chain of political prisons to brutalise those who demand democracy.
Using starvation, abuse and psychological torture, it seeks to break down not only the prisoners but their families and others who would oppose it.
I grew up near Baniyas, a town in the Tartous Governorate in northern Syria, in a bustling family of siblings, uncles, aunts, and many cousins. When my mother would call my big brother, Mohammed, in for dinner, another five cousins with the same name would appear, and of course, gather around the table as well.
Like most of my siblings, I did not have a warm relationship with my father. He had been a military officer, retiring shortly before the upheaval began in Syria in early 2011. We questioned everything he did, but our thoughts stayed in our heads because he was not the sort of father you could talk to and he was angry a lot of the time.
My father relied on his military “toughness” to make sure we excelled at school. It was his dream that we would be good students.
If I needed money, I would go to my mother so that she would ask my father on my behalf. I never felt confident enough to ask him directly.
But one day – a few months before the beginning of the Arab Spring – everything changed. Almost overnight, my father changed his behaviour towards us, making an effort to be a father and a friend instead of just an officer.
Later, during my detention, I wondered if somehow he had known that we would become separated by war, imprisonment and, ultimately, death.
A kind of fear I had never felt before
When I was 15 years old, the Arab Spring shook dictatorships around the Middle East.
I hurried out to join the crowds on the streets of Baniyas to show my father that I was not a child any more, but a young man daring to stand beside strong leaders demanding freedom. I was eager for change – change in the way my father looked at me.
That was the first time I was thrown into a political prison. I was 15 years old and the Syrian regime viewed me as a threat.
I was held at a prison in Tartous, where I was tortured for a few days before my mother gathered the women in our area to blockade the main highway and put pressure on the regime to release me.
Those few days broke me physically and made me taste a kind of fear I had never felt before. I was tortured and had my fingernails pulled out. I was surrounded by dead bodies. I could not see the guards who tortured me because I was blindfolded. I imagined them in my head; to my 15-year-old self, they looked like zombies.
I was afraid I would not survive to see my mother and siblings again. I was afraid I would die before proving my strength to my father. I was even afraid to be released and return to school where everybody would be scared to look at my hands.
Then, in my last year of high school, when I was 17 years old, I was arrested again, along with three of my cousins – Bashir, 22, Rashad, 20, and Nour, 17. We were taken from our home and transferred between eight different political prisons so that no one would know where we were.
In August 2014, we were moved to what we called the “slaughterhouse” – Saydnaya prison, which brought a new level of pain and fear.
Our nails were pulled out; we were hung from the ceilings, electrocuted and mutilated. But the worst part was that we were forced to turn on each other. We had done nothing wrong so had nothing to inform on each other about. So, instead, they made us beat each other with belts and burn each other’s bodies with cigarettes.
Later, at Branch 215, a political prison in Damascus which we call the “branch of slow death”, Rashad died after months of torture on March 15, 2013. Bashir died a year later. I heard nothing about Nour, and I counted her dead too. I found myself alone in a place full of monsters, being tortured and waiting to die.
Gasping for air and sunlight
I grew up in prison. I witnessed the torture, starvation and dehumanisation that took place there. They are designed to implant fear and break people’s spirits so that, even once released, they will continue to suffer physically and mentally. Nightmares still haunt former detainees, including me. The psychological trauma that follows such systematic torture leaves a person isolated from society if they do not receive treatment.
Inside the prison, people sit in overcrowded cells, gasping for air and sunlight. The smell of death fills every corner and the screams of men, women and children echo in the hallways. Children as young as three were put in prison as punishment for their parents taking part in the peaceful protests in 2011.
You can never escape from it. The screams of my cousins, Bashir and Rashad, who both died under torture in front of my eyes, still ring in my ears today.
Many of the detainees in Syrian political prisons have been forcibly removed – or “disappeared” – from their families. Forced disappearance is used as a way to punish not only the political prisoners but their families as well, leaving them not knowing what has become of their loved ones.
