Interview With Prisoner X, Accused by the Bashar Al-Assad Regime of Terrorism

15 October, 2021
safwan dahoul - acrylic on canvas
“Syr­ia,” (acrylic on can­vas) by Safwan Dahoul (b. 1961), one of the Arab world’s most inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized painters whose work com­bines ele­ments from the Assyr­i­an, Pharaon­ic, and Cubist periods.

 

Accused of ter­ror­ism against the state for aid­ing and abet­ting fel­low Syr­i­ans flee­ing Homs for Dam­as­cus, for­mer pris­on­er X talked to TMR about his long jour­ney to asy­lum in Belgium.

 

TMR: You say that even though you’ve found your­self in a good sit­u­a­tion and while oth­er Syr­i­ans are often doing well, you still feel “home­less.” Is the attach­ment to Syr­ia so great?

X: [There are] many factors…I would say not only Syr­i­ans at my lev­el but peo­ple who achieve more (and many peo­ple achieve more than what I have in Europe) still feel homeless…Home for them is Syr­ia. But it’s not home any­more because they can’t return. You can­not con­sid­er a coun­try as home if you can­not go there.

TMR: You say they can’t find home in their new coun­tries; is it because they can’t find the lev­el of com­fort they like or they can’t find enough oth­er Syr­i­ans to talk to? What is the reason?

X: It’s more about the feel­ing than the activ­i­ties or the food. You don’t belong, it’s not home.

TMR: Many peo­ple have become refugees, many have left home. Milan Kun­dera, a writer from the for­mer Czecho­slo­va­kia, fled Prague, emi­grat­ed to France, even­tu­al­ly became French. Samuel Beck­ett left Ire­land, went to Paris, start­ed liv­ing and writ­ing in French, became a citizen…Other peo­ple from oth­er places move to new coun­tries and they adapt; why not Syrians?

X: First of all, I can’t com­pare a Syr­i­an mov­ing to France to a Czech or an Irish­man mov­ing to France, because that’s still Euro­pean. The dif­fer­ences are not big. If you talk to Syr­i­ans who move to Jor­dan, for exam­ple, they have a bet­ter sit­u­a­tion, because it’s still Jor­dan, you’re still with­in the same bub­ble, BUT you don’t have good oppor­tu­ni­ties over there, they’re not treat­ed well by the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment, they’re still stig­ma­tized because they are refugees. But myself per­son­al­ly, if you give me the choice to live in Jor­dan and have the same rights that I have here in Bel­gium? I would choose to live in Jor­dan because I would still feel that it’s my envi­ron­ment. It has to do with the Syr­i­an atti­tude; we are very attached to the coun­try, to Syr­ia. If you talk to Egyp­tians, maybe Jor­da­ni­ans, Lebanese, they always want­ed to leave their coun­tries and migrate, move some­where else. Unlike the Syr­i­ans; even if they migrate they keep talk­ing about going back to Syr­ia. They will buy hous­es in Syr­ia. They will act as if they will end up liv­ing in Syr­ia when they retire or when they fin­ish what they’re doing abroad. I would say yes, we are more attached to our coun­try than oth­er nations. It’s obvi­ous. We would pre­fer a mod­er­ate, decent life in Syr­ia than a good (lav­ish) life some­where else.

TMR: I talked to anoth­er Syr­i­an the oth­er day, a writer. She left Latakia with her fam­i­ly at the age of 15 and a half and moved to the UK. She became a BBC pro­duc­er and went back to Syr­ia in 2010 to do a series of doc­u­men­taries, and then she pub­lished a nov­el two or three years ago. She said there was some­thing about Syr­ia that was real­ly alive…electric, some­thing about the land and the peo­ple, as if it had an ener­gy, a vital­i­ty that she was try­ing to explain. She said the peo­ple and the coun­try are very alive, it’s some­thing different…She noticed it again when she went back and said, “it’s still in me even though I’ve been a British cit­i­zen, I grew up in the UK from the age of 15; I’m still very attached to Syria.”

