Edited by: Maggie Rosenau
They invented this place for us to first be isolated and then to not be alone. You are on the ground writing about the sky. I will believe. And from this grave, I will write about the sky, and you should believe.
Almost two months have passed and I am waiting underground. I was waiting for several things: waiting for my next questioning; for someone to say to me that my parents know where I am and are doing their best to get me out of this grave. I was waiting to be able to say I am free again, I am still alive.
Despite all the oppression—death, high heat, biting insects and space constraints—having a window to look out from and see a thread of blue sky let me keep dreaming and waiting. I was still somehow free in my thoughts. Sad, yes, but full of hope.
The tragedy that happened with Usama made me still and straying most of the time. I can remember my thoughts and fears from that time, and the worry that my interrogation was not yet over. At any time they might call my name and pry for more information than what they bullied out of me during the last interrogations.
As I said earlier, you have to be smarter than them. And patient. They torture you until you give them new information. And after each new piece of information, they ask for more and they will beat you much more, So patience under torture is the hardest but the best solution. If you confess early and say what they want to hear in order to escape their torture, you may die in your dormitory from diseases and the long waiting. It is no secret that torture often leads to death and that not everyone can endure the harshest forms of torture. But if you can be patience, the probability of survival is greater and the probability of death is honorable. At least you have chosen the method of death with dignity; that is what this is all about.
My previous confessions were not that serious: three demonstrations against the government and burning tires during those demonstrations. These were safe confessions, which caused me more worry about the next ones. I was sure that things would not stop at that point. I knew I had to prepare a new confession—one that was smart and safe to confess.
On January 29th, 2013 I was called in for another interrogation. This was the third in two months, though much different than the others. Or let me say, it was a different level of questioning. I was ordered to come out quickly and my eyes were then covered. We climbed up the stairs. Prior interrogations had taken place on the second floor! This time we went higher, and as we made our way up, voices gradually disappeared.
I counted the floors on every turn. Because I didn’t know what was beyond the second floor, I was very scared. Plus, the guard was quite which caused me to panic. I had learned very quickly from prior interrogations that one does not arrive on the second floor without been hit and kicked along the way! But now the guard was quiet and with his hand on my back led me to what I counted to be the fifth floor.
Suddenly everything changed. There was no blood or rotten smells, but fresh air, which I had not been exposed to for two months. The space was incredibly quiet. I heard no screaming or begging for mercy. There was somehow a great distance between this floor and our ward—one could easily believe nothing was happening downstairs.
When we arrived, I was ordered to stop and stand still at one of the doors in the corridor. Then the guard said “You are about to stand before the Chief Investigator. You will wait inside until he comes in. He wants to talk to you.” I can’t explain how scared I was when I heard that. No one in our ward had seen the Chief Investigator and lived to tell about.
The guard knocked on the door. No answer. He opened the door and we entered the room. My eyes were focused on the movement of my feet when I noticed the smells in the room mixed with the winter wind I felt coming in from an open window we were walking toward. He stopped me in front of the window and said “Now you will wait here for the Chief. While you are waiting you can have fresh air and a look at the life outside.” He said this as he uncovered my eyes. I was standing against the window and for the first time in my life, I looked at the sky differently. I looked at it the way a newborn baby open his eyes for his first time and watches everything in wonder, taking his first breath in this life. I looked down at the highway and watched the people and cars passing by. For a moment, I wished someone was watching me from below. But no one looked up to where I was. No-one turned their head toward this building. People passed by this place with fear on their faces. The beauty of the scene, though, filled my eyes filled with tears. Nothing else on this earth has more magic than our sky. I forgot myself standing there. For a moment, I forgot everything that had happened during the last two months. I forgot about the beatings and the sounds of broken bones; I forgot where I was. The present moment was all that there was and I did not care about what had happened before and had no concern about what would happen after.
This contentment didn’t last long, however. A voice broke the silence to say: “Two minutes are enough. Now close the window.” That voice broke a spell of relief and jolted me back to reality. I turned my head and saw a man sitting behind a desk. On the desk was a small sign with “Chief Investigator” written on it. The man was calm and sophisticated looking, reading a case folder I knew was mine. He took his time before lifting his gaze to me.
Chief Investigator: I hope these two minutes gave you some time to think. Did you see how pretty it is outside? Life is going well. Out there the people enjoy fresh air and sun and rain. This place, though, is without, because animals like you don’t deserve it. I read here that you confessed to participating in three demonstrations against the government and burned tires during those demonstrations. Well, this is a bullshit confession. I look at you and don’t believe it. So now, if you insist on behaving like an animal, it is my job to tame you. Yet if you wish to conduct yourself as a civilized human and leave this place, you will tell me everything you know, including information about the guns you have.
