Inside ISIS’ prison for women and children

A former inmate at ISIS’ Tabqa prison recounts the physical and psychological horrors visited upon the women, children, and even babies trapped therein.

[Editor’s note: The below article was produced as part of Al-Jumhuriya’s 2017 Fellowship for Young Writers. It was originally published in Arabic on 24 May, 2018.]

The car we were in made its way towards Aleppo, after a twenty day wait in the city of Raqqa. As soon as we crossed the checkpoint on the bridge, we were received by a seemingly stray raincloud. It is quite unusual to witness rainfall in August in such an arid part of eastern Syria. It resembled a divine message, or so I thought at the time, being one always accused of having too wild an imagination about nature. I woke up from the ecstatic stupor of the rain, only to find myself in a dark, week-long nightmare in Tabqa prison. We were taken by Islamic State (ISIS) members in the town of Dibsi Afnan in western rural Raqqa. Along the southern bank of the Euphrates, near the city of Tabqa, security measures were at a fever pitch during the summer of 2016, and nowhere more so than on the road to Aleppo, to prevent people from fleeing ISIS-held areas towards northern Syria.

Our rural attire, and the farming equipment we had, were no help in disguising ourselves, nor did they give the impression we were merely farmers on our way to work the fields. Nor did putting all of our luggage in canvas sacks. Any facade we had managed to maintain crumbled thanks to our identification cards. Any argument or excuse we may have had was rendered void, as the ISIS militant glanced at our documents. With a car in front of us and a motorcycle trailing behind us, a motorcade suited to fugitives, we were en route to their headquarters in Dibsi Afnan for interrogation.

We had no time to sob. During those crucial few minutes, we had to hide or dispose of our computers, passports, and cash. I hid my phone in my socks, and my computer under my shoulders and covered it with my cloak. Any unbalanced or haphazard movement could lead to the revelation of a phone or a passport. What they first noticed was my brother's laptop, and so they snatched it, as if they’d found a long-lost treasure chest.

The calamity was to be found under my cloak: a laptop overflowing with files relating to the revolution and our previous fieldwork. While my brother was being beaten under interrogation in the next room, his wife stood in front of me as I hid behind her. I pulled out my laptop, ejected the battery and threw it under the sofa in that room. I assumed that even if they found the laptop, it was impossible to find a compatible battery in their self-proclaimed State.

During the hours of my brother’s interrogation, I remember reciting the “Ya Sin” chapter of the Quran five times. I am always close to God, but at that time I needed to be even closer, and to contain my fear for my brother’s life. My soul was separated from time and space, as I became no longer fully cognizant of what was happening around me.

In the next room, an interrogator yelled derisively: “You’re taking the laptop to the field in order to calculate the harvest?”

After admitting that we were attempting to travel, they gathered us in a vehicle and took us back to Tabqa. On the way, they told us we were to be brought before a judge for trial. Here I began to feel a little reassured; even if we were back to square one, to me, them not seeing my laptop was a second chance at life.

As the evening call to prayer was sounding, we arrived at Tabqa. The car was parked in front of a large building, and most of the surrounding houses were destroyed by the shelling. First, they took the men, then after a while, they came back and asked us to get off. I asked one of them about my brother. He replied the judge was not available, so we would spend the night at this “women's center,” as he put it. Not for a moment did I doubt what he just said. They had too much audacity to have to lie about such matters.

We took the stairs down to the underground level. The militants escorting us opened the door of the first room on the left, and asked us to keep our bags outside and get in. What I found the most peculiar was my surrender, and silent submission. It was unlike me, and may have stemmed from my sense of triumph, after successfully hiding my laptop. That laptop remained with me through all my days of incarceration there. I always managed to keep it tucked under my arm, making use of the traditional garb imposed on women—the niqab.

The door was promptly shut. Before I even looked around the room, I turned back to the door. It was a solid black cast iron door. Before questions were even formulated in my mind, the answers came from one of the women in the room: “What are you accused of?” I laughed and answered: "We’re not prisoners, we’re just spending the night.” The eldest woman present laughed in turn. “You’re in Tabqa prison,” she said. “We were all told the same thing when we were arrested.”