X: Well, I don’t want to say that Syr­i­ans love their coun­try more than oth­er peo­ple do, I can’t say that, I won’t claim that. But I can say that there is some­thing spir­i­tu­al in Syr­ia, there is some­thing mys­te­ri­ous you can’t describe but you feel it, even as a for­eign­er. My wife is Jor­dan­ian, for exam­ple, she’s not Syr­i­an, but she has the same feel­ing. But she does not have that feel­ing when she goes to Lebanon or Dubai. I would say there is some­thing spir­i­tu­al in that land.

TMR: The only time I’ve heard any­thing like this is when Jew­ish peo­ple say they went to Israel and they felt some­thing spir­i­tu­al, because it’s the Holy Land, it has its ancient his­to­ry and so on. Is it maybe because Syr­ia is rich in his­to­ry and mon­u­ments and…

X: Maybe, when I say spir­i­tu­al it’s not in the reli­gious sense. The ener­gy maybe is a bet­ter word to use. There is something…

TMR: You said in one of your emails that you were nev­er real­ly very polit­i­cal, but you wouldn’t have pic­tures of the leader on your school­books. What were you like in high school, in uni­ver­si­ty? What vision did you have for your­self? You didn’t imag­ine that you would become a refugee, so how did you become an activist?

X: No, no, no. Here you have two aspects, a gen­er­al one and a per­son­al one. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, Syr­i­ans, we don’t talk about leav­ing the coun­try. We always pre­fer to stay. We would leave to make a bet­ter liv­ing, to have bet­ter edu­ca­tion, but we always talk about going back. We come from an upper mid­dle class fam­i­ly, we have our own fam­i­ly busi­ness, every­thing is obvi­ous, I know where I’m head­ed, so I had no plans to leave the coun­try, it’s just what hap­pened that jux­ta­posed my safe­ty ver­sus stay­ing in the coun­try. Our fam­i­ly busi­ness was a paint com­pa­ny, we man­u­fac­ture paints, dec­o­ra­tive paints. I didn’t have plans to leave, no, not at all…

TMR: 2010, 2011, you were work­ing in the fam­i­ly busi­ness at the time, mind­ing your own busi­ness, and then you saw what was hap­pen­ing in Der­aa? How did those peo­ple get to you? The peo­ple you hosted?

X: They were from Homs, actu­al­ly. That was actu­al­ly in 2012, when I host­ed those peo­ple. Through friends. We were run­ning, let’s call it an under­ground help­ing sys­tem, okay? Pro­vid­ing food, shel­ter, prop­er accom­mo­da­tion, neces­si­ties to those peo­ple flee­ing their cities and towns. Most of them came through that network.

TMR: How did you get involved in that net­work? Isn’t that kind of dangerous?

X: It’s not dangerous—it’s extreme­ly dan­ger­ous. You have to take sides, you have to decide, which side you’re on. Oth­er­wise, you end up as one of those we called the silent majority.

TMR: So you make a deci­sion you want to help peo­ple, and you know — just as a crim­i­nal who gets caught knows he has to do X amount of time for the crime — so you take that risk and you know that if you get caught, it could affect peo­ple around you, so it’s even more dangerous.

X: It could be, yes, but what is the alter­na­tive? You have three posi­tions to take, in 2011: Pro-regime, pro-rev­o­lu­tion or silent major­i­ty. Okay? You have to fall into one of these three cat­e­gories. Of course you can be an extreme pro-regime or an extreme pro-rev­o­lu­tion, or mod­er­ate, but you have to choose one of these three. I put those three options in front of me. Def­i­nite­ly I’m not going to be pro-regime, that’s for sure. Between silent major­i­ty and the pro-rev­o­lu­tion, I would say because I under­stood why we got to that point, and because I had a dream that we need to move the coun­try from this sit­u­a­tion to anoth­er sit­u­a­tion, and that can­not be done if every­one is going to say if I act, it’s going to be dan­ger­ous to the peo­ple around me, so I’m not going to act; then nobody will act and we will just stay as we were. So yes, it was an adven­ture. We lost the adven­ture, we did not win, but we tried.

TMR: So no regrets, on your part?