Me: Sir, I do not know what to do or say until you believe me. But as I have the chance to talk to you now, I will tell you that I have been studying Mathematics and Theater at Damascus University for the past 3 years. I worked as a volunteer for a governmental organization headed by the First Lady. I’ve had the honor of working and organizing refugee centers with the Governor of Damascus. Sir, I never had or touched a gun, nor has anyone in my family.
Chief Investigator: Being here in this office means you will talk. I will not hit you, no one will hit you. But you will talk and I will give you a second chance to consider your next words. (Shouts for the guard:) Bring the detained fighter here and prepare everything!
I stood in my place; one minute passed. I lowered my head and searched the ground with my eyes for something that did not exist until the door opened. Three guards entered the room with a half-naked man. His body was covered in cuts and bruises, and there was a fresh entry point of a bullet clumsily sutured. The man was barely standing but his eyes were exploring the room. His body was exhausted and chained, but his eyes were a string and he stood boldly. He looked into the chief investigator’s eyes, confident of his death.
Chief Investigator: I brought you here to make an example of you for this little guy here. He still doesn’t know what means to be in my office. Neither you seem to understand what happens if you do not speak. Now tell me, where is the safe house where you keep all the guns? I want a detailed outline of the distribution to the opposition army in the besieged areas.
The fighter (laughing): Just not to waste our time here… Fuck you!!!
Chief Investigator (with a look of surprise that turned into a light smile): If you think so, I warned you, you fool. Guards! You know what to do!
I watched the fighter defy the chief, concerned for his life and mine. I had never felt so scared in my life as I was at that moment. I knew that everything would turn against me. I listened and watched this example of a tortured life aimed to make me speak. The guards suddenly threw the fighter on the ground and one put his foot firmly on the fighter’s chest. Another lifted and held the fighter’s legs. The last guard placed the fighter’s feet into a strange device made of a rod, a rope, and several razors. When the guards fixed the torture device to the feet, the guards took hold of each end of the rod and began twisting the rod, causing the rope to wrap around the draw the blades toward the fighter’s feet. I watched the terrible scene and struggled with my breathing. I could hear my blood rushing in my ears over the sounds of laughter from the chief and the laughter of the fighter who did not yet understand what they put his feet into. He could not see the device.
As soon as the blades gouged into the man’s feet, his face changed. The scene was one I would never forget—the sudden transformation of laughter to screams, from a face with a look of defiant confidence to a face that seemed to not know the meaning of smiles. When the blades entered his body, blood poured out in streams down his legs and formed a pool underneath him. The fighter screamed and begged for it all to stop, promising to talk. But they kept rolling the rope and the pool of blood grew under him until the chief ordered them to stop.
Chief Investigator: Enough. Take him away and write his confessions. If he refuses to talk, start again.
The guards dragged the fighter outside, leaving behind a river of blood. The chief looked at me with a smile. He ordered me to stand barefoot in the blood. I hesitated but followed orders, took off my shoes and stepped into the hot blood. I felt the blood slowly coagulate around my feet. It was so strange. I looked down at my feet thinking that if I moved a little bit, everything would be fine.
Chief Investigator: Do I have to make the pool of blood bigger till you confess and tell me everything you know? Would you like to try it? It’s not that bad!
Me: Sir, I swear to you, I told you everything. I did not harm this country!
Chief Investigator (shouting to the guards): It’s his turn now! Set the tool on his legs, but leave him standing on the blood. I want him to see his blood flow into the pool underneath him!
I begged, but my mind was still working and searching for a way out of this situation. Whatever happened, I couldn’t confirm the guns and other charges because I didn’t have any and I had never touched or handled one. And if I did confess, under any circumstances, I would be kept here forever. So I’d rather die under torture than stay prisoner in this place forever. But perhaps I could offer something else. Yes, while I was begging I devised a plan and kept it till the end. The guards put the torture device on my feet and forced me to look at it. They started rolling the thing. I focused on the sharp blades as they approached my feet. When they touched my feet I screamed.
Me: STOP! STOP! ALRIGHT! I will tell you everything I know! Please put this thing away!
Chief Investigator: Then talk, I am listening!
Me (nervous): Sir, please, put this tool away first, please!!
Chief Investigator: Ok, I will put it away for now. But listen, if you are thinking about lying to me, you will watch razors destroy your legs without interruption!
Me: I promise, I will say everything I know but take it away!
