Four more years passed, four more years slashed from our lives, four more meaningless, purposeless years. Winter arrived once again in Dooma Prison, but the seasons, like the years, slipped away with little regard. During these stagnant times, a series of events began to unravel and cut through the silence.
One cold October day in 1989, the guards called out to Azeeza and Ghazwa to gather their belongings and prepare to leave, with no mention of where or why. The guards refused to answer our questions. We thought maybe they were reinvestigating Azeeza and Ghazwa’s cases or taking them to court and that they would return to us within days. But a whole week passed without news of them. A guard came in once again and called out for Um Hassan and her two daughters Salwa and Yusra. Um Hassan and her daughters left with the Mukhabarat officers. Days and weeks passed and we didn’t hear a thing about them either.
A Dream and Glad Tidings
During those years, I continuously dreamt of my mother. Every night, I saw her pregnant and in labour, but unable to deliver. One night, I saw her in labour, but this time, she was able to deliver. I told Hajja Madeeha about my dream.
“It’s a sign that you will be released soon,” she declared.
As Hajja Madeeha said this, the warden walked into our cell that early morning and read out twelve names: Madija, Um Yasir, Lama, Raghda, Montaha, Hala, Najwa, Madeeha, Riyad and Heba. He followed the list of names with one word: “release”.
They had promised us pardon and release many times, but never
kept their word. The news didn’t move us. Majida and I were sitting in a corner reciting from the Quran when the officer shouted at us to get up and get a move on. We sat still.
“Stop lying to us. We don’t need more lies,” we told him.
The guard swore to us that he was telling the truth today and showed us the list of names printed on an official document. Even as he insisted, we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe him. We stayed sitting in our corner.
“Fine, I will bring in the Mukhabarat task force that came to take you so you will believe me.”
The guard did indeed bring in the task force and only then did we believe him and burst into a noisy fuss of tears, laughter and kisses. We gathered our belongings. Majida and I dumped our things into one big bag without thinking and dragged it behind us, spilling out some of our things onto the ground, but we didn’t care a bit. We felt overwhelmed, unable to absorb the events unfolding around us, still in a state of disbelief. The whole prison seemed in an uproar at the news of our release. The non-political prisoners congratulated us on our way out and called out to each other, “The political prisoners are being released. The political prisoners are being released.”
Some of the kinder guards and officers approached us and asked whether the news was true. They congratulated us warmly with tears running down their cheeks. I don’t even remember how we eventually got to the vehicles outside or what the vehicles looked like or the exact chain of events, but I will never forget how our beloved kitten Reemi followed us out with tears streaming down his furry cheeks. We rode in the vehicles until we found ourselves at the doorsteps of the Military Interrogation Unit and everything felt like a strange dream.
We are Here
From the doorsteps of the interrogation unit to the reception room, officers guided us, still handcuffed. We had to check in our belongings and fill out the necessary paperwork. Then they took us down those ugly stairs that we knew well enough from our previous visit and into the basement where they put us in a joint cell, in the north side of the Military Interrogation Unit. As we walked down the hallways, we heard the voices of our former cellmates who left before us. They banged on their cell doors and called out, “We are here. We are here.” The officers yelled at us to shut up. We didn’t care. We shouted out greetings and congratulations to each other. Eventually, we found ourselves in a small cell, all fourteen of us, with no space for breath. We knocked on the door and complained.
“This cell that you claim doesn’t fit all of you fit ninety two men before you,” said the guard.
We stared at the guard in shock. How could this cell possibly fit ninety two people? As we looked up at the high ceiling, we noticed carvings of mosques with signatures below them, a trademark of the Ikhwan prisoners. We couldn’t fathom how the prisoners could have reached such a high ceiling, but we began to understand as we thought about what it would be like to have ninety two men stuffed into this cell.
“Now we get it buddy,” said Hajja Madeeha to the guard. “You stuffed ninety two men in here by piling them one on top of the other until they reached the ceiling.”
