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Mustafa el-Khatib: a “miraculous survivor” of Assad's prisons


Thrown in prison at the beginning of the revolution when he was still a student, the dissident was released eight years later, much to his own surprise surprise.

“I have been waiting for this day for eight years, and I dream that it will be repeated over and over again,” Mustafa el-Khatib tells L’Orient-Le Jour via WhatsApp. An opponent of the Syrian government from Idlib Governorate, el-Khatib was arrested at the beginning of the Syrian revolution and spent most of the past eight years in jail.

While the situation in Syria developed, el-Khatib spent his time in a cell, only hearing about the major turning points in the conflict after they happened. Yet, somehow he managed to survive the torture and deprivation he experienced in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons. His arrest was an attempt to punish his father for daring to challenge Syria’s authorities. Today, el-Khatib is free, but far from unscathed. After surviving the horrors of prison, he is only now discovering the devastation that has visited upon his country. More than 370,000 people have died, millions have fled and ten of thousands are believed to still be in prisons across Syria.

While many families have had no news about their missing relatives for years, el-Khatib is one of the few who made it out of the infamous Saydnaya and Suwayda prisons. His family members, from Jabal Zawiya in Idlib, are no strangers to dissent. El-Khatib grew up dreaming of rebellion and also hearing stories about what the government did to people who disobeyed. In 1979, his uncle was arrested by Hafez al-Assad’s security forces, who were brutally suppressing an islamist insurgency, and thrown in prison for 13 years.

As early as March 15, 2011, the day that marks the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Mustafa, 20 years old at the time, began protesting against the regime along with his father and brothers in Jabal Zawiya. A month later, all of the family members were wanted by security forces and faced the constant risk of imprisonment. They decided to return to Aleppo, where el-Khatib had been studying engineering at university for the past two years.

But because of el-Khatib’s participation in student protests against the government, being in Aleppo turned out to be even more dangerous than staying in Jabal Zawiya. On June 9, 2011, less than a month after students raised the revolutionary flag on a building at the university, el-Khatib’s life was turned upside down.

“My friends and I were quietly studying over a cup of tea when members of the faculty security asked me to follow them. I was handcuffed and thrown into a car, and that's when I realized that I was with the mukhabarat (intelligence services),” el-Khatib says.

He was taken to the Air Force Intelligence Office, beaten, stripped of his belongings and taken for questioning.

The tire and electric shocks

“They beat me up before even entering the room. An hour earlier, I was hanging out with my friends, and before I knew it, the situation had changed completely. I was falling into horror. I could hear people screaming without seeing anything, of course. One of the policemen put something on my neck and said, ‘Let’s slit his throat,’” el-Khatib recalls.

Over time, he would get to know the regime’s full arsenal of torture techniques: electric shock, simulated drowning, tires, whips, cables. That first day, he was brought to another room to wash his bloodied face, but his ordeal was far from over. He was interrogated three times in one day, tortured and accused of being one of the instigators of the protests in Aleppo and Jabal Zawiya.

“Since my father was one of the main figures of the anti-regime movements in our area, they wanted me to tell them everything I knew about him and my brothers. They wanted me to say that my father was going to Saudi Arabia to get paid to destabilize the country. It was totally absurd,” he says.

On his 10th day in detention, el-Khatib heard a familiar voice: his father’s, who was 75 years old at the time. He was being tortured as well, which was too much for el-Khatib to handle. He ended up telling the officers everything they wanted to hear.

Two months later, el-Khatib and his father were flown to Damascus on a cargo plane with eight other detainees. “The flight lasted less than half an hour, but it seemed endless because they kept beating us up. I really thought they were going to throw us from the plane one by one,” el-Khatib says.

The father and son were held at Mezzeh Airport for three days, where soldiers beat them with electrical cables and cut their skin with razors, before they were transferred to Saydnaya prison. “Saydnaya was synonymous with hunger, cold and fear. We forgot that we were human beings... That's what they wanted, I suppose,” el-Khatib reflects.

When he arrived at the prison 30 km north of Damascus on Aug. 9, 2011, el-Khatib was treated to a “welcome party”, like all new arrivals. “We had to stay with our arms up in the air and the guards would come to check if one of us gave up. They would throw us food three times a day–a few olives, a spoonful of rice or a slice of bread–but if we picked something up we were beaten. Sometimes they would beat us purely out of boredom. And it was impossible to close your eyes,” he recalls.