In al-Assad’s Syria, families of detainees are refused any information about their whereabouts and wellbeing. It leads to years of uncertainty and pain.
At one point, the Syrian intelligence service told my mother I had died in prison. She grieved. My family held my funeral, without my body.
This has become the reality for so many in Syria. And it is part of the reason why so many people are fleeing for neighbouring countries and beyond. More than 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the start of the crisis.
The University of Whispers
During my years as a political prisoner, my only way of communicating with those around me was by whispering. We could not talk, so we whispered. Here I was, 18 years old, sitting in Branch 215, surrounded by highly-educated prisoners.
A doctor whispered us through how to protect ourselves during torture; how to breathe when they beat us. The psychologist in my cell shared techniques on how to keep our spirits up. The lawyers would think creatively about building a dictator-free prison, so no one prisoner took more power and food than the others.
Whispering allowed us, the political prisoners, to build a university inside one of the filthiest places in Syria. A university we called, The University of Whispers.
They burned everything down
In May 2013, as I was inhaling the smell of death crawling across the filthy walls of that prison, government forces attacked my village. They wanted to destroy everything and everyone. They killed my father and two of my brothers and set our house on fire with the rest of my family inside.
My mother and some of my siblings managed to escape, fleeing with other surviving neighbours to Turkey.
Once there, my mother managed to scrape together $20,000 that she used to buy my freedom and get me out of Syria. Under the guise of a mock execution, I was smuggled out of prison in June 2015.
I was a walking skeleton, weighing only 34 kilogrammes (75 pounds). I did not recognise myself in the mirror. I saw a monster. After years of only being able to whisper, I did not even recognise my own voice. When I was reunited with my mother in Turkey, we did not recognise each other – she was shocked to see me so weak and skinny.
My mother decided I had to leave Turkey for treatment. My little brother, Ali, who was only 11 at the time, was chosen to accompany me while the rest of our family remained in Turkey. Together we made our way by rubber boat from Izmir to Greece and then on through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Denmark and, finally, after a month of travel, ending up in Sweden, where I was immediately hospitalised for tuberculosis and malnourishment. We sought asylum and were later moved to Stockholm, where we stayed with a Swedish foster family we had met at the hospital.
My trauma became my driving force
Three years after my release from prison, I was living a different life in Sweden. Ali went back to school and I worked in management consultancy at the Stockholm office of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where I was first invited to speak to the staff about my experience and about leadership in crisis, then offered a job there. But I never stopped thinking about the people back home and my friends who were still in prison.
I had been able to break the chains that locked me and I knew I had an obligation to use my voice to echo the voices of those who could still only whisper.
I was lucky to find my own way of treating my trauma through public speaking. I shared my story on stage and with everyone I met; I used my trauma as a driving force.
I began giving talks in Sweden with the help of my Swedish foster brother, William Von Heland, and my friend, Anton Danielsson. Later, I went on to share my story around Europe and in the United States where I was helped by The Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), a US-based non-profit organisation.
While there I was working at BCG, which helped me to understand that the solution for war is not only a political one but an economic one as well. The corruption that sparked the movement for revolution in Syria was based on economic and fundamental human rights injustices.
I continue to hold talks at private companies, schools and municipalities around the world. I see sharing my story as my mission to bear witness not only to the atrocities of the Syrian war but also to the optimism and will for life that has by necessity stemmed from it.
Now, aged 25, I wanted to fulfil my father’s dream for me to get a great education from a respected school. So I applied, and on October 24 this year, I received an email from Georgetown University granting me admission.
Like most Syrian refugees, I have overcome unspeakable oppression and now just want to make the world a better place – and I want to start with learning.
As Nelson Mandela said: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.” I believe I have already passed through the valley of the shadow of death, and by holding the compass of education, I will have the map and the strength to reach the mountaintop of my aspirations.
Although my father cannot be here to see me fulfil his dream, at least I am here to do it.
Follow us on twitter (ajuede.com) or on Instagram (ajuedeman) for details of the global situation presently.