X: [hes­i­tates] Per­son­al regret, no. I would rather [be able to] say to myself, today or 20 years from today, that when I saw men and women being slaugh­tered in Homs, I helped their fam­i­lies, and when I saw the injus­tice applied by the regime, I had the courage to say NO to that. It destroyed my life, but I won myself; I won my self-respect. Rather than say­ing well I knew it wasn’t going to work, I knew the rev­o­lu­tion is going to fail, so I pre­fer to be one in the silent major­i­ty. I think I would not be able to stand the shame behind that, so per­son­al regret, no.

TMR: You say you saw peo­ple in Homs being slaugh­tered: was that news on tele­vi­sion, or did you hear about it on social media, or did you vis­it Homs?

X: We had two kinds of media at that time, actu­al­ly let’s say we had three: we had the offi­cial media, show­ing that every­thing is great, noth­ing is hap­pen­ing, it’s just a bunch of [ter­ror­ists]; and we had the inter­na­tion­al media, Al Jazeera, Al-Ara­biya and they will show you what their gov­ern­ments want the world to see; and we had the free media, the activists on the ground, that were tak­ing videos, putting those videos on Face­book or oth­er plat­forms and bit by bit we learned to tell the good ones from the bad ones. So we knew who to fol­low at that time. A video about fam­i­lies being slaugh­tered in Homs? The offi­cial media would nev­er show you that, they would nev­er men­tion it; actu­al­ly if they did men­tion it they’d say that a bunch of ter­ror­ists received mon­ey from Qatar and they went to this vil­lage and slaugh­tered 200 men, for exam­ple. Those videos were more like the turn­ing point for us, espe­cial­ly the first few videos from Homs, that would be around April 2011, because it start­ed there, and we knew that it’s gonna come to us. So it’s either you act and do some­thing and fight while the action is not in your home town yet, or you just sit there and you know it’s gonna come in the end.

TMR: Were you guys liv­ing in the old city in Dam­as­cus or anoth­er neighborhood?

X: We lived in Ruken el Din (north­ern edge of Dam­as­cus). It’s still with­in the city. It’s not the old town, not down­town Damascus…We had some apart­ments that we did not occu­py at that time, so yes when I got the call that two, well actu­al­ly three fam­i­lies from Homs just arrived in Dam­as­cus and they don’t have a place to stay. You would offer your place to stay and then you would go and buy enough food, neces­si­ties, to you know, make them comfortable.

I’ll tell you one thing that might be inter­est­ing. In prison — which is anoth­er sub­ject, it takes weeks and weeks to talk about that, because it’s not just prison, it’s a life inside, it’s a world by itself — but I will men­tion this point. I was hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion with one of the tor­tur­ers inside the prison. And I said, hey why are you doing this to us? What is this big mis­take that we made? We just host­ed women and chil­dren from Homs, and we pro­vid­ed food and accom­mo­da­tion. What is so bad about this? And he said we are pun­ish­ing you for doing that, because their men con­tin­ued to fight because they knew their fam­i­lies would find help if they went to Dam­as­cus, so they risked and they went to fight know­ing that their fam­i­lies would be well tak­en care of. Where­as if you hadn’t pro­vid­ed this oppor­tu­ni­ty, their men would say we’ll have to stay with our fam­i­lies to take care of them; we’re not going to go and fight. For the regime, work­ing as a human­i­tar­i­an, pro­vid­ing help to those fam­i­lies is still a polit­i­cal act, because you are facil­i­tat­ing those fight­ers. You’re giv­ing those fight­ers a chance to fight know­ing that their fam­i­lies would be okay. Which means you are part of being in that army.

TMR: I read a Human Rights Watch report in which a num­ber of for­mer Syr­i­an pris­on­ers were inter­viewed, where they talk about tor­ture methods…So they didn’t come to your door to arrest you; you heard you were going to be in trou­ble so you decid­ed to leave and you were caught at the border?

X: Each per­son has his own case and there are plen­ty of fac­tors. Some­times it’s luck, some­times it’s coin­ci­dence, you know? In my case it was lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between dif­fer­ent depart­ments, so my name was put on the list at the bor­der, but they did not share that list or my name with those depart­ments that arrest peo­ple at their homes. My the­o­ry is dif­fer­ent, because my first ses­sion, inves­tiga­tive ses­sion, luck­i­ly I had a smart guy, an edu­cat­ed inter­roga­tor. He start­ed from the end, not from the beginning.