One night passed, then two, then three and four and we all huddled against the cell door ready for that second when the door would open
for good, continuously telling ourselves that it must be any minute now. As the days passed, we began to question and wonder whether our hopes were but a mirage, as all our hopes before had been. We teetered between holding firm to our dreams of freedom and completely suppressing them, until the joy and excitement withered away, our expectations died and we fell back into tedious prison routine. Being directly under Mukhabarat watch and feeling the terror of their presence made our situation even more miserable.
Our days in the Military Interrogation Unit, as we found out later, were a period of chastisement. Officers spoke to us harshly and enforced rules so strict that they outdid even the days of Kafar Suseh Prison. The guards brought food that was barely enough for half of us. They kept our cell door locked at all times. “Breathing time” happened only according to the mood of the guard on duty, and he decided for how long, ten or fifteen minutes if we were lucky. We spent “breathing time” in a small indoor field surrounded by high walls. But the hunger, anxiety and closed doors didn’t do to us what the cries for help and screaming of prisoners in the torture chamber did.
When the guards felt like taking the men out for “breathing time,” they took them out running into the field barefoot, regardless of the extreme cold. They ran around chased by sticks and cables like a herd of sheep. Their faces looked so pale, so yellow that they seemed luminous from afar.
I remember one time when one of the male prisoners from a neighbouring cell took a few seconds too long in the shower. The guard on duty dragged him out of the shower and beat him continuously with whips and cables. Then the guard began to order him around.
“Pick up the slipper with your mouth,” he hollered.
The poor prisoner had no choice but to bite down on the slipper and pick it up.
“Crawl with it in your mouth all the way to the toilets.”
The toilets in the Military Interrogation Unit were in a state so
appalling that one could not bring themselves to look at them or go anywhere near them. The man crawled behind the guard all the way to the toilets, which consisted of holes in the ground overflowing with filth. The guard stomped on the prisoner’s head and submerged it into the hole. The guard ordered the man to pick up the slipper with his mouth again, told him to crawl in a different direction and whipped him with every step. The prisoner screamed and screamed and begged and begged for the guard to stop. We couldn’t bear it.
“Are you human? Is there no mercy in your heart?” Hajja Madeeha shouted.
Then all of us began to call out.
“Please if you won’t have mercy on him, then at least have mercy on us and torture him somewhere else,” we pleaded.
“What? What’s the matter?” asked the guard, with a silly smile on his face. “We’re just kidding around.”
One time, the guards walked by our cell while passing out food. At the Military Interrogation Unit, the peepholes were at the bottom of the door. One guard placed a plate of food in front of our door and another guard opened the peephole for us to reach out and take the plate. That day, Azeeza pleaded with us to ask the guard if he knew anything about her husband’s family, if they were in the Military Interrogation Unit as well. It was my turn to bring in the plate that day. I poked my head out of the peephole and looked up at the guard.
“Have you heard of the Yusuf family?”
“Yes, they brought all of them to the south wing…” the guard whispered.
Before he could finish his sentence, the officer behind him grabbed him, pushed him down and beat him right in front of our door. The guard begged and screamed for the officer to stop.
“It’s not my fault,” he screamed. “She spoke to me… I didn’t talk to her… I didn’t talk to her…”
“It really isn’t his fault,” Hajja Madeeha shouted, hoping to
distract the officer from the beating if only for a second. “This low life here asked him about the food, just about the food.”
But the officer didn’t turn to her or pause for a second. He continued beating and whipping the guard until he had his fill.
The Leader had no Idea
More days passed. We began to sense serious hints of release coming soon. They brought us out to the offices in the basement and asked us to fill out forms detailing everything about our lives. They took pictures of us in many different positions, holding a board with numbers on it. Fifteen days later, they officially informed us of our release.
“Buddy, why did you remember us now, after all these years? What’s the occasion?” Hajja Madeeha asked.
“Well, it seems the leader didn’t know about you ladies.”
“Oh, so now he knows that we exist?”
“Nine years of our lives passed and your leader didn’t know about us?”
“Yes, I swear. If only he had known about you before, he would have let you out long ago. As soon as he found out, he ordered us to let you out.”
“Why are we still here then?”
