Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Torture of My Father by the Syrian Regime

My father was arrested and tortured by the Syrian regime in the eighties. Many of my friends and acquaintances don't know this little fact, and it is something I have not talked about except to those who are very close to me. Even as a family we've never really sat down and discussed it, we just left it buried in the past hoping to move on with our lives. My father told me the full story a few years ago, in one of the few discussions we've shared as adults, putting into perspective a very dim memory I had of the night of his arrest.

Today Syria is at the crossroads, at a historical junction point, and I feel it is a duty of mine to write down this memory and to share it. For the regime apologists who have always tried to convince me with doublespeak and lies, now you know why none of your excuses ever had any effect on me. I was never under any illusion as to what this regime represented or of what it was capable of and in writing this post I hope it helps slightly with the healing process that the entire country needs to go through. I pray for justice and not revenge. I'll start with what I remember happening, and then I'll relate what he told me.

That night I was very excited; I think I was not older than seven years old. This was the first time my father would fly down with us to Syria. Almost every summer we used to fly back from Larnaca to Damascus and spend a few weeks at my grandmother's house, but it was never with my father. We went through passport control in Damascus International Airport uneventfully, and I remember we were picked up by both my uncle and my aunt. We put the luggage into the trunk and then began driving away from the airport. We had barely started driving to the airport exit before our car was overtaken by white Peugeot's and police cars. Men surrounded our vehicle and were banging on it but when my uncle rolled out the window he was told to shut up and stay in the car. They asked if he was my father and he said no. Then they opened the rear doors of the car where I was sitting in the middle between my mother and father. They asked my father his name and subsequently grabbed him and started to drag him out of the car, swearing and yelling. I kept asking him where he was going and my mother kept telling me to stay quiet. My father turned to me and said these are his friends, that they wanted him to go with them. I kept saying I wanted to go with him, but my mother pulled me back and wouldn't let me move. We were finally allowed to drive off, and I was again told these were his friends, and that they insisted on taking him with them because they miss him. All I remember is being upset that I couldn't go.

Over the weeks I continued to ask about where my father was, and I was given excuses that he was at my other grandparent's house, or that he was busy. One morning we woke up and found that he had come back. I still recall seeing him for the first time. He looked very tired and his feet were in a tub of water that smelled horrible because of some medicine that was in it. I asked him why his feet were bleeding and swollen, and he said that he had stepped on some nails by accident one night as he went to get a glass of water. That was all there was to it, until I grew old enough to realise that something was wrong with that story.

What my father would tell me many years later was shocking. He had been pulled out of our car and taken to a white Peugeot, the vehicle of choice for the Syrian security services. He was ordered to tuck his head between his legs and was crammed between three or four intelligence men. He was amazed that so many people could be made to fit in it. They beat him if he raised his head and the two men on either side of him shoved the barrels of their machine guns into his waist which hurt him a lot. He remembers being driven for what seemed like an eternity, and getting beaten if he moved or raised his head. Then they were driven into what he thinks was a building, the car stopped and he was ordered to get out. He was in some kind of bay with high walls and with guards holding machine guns, all aimed directly at him to fire if he moved. Later he would tell me that this amused him slightly, that all this fuss was over him like he was somebody important. He was then shoved into a cell which had many people and that had filthy floors. One man in the cell kept annoying him and asking him why he was really there, but my father told him he didn't know. He also thought, and rightly, that the man had been put there to try to find more information about him. Later he was taken to a massive and well furnished office where a superior of some sort was seated behind an enormous desk. 'Come B, the commander said gently, come closer and let's have a chat. What is somebody from a good family like yourself doing here, what is the matter?'

My father told him he was clueless as to why he was arrested, and gradually the conversation became more tense. There was a guard standing next to my father, and when he kept insisting he knew nothing the guard began beating him. Now the officer was angry, he shoved a piece of paper and a pen in front of my father and ordered him to write down his entire life story. Once that was finished, they dragged my father off to an interrogation room and over a period of several days he was beaten, caned, hosed down with water and  whipped with electric cables and put into a tyre where he was beaten some more. He was not allowed to sleep and the food was awful. Every time he'd pass out from the pain they would throw a bucket of cold water over him and he would wake with a start. At some point, he was made aware that he could leave. They took him to another branch where he was taken to the main office. There he saw my grandfather and uncle, they had finally managed to pull enough strings to find him and get him out, but they were shocked to see the state he was in. The officer there had been chatting to them amicably, and when my father was seated and offered a coffee, he was asked if there were any hard feelings. My father sarcastically said that there were none, staring directly at the officer. He was then allowed to return home that night.