He said okay, we’re not going to waste time. You are an edu­cat­ed per­son and I hope that we’re not going to give each oth­er a hard time. He put a CD in and I lis­tened to all my phone calls dur­ing the pre­vi­ous six months before they arrest­ed me. Okay? My the­o­ry is that they want­ed me to stay active inside the coun­try, under sur­veil­lance, to know all the peo­ple I’m work­ing with, and they put my name at the bor­der so that when I try to leave, I don’t escape. Because I was a bit of a bad ass, I would go to those risky places, I would stop at bar­ri­cades [check­points], they would run my name and check if I’m want­ed or not — I’m talk­ing about Dam­as­cus sub­urbs. And they would just let me go. I’m pret­ty sure some of them knew that I was going there to do some­thing. But they did not act, so my the­o­ry was not that it was lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion; they want­ed to get all those peo­ple I was work­ing with.

TMR: Tell me about the time you spent in prison, which one it was, where it was…

X: The worst, 215. Inside Dam­as­cus. It’s the same one Cae­sar [Muham­mad Mustafa Dar­wish] was in, you know those pho­tos from the Vio­la­tion Doc­u­men­ta­tion Cen­ter in Syr­ia? If you know the new Amer­i­can sanc­tions, you should know him, it’s because of this defect­ed offi­cer from mil­i­tary intel­li­gence 215, he tes­ti­fied, he used to be a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, because they take your pho­to three times, so he was that pho­tog­ra­ph­er and then he appar­ent­ly made copies and those pho­tos of dead bod­ies, you’ve seen them right? No? Cae­sar Law, the Amer­i­can sanc­tions exist because of those pho­tos, they came from that prison called the Mil­i­tary Secu­ri­ty Dept 215, but still there are many sub­di­vi­sions inside that department…There’s the Air­force Intel­li­gence Branch, that’s a dif­fer­ent one.

TMR: How long were you in 215?

X: Not long, actu­al­ly. Well, I’ve been to six of those, not only one.

TMR: I don’t know how you can smile about it, because didn’t they tor­ture you in some of those places?

X: Oh, sur­pris­ing­ly, how do I say this? It’s a pleas­ant expe­ri­ence; it’s not as bad as you think. I mean, you’re not a crim­i­nal, so there’s no shame here. Okay? At the same time, you’re not a hero, you’re just one of those peo­ple who col­lec­tive­ly decid­ed to improve the lives of their chil­dren in the future. So you’re an ani­mus at the same time, which makes you feel that you did not do it to please your ego. That’s a pleas­ant feel­ing. Now inside [the prison] you will learn how much you are capa­ble of with­stand­ing. You will learn what it means to sur­vive, you know. You will dis­cov­er a new depth in your per­son­al­i­ty that you could nev­er dis­cov­er out­side [prison], because you have no sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence outside.

TMR: I think very few peo­ple are look­ing for a prison experience.

X: Well, you don’t look for it, you don’t go after it, but when it hap­pens it’s bet­ter that you ben­e­fit from it — because it’s going to hap­pen any­ways. So you either learn from it, use it to enrich you as a human being, or you just talk about it as a very bad expe­ri­ence and you just look at the bad sides and you have all this self-pity around yourself.

TMR: So what did you get from it?

X: [smiles] Plen­ty of things. Even the friend­ship — the friends you make inside, you’ve nev­er been in a sit­u­a­tion like this. You have school friends, you have col­leagues, you have friends from your neigh­bor­hood, I don’t know, if you served in the mil­i­tary, you would have friends from there. But the friends you make inside are dif­fer­ent. The con­nec­tion between you and them is dif­fer­ent. And you stay con­nect­ed some­how with those peo­ple you meet inside. It teach­es you things about how to han­dle stress, fear, wor­ries, because there’s noth­ing like the stress inside, noth­ing like the fear inside. So every­thing you face out­side [smil­ing] is a joke, actu­al­ly. 

TMR: Are you in touch with any­body you were in prison with?