“Prison.” The word was too big for our alleged misdeed; attempting to travel to Aleppo. A small cell of no more than a few square meters, with many women, and children as young as months-old toddlers, all crammed inside. It was like a dumpster; a box with mud on the floors, children's excrement at the corners, and the overwhelming stench of the corner toilet, were enough for it not to qualify as a room. Anything more than a glance at any of these sights was enough to induce nausea.

While I was still overwhelmed by the initial shock, the jailer banged on the iron door and asked us to cover our eyes. His request was nonsensical; why should we cover our eyes in a closed box where we can see nothing? He slid open a small window at the top of the door and threw in a bag of bread and a plastic bag containing dinner—a mixture of eggs and tomatoes cooked and placed in the bag. It looked more hurtful to our dignity to consume it, than hunger pangs could ever be. Even for cattle in our village, we would empty the bags of fodder, and place it in a trough...

We refused to eat with them. The remaining women and children gathered around the bag and began to eat from it. My sister-in-law and I were bewildered, until being interrupted by my five-year-old niece as she asked for some water. We remembered that we didn’t eat anything since that morning. One of the women stopped consuming the food, and headed to the bathroom carrying a plastic bottle, and later came out having filled it with water. Before then, everything was comprehensible, but to drink water from the same bathroom whose mere sight we were avoiding; that we could not fathom at the time.

"Why are you drinking water from the bathroom?" I asked, my eyes almost jumping out of their sockets in astonishment. She replied that ISIS members hadn't brought in water for a week, and they had found this plastic bottle inside when they arrived. “Why did you not ask them to bring you clean water?” She laughed and said, “You don’t seem to care much for keeping your head attached to you.” She continued, "We were warned to only use the bathroom and water in emergency situations, because sewers are overflowing and the level below can be flooded at any moment." This bathroom, I thought, is not even suited to states of emergency.

I suddenly began feeling heavy-headed, and as though my very being was disintegrating. I headed to the door and started banging it until the jailer answered. I requested our bags, so that we could use them as seats, and he refused at first. I told him that the little one needed her clothes, and so he opened the door and allowed me to retrieve my nephew's belongings. During my search for the bag, a young man, Tunisian, approached me and asked, “Why do you want to emigrate?” I replied that we were going to see my brothers who cannot return to Syria. He said, with a hint of menace in his voice, “Why don’t they migrate to the land of the Caliphate? Their migration is now a religious duty!” I replied with even greater animus than his own: “They are in the Islamic land that you turn toward when you pray [i.e. Saudi Arabia]. Even the prophets emigrated after they suffered persecution, so why shouldn’t we?”

The warden intervened, bringing the confrontation to a halt. I went back inside with my niece’s bag. The same woman I encountered before, who was from Deir al-Zor, said to me, “He let you get away because you’re tall, which is also why he didn’t lose his temper.” This type of comment, at any another time or place, would have been sure to provoke an aggressive response on my part, but I sympathized with her. It is this instinct for fear that the Assad family instilled in our hearts; ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi merely followed in his footsteps. The instinct that underlies this woman’s comments is the same that prompted her to seek water from the bathroom for a week, for her and her young children, in order to avoid approaching the door. It’s the same fixation that blinded her from the fact that she and I were the same height!

Supper ended, and the jailer returned, and struck the door again. He demanded that all the women who had arrived before us cover their eyes, and go with him to stand before the judge. Their children stayed with us, and it was not long before we began to hear the cracks of whips, and their distant cries. They brought them back into the cell, in a dire condition after being flogged. Thirty lashes were given to each woman, after they were forced to bow down in the presence of their husbands. The men received a hundred and thirty lashes each, as ta’zeer (“admonition”), considered a purely disciplinary measure. Not only did the torturer flog them, but before he did, he asked them all, in polite and religiously-veneered terms, to forgive him for what he was about to do, for he was only implementing God’s law.

