A former political prisoner now living in besieged Ghouta reflects on the parallels between the two experiences.
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 29 November, 2017. The author is a former political prisoner currently living in besieged East Ghouta, where he is a nonviolent civil society activist. The artworks used in this article were created by Dima Nashawi.]
EAST GHOUTA, Damascus Province – Many are the cities and neighborhoods that have been besieged in the past, in Syria and around the world. A number of them remain so to this day. It’s not news to anyone that the Assad regime has used besiegement as one of its most effective weapons against areas outside its control, where ‘outside its control’ here refers only to the regime’s inability to physically detain the areas’ residents. The regime’s fire, of course, can still reach any area it likes, as can its fighter jets, and certainly its chemical weapons. It goes without saying, too, that the regime uses detention and torture till death against its opponents as yet more tools of subjugation brought back from bygone eras.
The situation in Ghouta, however, is different. The siege here is not like the siege of Gaza, or Leningrad, or Vienna, or Qatar. And without wishing to belittle any suffering, past or present, inflicted on any of the world’s persecuted peoples, the word ‘siege’ seems insufficient to describe what is happening in East Ghouta.
It is not merely a besieged neighborhood, but resembles instead a concentration camp; a giant lockup containing half a million humans. A concentration camp readied for genocide by gas or incineration. Ghouta, like other areas, has been struck with banned chemical gas multiple times, of which the worst—so far—was that of the summer of 2013. Near Ghouta, the regime created a crematorium inside Saydnaya prison, in which to burn those killed by torture, or starvation, or cold, or lack of medical treatment, or other, unconventional causes of death invented by minds whose creativity is confined to the production of death and ugliness.
The siege is often compared to prison, and ex-prisoners often find benefits in the practical and psychological skills they learned in jail, dealing with the hardships of siege as people of experience. The reverse can also happen: that the prison experience increases their ordeal under siege, particularly when the jailor of yesterday is the same as the besieger of today.
In prison, you are inside a (communal) cell. If the jailor brings you food—any food—you eat, and if he doesn’t, the hunger will contort you, perhaps to death. It might be that food comes, but medicine doesn’t, or medicine comes that’s of no use to your condition, or is expired. You don’t know when you’ll be released, or when your circumstances might improve, and you don’t know what you can do, or stop doing, to change your situation.
You find yourself using gadgets it had never before occurred to you existed, let alone that you’d use them. You enter a world wondrous in its inventions and alternatives: alternative electricity and water networks; an alternative hospital; alternative medicine; alternative transport; alternative fuel; alternative power; alternative food; alternative agricultural soil; alternative residence; an alternative family; an alternative loaf of bread…
The besieged dream of the opening of the road, in the way that the imprisoned dream of the emptying of the prisons or the issuance of an amnesty.
The besieged live in terror of bombardment, while the perennial terror of the imprisoned is to be called for interrogation.
Under siege, as in prison, the vocabulary narrows and is abridged, so that a group of mostly locally-hewn words and terms suffices, or a vocabulary that previously existed acquires new local meanings. Thus:
Injured = Returned from interrogation
Abducted = Was in our cell, and we don’t know what happened to him
Sound of airstrike = The knocking of the iron bolt of the cell door
Ceasefire = Outdoor time
The siege vocabulary: firewood – piston – generators – 12 volts – shrapnel – al-manfush (a notoriously extortionate seller of dairy products in besieged Douma) – tunnel – airstrike – martyr – wannana (the buzzing sound of drones) – security official – humanitarian aid – under the rubble.
The prison vocabulary: sufra (literally ‘dining table;’ but in this case a piece of cloth placed on the ground underneath food) – solitary – lice comb – kreeza (fit of craziness) – insubordination – Abu Haydar (stock name for prison guard) – bowl – jailor – shawish (an inmate who communicates with the guards on behalf of the others) – tasyeef (being unable, for space reasons, to sleep on one’s back, thus having to sleep on one’s side) – air vent – dulab (car tire, inside which prisoners are forced as a means of torture) – the interpretation of dreams.
In prison, and in East Ghouta, you are not permitted to receive visits. Your family and loved ones are meters away from you, but many years may pass without you seeing them or them seeing you.
If you’re a student, your classmates graduate from university, and might take up further studies, while you stay ruminating on your woes, and the memories of the months you spent with them on campus, or on the seats of the amphitheaters, or in the library and the college cafeteria. If you’re an employee, you lose your employment, and your salary, and your career, and your colleagues. If you have a father or a mother, you don’t attend their funerals, or anyone else’s. If you are a father, your children grow up far away from you, as you do as well. You don’t make the acquaintance of your nephews and nieces, nor do they make yours. Your fiancée grows old and withers, as do you. You’re deprived of cities, and countries, and places—and they’re deprived, too.
The mother residing in Damascus sees her émigré son in the diaspora more often than she does her other son besieged/imprisoned a stone’s throw away in East Ghouta.
When you’re imprisoned, for one of your acquaintances to ask about your location or your fate is deemed a risk that could cost them an exorbitant price. And, likewise, when you’re besieged, if a friend contacts you from a non-besieged area, they are gambling with their life.
In both cases, every detail of your life is governed by what those other than you decide.
You withdraw within yourself, and rot. Your greatest skills are counting, dreaming, and being tortured.
However good or bad your situation is in prison, you don’t leave it; indeed it’s forbidden that you change your cell for another one. Transferring inmates from one prison to another is a complicated matter, mostly done as a punitive measure, as with the transferral of an inmate from Adra prison to Saydnaya, or to the desert prison, or from Hama Central prison to Homs’ al-Baluna, or returning a prisoner to one of the torture branches from which he was previously sent. And, by analogy: transferring the besieged in Qudsaya, Daraya, East Aleppo, or al-Wa’er to Idlib, or returning them to the ‘embrace of the nation’ (i.e., regime-controlled areas).
