A Brutal Detention, And A Defiant Syrian Activist
This summer, NPR told the story of a young man in Syria who worked a regular job by day and was a protester by night. At the end of that story, the activist made a prediction that was later tweeted to thousands of people: "One day my time is coming. Until the world realizes what's happening in Syria, they will try and get us all."
Many weeks later, his prediction came true.
One day this fall, Ahmed — not his real name — was on his way to meet another activist. A man approached him from behind.
"He grabbed my arm, and then he beat me on my face. I wear glasses. He broke my glasses," Ahmed says.
The man shoved Ahmed into a car and took him to a building that houses one of Syria's notorious security services.
Once he stepped out of the car, the men covered his eyes with a blindfold — which he still has. It's made of a plastic material, stitched together with crude stitches.
There is blood on it.
The blood came from what Ahmed calls the welcome beating every detainee receives when he arrives at a detention center.
After his welcome beating, Ahmed says they sat him down next to a room where a man was being tortured.
"His scream was filling all the space. He was screaming, screaming, screaming. And after a while, one of the officers come and say, 'You are next. You will be there. We advise you to give confessions.' I said, 'I have nothing to give you,'" Ahmed recalls.
Remaining Silent Under Torture
What they wanted Ahmed to confess was that he had helped organize protests, on the ground and online. They wanted him to confess he'd sent video clips of protests to TV channels like Al-Jazeera. They wanted his email addresses, Skype names, Facebook and Twitter log-ins.
They wanted to prove that he'd committed the crime of being against the government. But Ahmed knew better. He knew what they did to protest leaders. They tortured them until they die. He knew he had to keep quiet.
The next round of beatings came from a club that administered electric shocks. Ahmed says his jailers sometimes used the club to shock detainees in the genitals.
They threatened to do the same to him.
"But then I closed my legs and jumped to another corner," he says.
Still, Ahmed didn't talk. So they transferred him to a jail. A dozen young men huddled in each cell. They were allowed to shower only once a week. Praying wasn't allowed.
One night Ahmed sensed something was different. His jailers administered the usual beatings. But then they threatened to bring in his family.
When he still wouldn't talk they hung him from his wrists with his feet still touching the floor. They forced him to ingest large amounts of salt. Every 10 minutes they punched him in the stomach and poured cold water all over his naked body.
The next day, they raised his feet off the floor.
"So the whole weight of my body was held with my wrists. It was unbearable. I couldn't last [any] more and I told them, 'I will talk,'" he says.
Ahmed had spent the night before making a plan. He wanted to give his jailers enough information to stop the torture but not enough to incriminate other activists. He gave names of people who had already been arrested or escaped from Syria. He invented plans for protests that would never happen.
It was enough to slow down the torture but not enough to release him.
'Freedom Is Precious'
Later, as sanctions against the Syrian regime increased, authorities began releasing some detainees. The idea was to show the international community the regime was serious about reform.
Ahmed was among those released, and after he was freed, he fled Syria. He does not want his current location mentioned, and he still fears for his friends and family inside Syria.
Sanctions against the Syrian regime have been stepped up. And Ahmed is still active in the uprising. As for his ordeal?
"This is a must and I should go through this," he says. "This will help me explain to my son, to my grandson — I don't know if I will have sons and grandsons — but this will help me to tell them how much we paid to get our freedom. To let them know that freedom is precious."