Chief Investigator (after ordering the guards to take it away): Alright, now you are free from the razors. Tell me now, I will start recording. Speak!
Me: Sir, as I said, I did nothing to harm this country, but…
He walked to me and slapped me on the face with all his strength. My eyes teared up and I continued.
Me: …but I know people who lived in my area who might have guns or have contacts with the free army!
His face quickly changed and a smile spread across his face. He walked back to his desk.
Chief Investigator: Now we are talking, tell the names loudly!
Me: I have five names for you, sir. I witnessed this when the free army entered Damascus. These guys had contact with them, and they also might have guns. They are neighbors so that is why I wouldn’t talk about them. But I also did nothing wrong, sir, and I need my legs. Please believe me, I am innocent!
Chief Investigator: Say the names, I am listening!
Me: From my street, there are three men: Ahmad M., Alaa’ G. and Hadi S. From the next street there is Rasem S. and Saleh. K. I am sure that they are still in contact with the free army!
Chief Investigator: Hmmm…. who else? Tell me more. Give me more names. This is not enough, speak!
Me: Sir, these are all the names. I am sure of their activity, but I may know of another two. But I can’t say for sure. I don’t want to give misinformation!
Chief Investigator: Leave it to us. It is our job to make sure of such things, and abusing people is our work. Speak!
Me: The names are Emad L and Karim A. That’s everything I know, sir.
Chief Investigator (smiling): Alright…guards, send him back to his ward. We are finished here!
One guard put a hand on my shoulder and ordered me to move. I stepped out from the pool of blood and they took me down the stairs to my place.
On my way down, I had to analyze what had just happened in that office. They left me standing by the window, brought in a fighter and tried to amputate his feet just to make me speak. They left me standing in his blood. Then they took some names and returned me to the dormitory! This was a new level of psychological fuckery. Nothing justified what happened today, except for boredom. They were so bored. I am now certain that they understand very well my innocence but simply enjoy watching us plead and suffer.
After I was brought back to the ward nr. 12, I told my cellmates everything that had happened. Someone said to me: “You should have said anything else instead of giving names! Now they will arrest them all, and those monsters will torture these people to make accusations against you! You just put yourself in new trouble!!”
I laughed when he finished. I had forgotten to explain that this was my second victory against these monsters. Yes, I gave them names of real people, but what the chief investigator did not know was that four of the names I gave are men who are already dead. The government killed them outside in the clash against the free army. They are not alive anymore and if I am asked about this, I will pretend I don’t know this information. What could be worse? Death? We are already waiting and ready for it! The other three names I gave are of people who are still alive and who already left Syria. I will be safe for a while. Still, that fighter. I guess he was a dead man the moment he was brought into that office. He lost so much blood so quickly… may God rest his soul in peace.
In my days there, I knew how to grieve, how to grieve for myself and others. In my days there, I experienced all the feelings I thought I knew. I experienced sorrow. I knew how and when to be afraid. Even happiness had a place in that grave.
But after this sick scene, the effects of trauma disorient me. My vision and my sense of time and place are completely blocked. Noises keep bringing memories and illusions that fill my head until I’m flooded. Doors and windows appear in my wide range of view, and every time I open one, visions of people I know appear and they begin talking to me. Voices come and go and someone or something keeps whispering inside: “NOT YET!”
How far away I am from reality? Then the whispers ask: “Which reality you mean? You are far enough from everything! All that distance happening within you–don’t think too much about the absence. Everything you see in front of you is enough to keep your mind busy from the bloodshed you witnessed!”
I hear my mother’s voice. Where does it come from? It doesn’t matter–any door I open she steps through and I see her! All of this is happening in my head! And if I open the door for her, she tells me the same old joke she told before to make me smile: how by accident the explosion missed her on the way back home while the death was waiting nearby and saying: NOT YET!
Everything I need and dream of is right here in my head. I am free from all the bloodshed, torture, screams and pain—I am even free from myself. So I keep everything blocked and focus on what keeps me calm and quiet.
But is that what I really need? Is that the freedom I fought for—that got me here? I need an ordinary sorrow, a normal fear, a normal life. I don’t need a brilliant idea that concerns me to justify the strong desire to disappear. If crying helps heal my wounds from witnessing the horrors of war and death and political torture–if that would dry all this blood–then that is what I need. I need to replace all my memories of this place with family and emotional problems. That’s what I need. I want to live unaware of my own self, unaware that I even live, without knowing that I am alive to die, without thinking that I am only losing time… that’s all I need.
I don’t know, but something inside my head hurts and is still whispering. Let everything stop for a moment to get it out.