The ordeal did not end here, however, and over the next few weeks, even though my father could barely walk, he had to report weekly to the mukhabarat offices. Finally, he was given permission to fly abroad and we all went back to Cyprus. The experience changed him for he was never the same after that and, though he never spoke of it much, I know this has always haunted him. My father had no political activities, interests or affiliations. He had absolutely nothing to do with the bogeyman of Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, or even Islam, for he drank, ate pork and I had never seen him pray in my life. His only crime was the misfortune of being a Syrian and of annoying somebody he worked with at the embassy, so they wrote a false report about him. When he came back to work one of those dogs smiled cruelly at him, "So! I see you've come back to us?". My father looked at him, said yes whilst bitterness engulfed his heart, and began his work for the day. He had kids to feed.


MJ said...

so many Syrians can relate to this. same thing happened to my father in 2003. Some one wrote a false report about him that he was a mossad agent. he was taken to a mukhabarat officer at the airport only to find out that that officer was a friend from his school, which gave him the opportunity to know exactly why he was there (report thing) and then told his side of the story. he was lucky.

i hope we see the day when all this ends.

Rime said...

I'm choking reading this, tears in my eyes. What suffering your family has endured, and what writing Maysaloon!

Maysaloon said...

Thanks for the kind comments. I guess many of us have had similar experiences. The question is why we should tolerate this for our children? And thank you Rime, especially, for your kind words.

The Syrian Brit said...

This is one of the most poignant and sobering posts I have read for a very long time..
The deep and private violation of your father's psyche, and the undoubtedly profound effect that this ordeal must have left on him and all those around him is only matched by the eloquence of your writing..
Thank you very much for sharing this with us.. I feel humbled and privileged..

Anonymous said...

Maysaloon, I was looking at my daughter, about the age you were, and wondering how on earth a little heart could fathom what he had experienced. The unspoken reality overrode the explanation, and seeing him so different upon return must have been horrifying. Silencing.

He was silenced. The cruelty and injustice of it. A Jordanian friend of mine spent six months in detention in Syria. It was a nightmare. I would imagine your father, having had to choose silence for his family, is proud of you for clearly using your voice. I am praying for you, for Syria.

Lirun said...

here in telaviv i have a colleague of jewish syrian heritage.. she had similar stories about her family.. sudden disappearances and in some cases the people never returned.. so they fled in the 60s to cyprus.. and from there came to israel..

i see the self mutilation of the syrian nation in not new..

poshlemon said...

It must have been difficult for you to put this in writing. I read this on my Google Reader as I usually would, and I kept going back and forth about commenting.

I have recently been silent and frugal with my comments. Sometimes it is better (easier) not to say anything. But all I could think of was that 7 year old boy and the confusion, fear, and uncertainty he was feeling. I was once 7 years old (a girl, not a boy) and though I haven't been through a remotely similar experience, I still know how it felt to be that fragile and dependent on your main source for love and security, your parents.

Lirun said...

and so how we could we ever make peace with a regime that would do this to its own..

qunfuz said...

thank you, Maysaloon.

Amana said...

thank you for sharing this report on your father. I am living through this revolution in Syria my experiences of the revolution which took place in Germany in 1989. I was born under this communist regime which feared most not the obvious enemies but their own people most. We had an muhabarat system which gave work to 80.000 full time workers and added 180.000 informants who reported on a regular basis from society within. One could never trust anyone, you had an private and an public opinion. There was even a school which trained officers how to manipulate people to work for the muhabarat, some who worked were recruited by teachers as young as 15 to write reports about their fellow students or even in some cases they even placed the partner to an opponent of the regime. The syrian muhabarat was trained and equipt by ur Staatssicherheit, as well as many other once communist allies. The part of the interrogation techniques which were used against your father sounds familiar with what Germans went through in the times of our regime, the difference i would make is that the random killing and the overall shown nonselective bruatlity of the Assadmafia was not common under our regime. They relied more on making your life a hell if they wanted to.
Since the downfall of the regime in my country every citizen could apply to read their folder, their reports. My parents have waited until this year to apply, they were so much afraid even 20 years after to find out that friends they have trusted or even family members betrayed them. Its a tragedy how such regimes can occupy the hearts and souls of so many, i hope soon that i will be able to see my syrian friends again and we all can celebrate the end of the Assadregime. The Syrians have so far paid such an high price for their dignity and freedom.