Like our page on facebook @ Info4everybody Last Wednesday, we published the success story from Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, a board-certified family practitioner in New York, after he successfully treated 350 coronavirus patients with 100 percent success using a cocktail of drugs: hydroxychloroquine, in combination with azithromycin (Z-Pak), an antibiotic to treat secondary infections, and zinc sulfate. Dr. Zelenko said he saw the symptom of shortness of breath resolved within four to six hours after treatment. Do you know that the ancient Egypt were civilized by architects from the (500,000 - 4000 BC) Nsukka Civiliation? Now, Dr. Zelenko provides updates on the treatment after he successfully treated 699 COVID-19 patients in New York. In an exclusive interview with former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, Dr. Vladmir Zelenko shares the results of his latest study, which showed that out of his 699 patients treated, zero patients died, zero patients intubated, and four ho
THE AKAN Copied from the book, Reality as Myth by Onyeji Nnaji . The influence of the Akan on their content nations lies on their population and commonwealth of their brother nations. The Akan are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. Their population is scattered across West Africa and beyond. Among this huge population of the Akan, the Ghanaians are more popular, perhaps because of the political influence of the Ashanti Empire in the area. Not much is heard or known about other Akan settlements like the Akwamu, the Akyem , the Akuapem, the Denkyira, the Abron, the Aowin, the Ahanta, the Anyi, the Baoule, the Chokosi, the Fante, the Kwahu, the Sefwi, the Ahafo, the Assin, the Evalue, the Wassa the Adjukru, the Akye, the Alladian, the Attie,the M'Bato, the Abidji, the Avikam,the Avatime the Ebrie,
Copied from the Book; " Reality as Myth " by Onyeji Nnaji The beauty of the discovering of the Radar Rivers and their channels is that it disproves the western hegemonic claim of the Euphrates valley being the position of the birth of the great river, all the points that opposed their claims notwithstanding. Even God himself was very perfect in His creation by placing them in their positions, hierarchically, according to their birth. The first river that flowed located the Havilah land where there are good quality gold, bdellium and fine onyx stones. Pison was the oldest of the rivers and it flowed through the land of the southern Africa. The second river flowed northward to Ethiopia. It was when Africa had been overtaken by virtue of her proximity to the Great Water that other parts of the world began to encounter the remaining river; remarkable with Hiddekel. Subscribe to ajuede.com to be updated on our posts on dailies. The major problem tow
Copied from the book, Reality as Myths by Onyeji Nnaji T he world of the Bantu travellers shows the walls of the migration that recorded the highest population among the African settlement. Originating from the largest population among the four races that settled in the east before time, all Bantu travellers were pygmies; for that was the nature of the Umudiala, the generation that gave birth to them. Bantu migration was rated the third earliest migration of the Negro race from the east. In this regard, all their movement had involved great population of people compared to the number of people involved in the two earlier populations that gave birth to Ethiopia, Nubia and Egypt: the Walker Traveller, and the Race of Anu. Bantu population as we have identified in the third chapter above outweighs the rest of the population of the ancient fathers that founded many of the nations of antiquity mentioned earlier. Discussing them in beat will pose a little challenge since
STRICTLY FOR COUPLES … You will know that the man is the head while you are his neck. As such, you direct his focus and make him fixative Our series include the following : * Show him what he looks out for from other women * Teach him like he knows nothing * Learn to play naked games with your husband * Learn to package yourself * Learn to work on your husband M y neighbour had v owed never to let any girl survive as a salesgirl in my shop. This thing has happened for over three times. Each time we brought a new salesgirl, the girl would stay for two or three months; and suddenly she would end her contract with us. In all these, my husband did not know. So, being that the girls usually stole money and other items, the reason for their departure became genuine, thus: they ran away to avoid being punished for their actions. But behind this, the underlying truth is that the girls had been embarrassed by my neighbour who would warn them to leave her loosed husband. Re