X: Yeah, of course, of course. I have one in Ger­many, I have one in Turkey, I had two in Syr­ia, but we don’t com­mu­ni­cate [now] because we don’t want to…actually we had a reunion once, in Amman, in Jordan…I don’t have any plans [to write about my expe­ri­ences] to do that to make mon­ey, or post on Face­book. The rea­son you would do that is to share it with peo­ple who know what you’re talk­ing about.

TMR: The rea­son I men­tion it actu­al­ly is…we’re going to do an issue of The Markaz Review on prison lit­er­a­ture and prison experience. 

X: We were plan­ning to have anoth­er reunion in Turkey, but because of coro­n­avirus we couldn’t pull it off. For us, it’s not because we want to be famous, because we’ll be anony­mous; our names will not appear. It’s just because we all believed that prison expe­ri­ence can be pleas­ant some­times, and our hope is that some­one from the regime will read that and we want­ed them to feel angry and mad; that despite the tor­ture, despite all the hor­ri­ble cir­cum­stances, we found time to enjoy, we got out with good mem­o­ries, and we’re thank­ful for that oppor­tu­ni­ty that we’re now friends. So we want to tease them somehow.

TMR: This sounds like satire, it reminds me of our com­e­dy show — it’s not exact­ly what you would expect to hear. What did you eat in prison? Did they feed you hum­mus and pita? Because in Amer­i­can pris­ons they’re oblig­ed by law to feed you, I don’t know, two meals a day…

X: [laughs] What­ev­er you imag­ine, it’s not it. When you say Amer­i­can pris­ons, two meals a day, it’s not like that. I did not stay long, per­son­al­ly; I stayed 44 days. I went in weigh­ing 82 kilos and I left weigh­ing 63. In 44 days. So do the math.

[chuck­les] They fed us very lit­tle, enough to sur­vive, not to die.

TMR: When you say very lit­tle, was it five chick­peas and a lit­tle piece of bread, or what?

X: Could be that lit­tle, some­times. Three or four green olives and I would say 50 grams of bread. Less than half of a pita bread with three-four green olives. Some­times we would get hal­va, you would get a piece the size of an apri­cot, maybe. One pota­to, just boiled. Every once in a while, you may get a sip of yoghurt, you got­ta imag­ine the sit­u­a­tion. It’s a small room, I would say six by four meters, sev­en by five, I can’t tell, but it’s def­i­nite­ly not more than 40 square meters, and the num­ber [of pris­on­ers] inside fluc­tu­ates between 50 and 80.

TMR: So you have no room to lie down?

X: We do shifts. And then they would open the door and they would give you a con­tain­er of yoghurt and it gets passed around by all the peo­ple inside; you take one sip. So that’s a treat, that’s a treat. So tech­ni­cal­ly what’s enough so you suf­fer and sur­vive. They can eas­i­ly stop giv­ing you food and then you die of hunger. But they want you to sur­vive, they want you to stay alive for a while, at least, but at the same time they don’t want you to sur­vive com­fort­ably, they want you to suf­fer to survive.

TMR: Those 44 days, how old were you at the time?

X: 32.

TMR: I remem­ber where I was when I was 32; I had just met my first wife and we were dat­ing in Los Angeles. 

X: A big difference…well, I’m pret­ty sure your par­ents maybe suf­fered. Because to get your coun­try to sta­bil­i­ty, a gen­er­a­tion has to suf­fer, right – don’t you think?

TMR: For the Unit­ed States, it was the World War II gen­er­a­tion that had to. Not mine.

X: Your coun­try right now, France, they have this lib­er­ty, this sta­bil­i­ty, but it was not free.

TMR: No, they paid with two world wars.

X: Yeah. So for our coun­try the plan was to get to where France is right now, and our gen­er­a­tion was the one that was sup­posed to take the coun­try to that point, but sim­ply it didn’t hap­pen. We lost…

TMR: Why isn’t what hap­pened in Syr­ia a civ­il war?