They had an uncanny ability to merge criminality with faith, but what was strangest was that the victims responded with forgiveness. At the time, I recalled a discussion between myself and an ISIS militant in my village, when I asked him, “Why are all those who are subject to retribution, stoning, and amputation so submissive to you? Why don’t they show any attempt to resist or survive?” He replied that before they’re punished, they receive closed shari’a sessions, which persist until they are convinced of their guilt, and have conceded they were in transgression of God’s laws, and deserve punishment in order to be redeemed. Then, they are left alone for a while, to pray and repent, and only when they’ve become psychologically prepared is the judgment carried out. Everything is preconceived in their State, and the justifications for their crimes are readied before they’re even committed.

The youngest of the women lashed was the worst-affected. She laid her weeks-old baby in her lap, and turned to face the wall for what seemed like an eternity. Her pride prevented her from even glancing at us after being flogged. How broken she was in front of us. She remained still, quietly weeping until they were released at midnight.

We were left alone, quiet as the grave, with the echoes of the lashes still ringing in our ears. I began to imagine how I would be flogged, and told myself I would not kneel even if they killed me. I will be flogged standing up, I thought, so that the whip could not scar my spirit.

What irked me the most about flogging was the ritualistic act of kneeling beforehand. Why kneel?! Why does everyone exercise their tyrannical power and abuse over us? The warden was a Turkish national, and the two jailers were Tunisian and Moroccan. Is it plausible that they crossed all these great distances just to become torturers in a country most of whose inhabitants are imprisoned, even in their own homes, and whose army is composed of hoards of torturers and tyrants? I thought this sadism might be the result of their accumulated experiences with their own repressive governments; packaged, transferred and released onto our own unsuspecting country. In all my years under ISIS rule, I never saw a Westerner serving in the police, the security forces or prisons. Most of them were Arabs or Syrians, as if this caliber of work is best suited to those who lived under repression, and had already come to disregard human values.

I wept a lifetime’s worth of tears on that day alone. I was overwhelmed with thoughts, seated in the fetal position over my bag. I fell asleep, or may have lost consciousness from what I saw, and I don’t remember how that day ended.

I woke up at the break of dawn, to the voice of my sister-in-law, violently shaking me: “Wake up... The torture and screams haven’t stopped all night.” I looked around and remembered we were in prison. We had absorbed the shock. It was no longer a nightmare, but a continuation of the larger prison they imposed on eastern Syria. We made our way towards the door, and began hitting it with all our might. When our hands tired, we started kicking the door with our feet.

We didn’t cease the constant barrage of wallops and screams until the morning, when the Turkish jailor brought in food. I returned it to him, and said we didn’t want their food, we wanted to get out. His voice came from behind the door: “You will not get out before your trial.” Still pacing through the corridor, striking his lash against the doors, he exclaimed: “All the people of the blessed Levant want to emigrate to Turkey. Very well, Turkey welcomes you, and it will skin you alive.”

We grew disheartened, and our hands were swollen, so we went back to waiting. He returned shortly after, and asked us to prepare to be relocated to another cell, because the sewage was beginning to overflow. As we were being brought out, we were asked to carry our bags with us. My eye caught the miniscule revolution flag that I’d brought with me, and I hid it at the bottom of the bag. These militants were so ignorant as to not even recognize the revolution flag, so they overlooked it. I rushed to hide it, suppressing my urge to laugh at their ignorance.

They placed us in a clean room near the end of the corridor, so that we could lay down on the ground. To console myself, I began thinking of those imprisoned by the regime, who had spent years in cells that, I was sure, were worse than ours. Contemplating their strife would grant me the strength and patience to persevere, even when I was outside this cell.

I contemplated prisons, and thought to myself that all these dark cells are but an extension of Assad’s legacy, and that the jailers’ brutality was a continuation of indoctrination practiced by our authoritarian regimes. The only difference, I thought, was that the pretense is religious here, and political on part of the Assad regime. As I dwelled, losing myself in these ruminations, I suddenly heard a yell by Fatima, who was arrested alongside us. “My son is taking his first steps in prison, seemingly on his way to becoming a bona fide jailbird.” We gathered around him, and began watching his stumbling steps with astonishment.