He told Hajja Madeeha that Syria was now mourning, in solidarity with Lebanon, the assassination of Lebanon’s president, Rene Muawad. They had been ordered to lower the flags and close all official government departments. And so they made us wait another two or three weeks, during which time we met twice with a newly formed committee, put together especially for us. The committee’s job was to inform us of our release and bid us farewell with no hard feelings. The committee was headed by Officer Hasan Al-Khaleel, along with Kamal
Yusuf, the head of the unit, and other officers. When it was my turn to meet with the committee, I met with Kamal Yusuf in a blindfold, as did the others.
“Don’t think that the fact that we are releasing you means you can feel free to do as you please. I have Mukhabarat watching you from within your own family.”
“I never did anything wrong to begin with,” I said.
He instantly began to curse and swear at me and call me a criminal, too stubborn to confess. He also informed me of my duty to report any wanted criminals who contacted me, or who I might come across. Kamal Yusuf emphasized this to Azeeza even more stringently and threatened her children’s safety again. When Kamal Yusuf met with Amal he said, “Why do you want to leave so soon? You just got here yesterday.”
The purpose of the committee was to emphasize to us that we did not deserve our freedom and to remind us that we were still convicted criminals and our release was solely due to the kindness of the president and his generous pardon.
Rehab and Repair
Among the façade of kindnesses that the Mukhabarat poured upon us before our release was a program of rehab and repair carried out by the same officers whose job it was to torture. The program was put together for Samia, Salwa’s daughter, who was born in Tadmur Prison and raised in the prisons of Homs, Katana and Dooma. She had ended up in the Military Interrogation Unit at an age when she should have entered school, although she looked barely a year or two old. Samia was a shock for anyone who set sight on her, due to her frailty and pale skin.
The Mukhabarat wanted to do everything they could to hide any evidence of their abuse and criminal behaviour. They didn’t want to let
Samia out into the world, where all comers and goers could see her in a state that screamed of their crimes. And so they began this rehab and repair program. They took Samia and her mother out to a field outside the basement and let her acquaint herself with the real world. They fed her extra and handed her sweets and even brought her some toys to recapture what bit of her lost childhood they could salvage.
One day, Kamal Yusuf, the head of the unit was coming back to his office. His car stopped near the field. His driver came out, opened the door for him, carried his briefcase and followed him to his office. Kamal Yusuf glimpsed Samia on his way. He called out to her, took her into his office and played and chatted with her. When she came back, she told her mom, “Mama, when I grow up, I want to be a colonel.”
“Why?” her mother asked.
“So I can have a car and a driver who will drive me around and carry my bag and walk me to my office, an office just like Colonel Kamal’s.”
“How will it be like his office?”
“It will have a rug on the floor and nice lights and pretty things we don’t have in here.”
Samia, copying the inmates around her, engraved her name into the walls and it broke my heart when I read what she wrote below her name. Samia wrote: I was born in Tamdur Prison and I lived in Katana Prison and Dooma Prison and… Samia listed all the prisons she had lived in and all the dates.
The Drunken Colonel
The powerful head of the Military Interrogation Unit, Kamal Yusuf, turned into a silly fool when night fell and the time for his drink arrived. In his half conscious drunken state, he often called on poor Ghazwa, brought her into his office and chatted with her, his speech a slur of
meaningless mumbles. Other times, he’d come down to the basement, stand in front of the cell door and speak to her through the peephole. Most of the time, Ghazwa didn’t know what to say and sat in terrified silence.
One night, it was past 1:00 am and we were asleep in our cell, when we suddenly felt the peephole fly open and we saw someone pop their head into our cell. Usually the guards knew to knock first, so that we could wear our hijabs, but this unknown visitor opened the peephole without warning and stared at us with red bloodshot eyes.
“May God punish you,” we shouted out in shock and anger.
Some of the women spit in his face. A flurry of yelling filled the room.
“Shut the peephole and get out of here… Who let you in? You sick… disgusting… inconsiderate…”
The man quickly pulled his head back out, shocked at our reaction. A few seconds later, he poked his head back in as if he suddenly remembered that he was the head of the unit and shouted back at us, “Who is the disrespectful one who dared raise her voice?”