Eighteen days later, el-Khatib was moved to a tiny cell with his father, who was in critical condition and suffering from a serious leg injury. On Sept. 28, the two men were taken before a judge. “During this sham trial I was told that I was guilty because I had confessed. It didn’t matter my ‘confession’ was extorted. They would not have believed me even if I had shown them the burns on my body,” el-Khatib says.

His father could barely stand in court. His leg had been amputated, his teeth were missing and he only weighed around 40 kg. “Let him get out and die,” the judge said. His father was released while el-Khatib was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

“We hated shower day. They would undress us and drag us two by two. We were not allowed to open the faucet until they told us to. Once wet, they would hit us with garden hoses,” el-Khatib recalls, choking up at the memory.

Outside the prison, rebel forces were pushing back regime troops and gaining territory. Inside, the prisoners had no idea what was taking place, but they still had hope that the Assad regime would fall. “On days when we were given less food we took it as a sign of the regime being in a tight spot. And when they were more generous, we hoped it meant an incoming amnesty for all prisoners,” el-Khatib says.

Large scale amnesty

On July 8, 2012, el-Khatib was transferred with 46 other detainees to a civil prison in Suwayda. For the next two years, they were separated from other prisoners and kept in a wing of the building reserved for people accused of terrorism, a term used by the government to refer to rebels and anti-regime militants. Over the months and years, hundreds of newcomers joined el-Khatib in the prison. He shared a room with 50 inmates, and after a time, it became hard to distinguish one day from the next.

Outside, the peaceful revolution had long since changed into something else. “We were trying to get bits of information through an antenna that allowed us to get the LBCI and FutureTV (Lebanese channels),” el-Khatib says. On June 3, 2014, Assad was re-elected president with 88.7 percent of the vote. The guards in the prison ordered the inmates to shout: “We give our soul and blood to Bashar”.

Except for us detainees in the “terrorists” wing. “ One guy was beaten to death for insulting Assad”, Mustafa remembers.

A week after his re-election, Assad announced the largest amnesty since the beginning of the revolution in 2011, involving tens of thousands of prisoners. It was also the first time amnesty was granted to people prosecuted for so called terrorism. El-Khatib’s sentence was cut from 15 years to 11.

Two years later, in 2016, dozens of prisoners started a hunger strike to protest their arbitrary detention. “We know that most of you do not deserve your fate, but you have been judged. We cannot help it. Your fate depends on the situation of the country,” the chief negotiator told them.

After seven and a half years behind bars, el-Khatib applied to be released based on good behavior. His request was granted. He still doesn’t know why.

After years of suffering, his father died six months before el-Khatib was released on Jan. 20 this year. The relief of freedom was short lived. El-Khatib soon found out he was wanted by another branch of the security services and was shuffled between government institutions in Hama–where he was held for two months–Damascus and Aleppo. He feared he was headed back to prison for good. “And then one day, they gave me my papers and told me to leave. I could not believe it. When I realized I was free, without handcuffs, for the first time in eight years, it was a shock. I kept looking behind me as I walked down the street, expecting a soldier to jump on me at any moment,” he recalls. “I looked like a fool, and I discovered the army checkpoints. But most of all I saw the new face of a devastated Aleppo.”

When he was released, el-Khatib had around 100,000 Syrian Pounds ($200) that his brother had sent him so he could return to Idlib. Between bribes he had to pay to soldiers and officials and militiamen he paid to inform his family that he was fine (which none did), el-Khatib was only left with around 1,000 Syrian Pounds. That amount was enough to pay for a taxi from A’zaz, in the area controlled by Turkish-backed rebels, to Idlib.

In the middle of the night on March 24, he arrived in Saraqib where his relatives were waiting for him. Friends and family from all over the region came to visit. Some prisoners who were released have been rejected by regime opponents who fear that they have become spies. But el-Khatib didn’t experience this.

Even in his freedom, which he dreamed about for nearly eight years, el-Khatib feels pain. Syria is in ruins. The opposition has lost. And the regime and its allies are constantly bombing Idlib. It’s a difficult situation to get used to. And while el-Khatib was fortunate to get out, hundreds–if not thousands–of others weren’t so lucky. As a survivor of Saydnaya, the relatives of others who have disappeared into the prison often seek him out. “As soon as I came home, I was shocked by the number of people who came to ask me if I knew their loved one who is missing. ‘Just tell us that you saw him and he died. Bring us some peace,’ some of them say.”

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 1rst of May 2019)

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