Fatima was the most severely affected among us, both by ISIS and the regime. She belonged to the al-Shaitat clan, which had endured many genocidal massacres by ISIS. They were driven out of their villages east of Deir al-Zor for more than a year. After a settlement was brokered with ISIS and they returned, Fatima was forced to sell her wedding ring and all the valuables in their house, due to repeated bombardment by the Coalition and the regime of the nearby oil wells. The family bought a motorcycle, which they used to smuggle people between Deir al-Zor and Aleppo, which they then sold after arriving in Aleppo in order to pay for the trip to Turkey. That bike was all they had, and it was confiscated at the same checkpoint that detained us. Fatima's predicament did not lie in her imprisonment or flogging, but the loss of the motorcycle that carried them and their dreams of survival. Now, she doesn't even have the money to go back home.

She did not stop crying over the bike for a week. She was unaware that the price of the bike would not even be enough to reach the border. We didn’t tell her, and instead opted to remain silent, faced with her grief-stricken cries.

Even though she was the most oppressed, she insisted that the presence of ISIS was divine punishment for the people’s preoccupation with oil, and abandoning their goal of overthrowing the regime.

That evening, interrogation and daily torture began anew. Unfortunately for us, there was a large hole in the door that opened directly to the adjacent torture chamber. A group of masked torturers would question prisoners, whose eyes were also covered with black masks. Regardless of the answers prisoners would give, they would be beaten and whipped all the same. When a torturer got tired, he would hand the whip to the other man in a mask. They jumped around the victims with agility, as though they were dancing, beating them from all sides and with all the means at their disposal. I started imagining them standing on the roof, walking on the walls, as they unleashed their depraved creativity onto that person. I had never directly witnessed such unrelenting violence. I fainted twice, but whenever I regained composure, I would return to the hole to watch, as if it were our duty to take the blows with them, and to grow ever more contemptuous and scornful.

We started banging the door and yelling at them: “Let us out! You have no right to arrest us! Flog us now and then leave us be.” My screams agitated one of the jailers, who opened the window, gave me a death stare and replied: “I’m more impatient than you for the judge to arrive, just so I can whip you in particular.”

How we then wished we had stayed in the old cell, even if we had to suffocate in the bathroom stench, and were left to rot in that oblivion. It would have still been better than seeing what we were seeing now, human beasts that practice criminality for a living, a senseless ferocity that no human can comprehend.

My little niece, from whom we had tried to conceal that we were in prison, had collapsed, and it was no longer possible. She could hear and understand the sounds of beatings. She would cry without making a sound, covering her eyes most of the time, or burying her head in her mother’s lap, and never uttering a word. The only survivor of that psychological massacre was Fatima’s little son.

Hours later, the interrogation had ended, and they were back to tinkering with their phones. I recognized them now. The Moroccan torturer, Abu Salman, was living at the prison with his son who hadn’t yet reached ten years of age. He was the size of three men, and it became clear to us later that he was the same butcher from ISIS’ propaganda videos in Raqqa. We then realized that our hunger strike, and loss of appetite, were not arbitrary, for the hands that made the food were drenched in the blood of innocents. The other torturer was the Tunisian that argued with me on our first day, and there was another man who didn’t approach our cell. I will never forget their faces, their hand gestures, and their hideous voices.

I began to lose my ability to breathe; they had polluted all the air around me. When I was home, and after each public execution, some ideas would crawl into my head, ones that could shake the belief in my cause. I used to take a walk towards a secluded area to take those ideas away. Only nature would heal me, but now in this black corner, I had only sleep to ease my saturated and overwhelmed mind.