Due to his thick accent, made thicker by his drunken state, we didn’t recognize the colonel. We got up and pulled the peephole shut in his face.
In the morning, Hajja Madeeha called out to the guard on duty. “Buddy, we have a request for the head of the unit.”
“What’s the occasion?” asked the guard.
“There was a disgusting officer who opened our peephole in the middle of the night and poked his head in.”
“At what hour?”
Hajja Madeeha answered him.
“Let me tell you something for your own good. Don’t talk about what happened, because the officer you are talking about is the head of the unit himself.”
Hajja Madeeha swung her hand to her chest in shock and said,
“May God punish him.”
We found out during “breathing time” from the women in the other cell that after the colonel came to us, he had gone to their cell and tried to talk to Ghazwa. The poor girl just sat there paralyzed with fear, at a loss of how to get rid of him.
Ebb and Flow
Time passed and it felt as if we were slowly spinning on skewers until December approached. Officers came one morning and read all our names out and told us to get ready. We scurried around with bursts of joy. But the morning arrived and nothing happened. We knocked on the door.
“What happened?” we asked.
“There has been a delay,” they said. No explanation.
The next morning, officers came to our cell and called for Um Hassan and her daughters Salwa and Yusra, and little Samia got up with them. They had brought them to our cell the day we arrived, due to overcrowding in their cell. The officers didn’t mention release; they simply asked the inmates to follow them. We thought they might be taking them back to the cell they were in before, but later we asked about them and the guards told us they were released. Horrified, we thought that they had received the pardon and release, and we had just missed the train. Hope died again. We plummeted back into a state of pessimism. Azeeza broke down into sobs.
“My heart tells me I will not be released with you,” Azeeza whimpered. “You’ll see.”
Two days later, they called upon Ghazwa, from our neighbouring cell, and released her. We remained in our cell wrestling with the scenarios that flashed through our minds and with our emotions that drifted back and forth, like the ebb and flow of the ocean, until the
morning of December the 24th. Officers opened our cell door that morning and told us that the hour of release had truly arrived.
An officer called out all of our names, except for Azeeza’s. Her fears proved true. She remained in prison for two more years. The rest of us followed the officers out of the cell towards the reception room where we were supposed to fill out forms. I wondered if they were really going to let us go today. I looked at my cellmates and knew they were wondering the same thing. We barely took a few steps out of the cell, when an officer marched towards us from other end of the hallway.
“There’s been another delay,” he said. “Take them back to their cell.”
At night, the officers returned and took us again to the reception room. We stood in a long line, our hearts full of hope. One of my cellmates leaned over and whispered to the woman in front of her.
“You know, it feels like we’re lining up for food rations.”
One of the officers overheard her comment.
“Sir,” the officer said to Officer Omar, “did you hear what she said?”
“What did she say?”
“Sir, these people don’t repent. They’re still talking politics.”
The officer relayed her comment, in his own words, and Officer Omar walked up to the poor woman and as if suddenly bit by a snake exploded into a storm of curses. Foam formed at the corners of his mouth.
“I swear to God, you people should not be released. You should be buried here until you die,” he hollered at her face.
After Officer Omar completed the dictionary of swear words, which he knew by heart, and after we received our confiscated belongings and filled out the forms that needed filling and signed the papers that needed signing, they told us that the matter had been delayed once again until morning due to fog. They took us back to our cell. We huddled behind the door, eyes wide open, tense and alert and unable to
relax for a second, let alone fall asleep.
As the night passed, we slipped back into despair. We remembered how they had promised release to the men in Kafar Suseh Prison and how they had transferred them to Tadmur Prison instead. The women and I surrendered half the night to these bitter feelings and the other half of the night to glimmers of hope and sweet thoughts of the possibilities freedom would bring.
As badly as I wanted freedom, I could not imagine what I would do with myself should freedom come. It was as if my mind could no longer comprehend the meaning of freedom and what to do with it. Some of the women talked about how they were going to return to their studies, or their jobs. Others swore they’d never work for the government again and would spend the rest of their lives in the arms of their loved ones.