None of the usual givens is a given in prison or under siege: food, drink, coffee, going to the bathroom, showering, sleeping, light, colors, air, the mother’s touch. Diseases and epidemics thought by medicine to have been extinct make a return. Ailments not normally fatal—indeed easily treatable—can take the lives of the besieged or imprisoned. Whether myiasis, gangrene, or polio in East Ghouta; scabies in Saydnaya; diarrhea in the Air Force Intelligence prison; or a simple cut inflicted in one of the State Security Branch cells; it will aggravate and suppurate in the contaminated air crammed with mounds of humans and their waste, until it becomes fatal.
In the summer of 2003, in the ‘Palestine Branch’ detention facility of the military intelligence in Damascus, a man in his fifties suffering a heart attack needed to be rushed to hospital. The shawish knocked on the cell door, and when the guard arrived, everyone inside the cell—including the vicious ones—implored him to summon a doctor, or at least fetch a pill, for their dying cellmate. “When he dies, knock on the door so we remove the corpse,” came the reply. And that, indeed, is what they did.
In the fall of 2017, in East Ghouta, after much effort, delegations from the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the Red Crescent, and others inspected the emergency evacuation list prepared by the doctors of Ghouta. The list comprised 500 cases of grave illness requiring immediate treatment unavailable in Ghouta. They saw the patients with their own eyes, and expressed sympathy and concern, and promised all would be well. Then they got back in their Land Cruisers and left the emergency evacuation list to await death. And death, indeed, came to them.
Death alone broke the siege for the young man Nabil, afflicted with cancer, making him the tenth person so far to be liberated from the list. The child, Osama, preceding Nabil on the list, was in need of a box of medicine that can be bought from any pharmacy outside the East Ghouta concentration camp. Before Osama and Nabil, the girl Aisha spat on the list, and on this wretched world, as she departed from it. And before them, and after them, the only thing that succeeds in lifting the siege of Ghouta, and raising them above the subjugation and shabbiness of the world, is death.
In 2000, in the Air Force Intelligence prison in Mazze airbase, the guard shouted to the shawish: “How many do you have?” The shawish replied, “28,” so he threw him, in the food bowl, a single spoon smeared with halawa (a sweet substance).
In 2017, after a long wait, a supposedly ‘large’ UN aid convoy arrived to East Ghouta containing food insufficient for a single meal for each of the half a million besieged. We don’t know if the convoy came with the phrase “Hopefully it’s poisoned,” as the prison guard in the Mazze airbase yelled while slapping the stunned expression on the face of the shawish, who carried the spoon of halawa to the 28 starving inmates.
Prisoners grow suspicious of any improvement in the guards’ dealings with them, such as a reduction in torture, or an improvement in the food, or a promise of release. They’ve learned that such things are bad omens; liable to be followed by ‘execution parties,’ or exacerbations of one kind or another.
The besieged, likewise, have grown accustomed to ‘breakthroughs,’ such as the opening of the road, or the entrance of aid, being accompanied by escalations in massacres and punishments. The arrival of a UN aid convoy comes with virtually unending bombardment beforehand, and afterward, and sometimes even during.
These are not isolated, one-off cases, which makes them something to think about, perhaps, for those searching for the causes of extremism and the flourishing of nihilist thought in this subjugating, and subjugated, world.
Both in prison and under siege, both the highest and lowest of what lies in the soul are brought out, for yourself and those around you. You see manifestations of love and sagacity and altruism, as well as hatred and depravity and selfishness and treachery. You get lost in existential questions about rebuking the starving or the naked or the imprisoned if they seek to meet the natural needs of mankind.
In prison, you’re a loser at all times: the whips hurt you if it’s your turn for the torture festivities, and you’re also pained as you count the whips shredding your cellmate. And under siege, the hunger bites you, and you writhe in pain, and you’re no happier if you eat, as long as the whip of starvation lashes the poor fellow next to you.
Your productivity is linked to the extent of your conviction about the immutability of the situation; that is, what the inmates call your istihbas, which is your dealing with imprisonment as a permanent, unchangeable reality. Your thoughts of the imminent opening of the road, and other ‘breakthroughs,’ increase your suffering, and impede your acclimatization.
You’re astonished by your ability, or the ability of your imprisoned/besieged colleagues, to persist; to persist in anything, even moving and breathing and the rest of the vital functions.
Your aspirations and dreams diminish in size. The utmost that the prisoner in one of the torture branches desires is to sleep on his back, or to stretch his body out fully. In one of the lockups, a young man confided in his cellmate his wish: to ride the Mazzat Jabal-Karajat service from start to finish. And in one of the towns of East Ghouta, a young girl longed for a cup of coffee in the Sarouja market.
Should it happen that you exit from this prison/siege, you’ll remain encumbered with many scars, on body and soul. You’re supposed to have acquired the blessings of comfort and plenitude, and, most importantly, the blessing of freedom. Yet the bad news is you won’t live them once you attain them. It’s true you’ll carry your scars as medals, which may provide a source of power if you survive, but at the same time the survivors’ guilt will prevent you from carrying on your life as others do.
Finally, there are people sharing the imprisonment/siege with you whose fundamental mission is to increase your suffering, and that of the rest of your unfortunate counterparts. It might be that the jailor commissions them to execute this task, or they may do it of their own volition. And the jailor is certainly pleased whenever they relieve him of the work of torturing you, and imprison you a second time inside your imprisonment.