We woke up to  the sound of the door, as they brought in a new prisoner, “Samira.” She was from Tabqa, and was arrested for alleged theft. She never stopped crying over her sick husband who could not move around the house: “Now he’ll say my wife ditched me.” Here I poured my anger over her: “You are in this God-forsaken place! If you don’t return, the only rational explanation will be that you were killed in an airstrike, or arrested for violating the shari’a. There is no third option!” She calmed down, and I felt she was convinced, then she resumed her weeping and wailing, and beating herself until night, when her accuser, a merchant, arrived and got her out.

When the door was open, she carried her shoes in hand and ran outside barefoot. She was so elated that she forgot to wear them. Perhaps this haste was to cheer her husband, and assure him that she was in prison and not abandoning him. Silence reigned again, but the arrival of several newcomers, and our listening to their stories, were a slight relief to us.

It was not calm for long, as they brought in a new batch of women and children, so there was no longer room for boredom or even sleep. When they entered, I noticed among them a seven-year-old girl who stood strangely, weeping and barely moving. I thought she wanted to go to the bathroom. I pointed her to it, but she didn’t move. She kept crying until her mother was sure there were no female jailers inside the cell. She reached into the little one’s underwear and took out money. The child immediately stopped crying, as if aware of her responsibility.

The cell no longer had space to even stretch one’s legs.

The food that we were returning was no longer enough for the little ones, who even ate the rotting dry bread at the corner of the room. The more they cried in hunger, the angrier one of the mothers got, who would begin cursing her expatriated husband: “God damn the best men in the world, who let us rot in jail so we can reach him!” Then the jailer outside would yell: “Lower your voice, woman!” He cared nothing for the cries of hungry children, but was offended by the loud voices of their mothers. The woman would respond to him immediately by beating her young ones, thus producing a wave of cries. She did it deliberately, just to irritate the jailer. It was a consummate system of oppression, starting from the rulers and the jailers, and ending with the mothers, husbands and wifes, each practicing persecution against those over whom they had a modicum of authority.

She wouldn’t stop cursing her husband even as I slept, and I would wake to her insults, and more than once I wished that Samira hadn’t been let out. I wanted to see this woman’s reaction to Samira’s wailing over her poor husband; I was sure the contrast between them would have been fascinating. She left no room for boredom ever since she came in, like a non-stop television broadcast. I would keep myself occupied by watching her, so as not to ponder my other family members who were supposed to be in Aleppo, or the issue of our having ended up here.

We remained in anxious anticipation, until my sister-in-law and I were told to prepare for our departure. We rushed to empty our bags and wear a lot of clothes, in an attempt to mitigate the pain of flogging. We had become psychologically and physically ready for it. There were two strange men in the corridor. The warden told us to go with them outside, where there were young men from our clan waiting for us.

After we were late in reaching Aleppo, my mother forced the family members who had arrived to return to Raqqa because she was sure we’d been arrested. They contacted our relatives in Deir al-Zor. We were released because we were women, and, for the first time, I felt gratitude towards the clan.

My brother was released two days later, after being tried and receiving 190 lashes; twice the number of other inmates. He was also flogged on behalf of myself and his wife. He could barely walk, and his skin was flayed from the lashes. They took all of the prisoners’ cash, leaving them with barely enough to get them back to their towns and villages.

As for Fatima, about whom we felt guilt for leaving alone, my brother told us that her husband was contacted to take her and her son to the hospital after they suffered food poisoning. Fatima was breastfeeding and so hadn’t participated in our hunger strike; the only thing missing to complete her agony was food poisoning.

Our hunger strike turned into a chronic loss of appetite. We never felt hungry again; eating food was merely a survival mechanism now. We remained this way for months, until I became envious of Fatima because she was poisoned, and emptied all the toxicity and insults that infiltrated her soul in prison.

More than a year has passed since we left Syria, and we are still looking for Fatima and her son among the names of martyrs coming from Deir al-Zor. That little child, who took his first steps in prison, and survived the black poison of ISIS detention; did his little feet help him escape the massacres of the supposed “liberation,” and the Caliphate in Syria’s disaster-stricken east?