I couldn’t think like my cellmates. I couldn’t allow myself those longings. I dared not even imagine such things, although all that stood between me and freedom now was the rising of the dawn.
Until the Rising of the Dawn
Wednesday, December 25 is a night we will not forget. We will never forget how the men in a neighbouring cell stayed up all night with us, praying, reciting Quran and begging God to let things work out smoothly. We communicated through subtle signs and we felt how they worried about us and feared for us more than they feared for themselves. Despite the clear danger, they continued reciting and praying for us aloud, showering warm light on us in the darkness of the prison. God saved them from the guards that night, and they continued their prayers unhindered until the rising of the dawn.
When dawn approached, we felt exhausted, sleep deprived and starved. But the anticipation for freedom overpowered all other
sensations. We knocked on the door over and over again and asked the guards what was going on and when they would finally open this door for good? We asked and asked until one of the guards lost patience.
“Stop knocking! When we want to release you, we will open the damn door and tell you to go.”
When they finally did open the door, we were like a towering wave behind a cracking dam. We toppled over each other, racing to get out as if afraid that the door would close on us once again. As we gathered in the hallway, with our eyes locked on the door that led out of the basement to the main hall, they read out our names.
Officers took Hajja Riyad and Hajja Madeeha along with Najwa and Salsabeela to another cell. We didn’t know why. They told them that their turn hadn’t come yet. The women sank to the ground as if they wanted to die. Hajja Riyad screamed and banged her head against the wall. She thought she’d surely be the first to be released.
The fourteen of us who remained standing in the hall, seven from Aleppo and seven from Hama, followed the guards up to the main hall of the prison. We saw the sun rising through the windows. We walked out of the darkness of the basement and into the light in our torn clothing and with our pale faces, like corpses rising from the grave to walk amongst the living once again. We stood under the warmth of the sun and broke down into heaving sobs. Colonel Kamal Yusuf stared at us strangely.
“What’s the matter? Why did you stop walking?” he asked.
“This is the first time in nine years that we see the sunrise,” Um Zohair answered. “What do you expect?”
He quickly left and returned with handcuffs and our hearts sank at the sight of them.
“Why the handcuffs?” we asked.
“Those are the rules. You have to be in handcuffs until you pass the suburbs of Damascus.”
Our hearts sank after such a high and we started to fear once
again that they would only transfer us to another prison. But things began to happen quickly. They read our names again and verified our identities. Then, they handcuffed us and led us onto a bus. Three Mukhabarat officers joined us on the bus, two at the front and one at the back door. The bus began to move.
“Are we really going home?” Majida asked the officer next to her. “Or are we just being transferred?”
“You’re being released.”
“Tell me, will the men ever be released? And please tell me the truth.”
“I don’t know. I swear.”
Majida continued to prod him until he told her, “Yes, there is hope for the men, but not any time soon. We let you out first so we won’t have to worry about you anymore.”
New Year Greetings
The bus moved down the road and we wanted it to fly faster than the clouds and bring us to our homes. But at the same time, our homes and the outside world had become the unknown, and we were scared. We wondered how we’d part from each other and awake tomorrow far from the only faces we’ve known for nine years, faces that have been with us through the good times and the bad. We wondered where we’d go. We wondered who we’d meet.
I wondered about those who had passed away and those who had been killed. I wondered about my city, Hama, which had been destroyed. I wondered about my neighbourhood that had been flattened. I wondered about the loved ones, now buried under the ground, the loved ones who were the joy of life itself. These questions stormed in my mind until we arrived in Hama.
The bus stopped and the officers removed our handcuffs and told
those of us from Hama to get ready to get off. The bus would leave again soon to take the others to Aleppo. We kissed and hugged the ones going to Aleppo and promised to keep in touch and to visit and call regularly.
The bus had stopped in front of the Hama Military Interrogation Unit. An officer from our bus stepped out and walked into the unit to speak to the officers inside, then came back out for us. Three officers from our bus congratulated us on our release.
“Thank God we are done with you and your nagging.” They smiled.