T he name Nkalaha is a coinage which stands for a people occupying a geographical land and regional setting in the eastern part of Nigeria. It is a coinage which attempts to explain the direction of movement and adventure of the men who founded the community in the 15th century AD. According to oral sources and some documentation about this community, some of these men were believed to have traveled from Ida, old Benue state of Nigeria to inhabit the land. These men had traveled on different days to locate the place. Onojah who originally founded the land was said to have been in a deep search for a place of safety as he was besieged by a fate that appeared to make him somewhat incompatible with his own people. Nkalaha is one of the communities that make up Ishielu Local Government Area of Ebonyi State. Nkalaha occupied the northern part of Ishielu Local Government Area. She is located through the zip 135.031.000. The community sits on 923.768km 2 . She shares boundaries
The Mystery of Number, “Five” in the Igbo Cosmology. From: Aspects of the Ancient African Metaphysics; Chapter: Seven; Topic: Igbo Geometries and the Metaphysics of Numbers. Author: Onyeji Nnaji. I n the Igbo cosmology, the word Isee is a definite symbolic word as revealed through the Igbo language and culture. A human being has five fingers, five toes. The hands and feet are fundamentals to the survival in life as they are necessary in ensuring that man moves to places where he gets food and grapples on the food to sustain his life. To this view, the rhetoric that binds vocatives in the form of incantation (anchoring on the heart-lock: four ) and the concomitant reprisal in the manner of affirmation that holds the human life bind to his original spiritual person, therefore defining existence and essences are unified by the corresponding echo: Isee!!!!! Therefore it stands that anytime a prayer is said in the Igbo land, the attendants who would want the fulfillment of the
INTRODUCTION One thing that made Udi remarkable is the indubitable legacy adopted in commemoration of the legendry fighter, Uto at Nsude. It was one of the greatest contributions of the descendants of Agbaja to the survival of Nsukka civilization of memory. Uto held from Oshie. Uto dies of small pox after a mercenary battle he was hired to fight in the ancient Benin. His body was buried in the evil forest as the tradition demanded. Although he lived no longer, the stepped pyramids above were adopted to commemorate the lasting peace he brought to the entire Oshie and Udi nation of people. Another remarkable thing about Udi is the fertility of the land. This has contributed widely in sustaining the inhabitants and provided a name for the inhabitants in the manner of Abakaliki, Umudike, Ogbaru, Igboariam, Ohaji, Uzouwani, etc., especially in Amofia-Agu, Affa. Udi is a land of great rivers and springs: Adaada, Ajali, Oji, Aria, Nvenu, Ngene Evu, Iyi Ububo, etc. as was the situ
There are four generations…, and the fourth generation, which is the most exalted, is kingless and perfect. These people will enter the holy place of their Father and they will reside in rest … They are kings. They are the immortal within the mortal ( The Nag Hammadi, 219 ) Also read Nsukka Civilization: The Peopling of Ancient Nsukka One of the African homes that colonialism has completely deformed beyond certain level of recognition is Nsukka. Colonialism apart, the most affecting factor to the survival of the meaning which the rich cultural enclave, Nsukka, carries will best be blamed on postcolonial political structure. The biggest harm all these have against Nsukka as a people is that they rubbed her of the meaning of her name; their place of origin; how their fathers managed to come into their present abodes and who their ancestors were. A profound understanding of the excerpt above will open the door towards deciphering the meaning and origin of the people call
ETHIOPIA HISTORY & ORIGIN (Extracted from the book, Reality as Myth ) BY ONYEJI NNAJI Those piles of ruins which you see in that narrow valley watered by the Nile, are the remains of opulent cities, the pride of the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia. ... There a people, now forgotten, discovered while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences. A race of men now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzled hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature, those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe (Count Volney). Because of the position of Ethiopia in the Bible story as one remarkable black nation with ancient history, it becomes almost impossible to see any other nation as being of more ancient than Ethiopia. Ethiopia suddenly became the yardstick for the analysis of the Negro race. And with the influence of Christianity in the inner part of Africa, the adherents were provided