X: Because I would imag­ine that the def­i­n­i­tion of the civ­il war is a fight between two equal par­ties in a coun­try over pow­er or over, you know, advan­tages. While it’s not the sit­u­a­tion in Syr­ia; it was an upris­ing, a rev­o­lu­tion, in the begin­ning, so it’s peo­ple, part of the peo­ple against the regime. There’s no one group, there’s no one leader on the rev­o­lu­tion side. That is to say, we have this leader in this par­ty fight­ing that leader in that party…That’s num­ber one. Num­ber two, civ­il war is a war between the inhab­i­tants of the same coun­try. Now we have Russ­ian, Iran­ian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghani, Amer­i­cans, Turks, Saud­is, you name it, they’re all involved. So it’s not a civ­il war. 

TMR: Good point, and that’s why it can often be so con­fus­ing. And why you hear many dif­fer­ent sto­ries; you hear that Assad was respon­si­ble for [the chem­i­cal attack in] Gou­ta, then you hear it might have been al-Nus­ra or the Free Syr­i­an Army…And of course, Israel has been bomb­ing Syr­ia with impuni­ty now for years. And it’s not even in the news.

X: It’s not just late­ly; they’ve been doing this for 40 or 50 years. It’s just now we have bet­ter media so we can hear about those inci­dents, but they’ve been hap­pen­ing thir­ty years ago, but because we didn’t have these tools to spread the news, and they have been get­ting away with it.

TMR: Israel has been bomb­ing Syr­ia even when there wasn’t a war going on? I don’t know, 20 years ago?

X: They would send bombers every once in a while. It’s complicated…I would describe the rela­tions between Israel and the Syr­i­an regime, it’s like a mar­ried cou­ple, they fight, maybe they fight dur­ing the day but they sleep in the same bed at night. The Syr­i­an regime is there only because Israel wants that, okay? For Israel and its secu­ri­ty, they pre­fer to know their neigh­bors, they pre­fer to choose them if they can, and if they don’t choose them, then they pre­fer to cut deals with them. And the deal will be like okay, we will mobi­lize the world to keep you as regime in this coun­try in exchange for guar­an­tee­ing our security.

TMR: Was it with Hafez that they made the deal, or with Bashar?

X: It’s one chain of action, so the father start­ed it and the son con­tin­ued doing it.

TMR: Since that’s the case, why does Israel con­tin­ue bomb­ing Syria?

X: Because at some point, some­times like in Lebanon, ear­ly eight­ies for exam­ple, the Syr­i­an regime will try to win some points to enhance its nego­ti­at­ing posi­tion, all right? For exam­ple, in Lebanon, the Syr­i­ans sup­port­ed the Pales­tini­ans, the PLO, but not because we love them (of course not me per­son­al­ly), not because we want them to lib­er­ate their coun­try, just because Assad want­ed to have one more card in his hand to use against the Israelis. At the end of the day, they have a deal, they are part­ners, but every once in a while they need to have more tools in their hands, lever­age. So for the moment, Israel is bomb­ing those cards, and when you look at the accu­ra­cy of the tar­gets they bomb, you can eas­i­ly say they can kill the guy in his bed if they want. But they won’t do that, they don’t want to do that because he is their part­ner. He kept the Syr­i­an-Israeli bor­der safe for a long time.

TMR: If the Assad regime goes and you have the Free Syr­i­an Army, al-Nus­ra, whatever’s left of Daesh and the Kurds, etc, you have mul­ti­ple groups and you don’t know which one is going to wind up con­trol­ling the coun­try. It would be chaos — it’s already chaos but it would be even worse. 

X: Yeah. It’s now a mess but at the begin­ning, in 2011, I always ask myself this ques­tion: why did the Israelis push toward chaos in Syr­ia and not part­ner with this rev­o­lu­tion, sup­port the rev­o­lu­tion some­how, so they win? And they have a sta­ble democ­ra­cy let’s say, and we become just like Egypt or Jor­dan, with a peace treaty between the two countries—which is going to hap­pen in the end, with or with­out the regime, but instead of hav­ing a deal with a strong neigh­bor, it’s going to be with a destroyed neigh­bor. So for Israel, Syr­ia will now need at least 50 years to recon­sid­er any of their war actions. So Israel now on this side is safe for 50 years because this coun­try is destroyed.

TMR: It’s trag­ic for the peo­ple of Syr­ia, but a tragedy in one place is a tragedy for every­body. It brings down all of us. 

X: Of course, at least morally.

—inter­view con­duct­ed by Jor­dan Elgrably

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