Happy New Year
We watched the bus drive away in the direction of Aleppo. Officers from the Hama Military Interrogation Unit greeted us casually. We heard officers wish each other a happy new year and realized the new year had arrived. We didn’t realize that meant we had to wait longer until the head of the unit was done with his new year’s greetings. We sat in a cold waiting room, huddled and unable to do anything but stare at each other as we waited and waited for hours and hours.
Finally, an officer came in. He asked each of us to give him the phone number of the family member who would pick her up. Our families had received news of our release a few days before and had gone to Dooma Prison. The warden told them we were transferred to Adra Prison. They had gone to Adra Prison, but found no news of us there and were back to knowing nothing. When they got the call from the Hama Military Interrogation Unit, they weren’t sure what to believe.
Soon, the fathers and brothers of my cellmates began to arrive, but nobody came for me. When the officer asked me for a phone number, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t think of any names or numbers of anyone alive.
An officer called Majida’s father and told him as he told the rest,
“Come pick up your daughter.” Majida’s father thought it was a prank and hung up on them. The officer had to go to Majida’s father’s house and bring him to the unit and all the while Majida’s father was still thinking it was all a sick joke. When he saw his daughter with his own eyes, he lost his breath. He held Majida, looked at me and cried.
“And what about you?” he asked. “Who will come for you?”
When the officer returned to ask me again who I wanted to leave with, after many of the women had already left, I told him I’d go with Majida’s father. One of the brothers of another cellmate offered to take me home, but I told him I’d like to go with Majida. He later looked through the phone book and found my uncle, from my father’s side’s, phone number and called him for me. My uncle and his wife were in Homs and the children were alone in the house with their aunt, their mother’s sister. She didn’t know what to do with the news. She called my uncle, from my mother’s side, and told him that I had been released and that he needed to pick me up, but his wife had answered the phone and didn’t believe the news.
“Stop lying to us and if you call again I will hang up in your face,” my uncle’s wife yelled.
My friend’s brother then tried calling my uncle’s wife himself. “Heba is at her friend Majida’s house and you should go pick her up,” he told her.
He also got the number of the place where my father’s brother was staying in Homs and called him. His wife answered and asked who it was.
“A good doer,” he told her.
This scared her and she hung up, but later she decided to call Majida’s family just in case. They confirmed the news. She wanted to talk to me before she would really believe it. Majida’s mother called me to speak to her on the phone. I found myself unable to carry on a phone conversation, as if I’d forgotten how. As soon as my uncle’s wife heard my voice, she sped to Majida’s house. She rushed throught the front
door and held me and kissed me. I stood frozen, not knowing how to feel, unable to distinguish joy from sorrow. I didn’t know what to do next.
The whole neighbourhood seemed to have gathered. Men, women and children welcomed and congratulated us, but a troubled look shadowed their faces as they gawked at Majida and me, all the while thanking God repeatedly for our safe return. My uncle’s wife tugged at my hand and led me to the door. Majida’s mother followed behind us, teary eyed. She had wanted me to spend the night. I wanted to stay as well, for Majida’s mother reminded me of my own mom.
Majida’s mother told me how she had seen me in her dream the day before. In her dream, I sent her a post card with a picture of the Aqsa mosque and below it a verse from the holy Quran, “Glorified is He who carried His servant by night from the Inviolable Place of Worship to the Far Distant Mosque.” Majida’s mother had taken her dream to be a sign of good to come. She had gone to a sheik at the mosque who interpreted her dream and told her that soon we would be released. The next day, we were on our way home.
Shadows of Tragedy
Toward the end of 1989, at nearly three in the morning, I rode in my uncle’s wife’s car. I curled up in the back seat, mindful of the chilling cold and the unknown future that lay ahead. As we drove across Hama, I gazed out the window at the unfamiliar scenes we passed. The seven-year-long destruction of the city cast a dark shadow. The empty streets reflected empty hearts. The hum of the windmills’ spinning arms had been silenced.
Below the windmills, the Assey River had run dry and the trees and fields around its banks had withered and died. Everything I knew of the city was gone; the unfamiliar scenes seemed lifeless and alien. But
one thing remained unchanged. Mukhabarat vehicles still lurked