Book documents detainees who died under torture in Syrian regime prisons
By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo
In her new book, "When Prisons Speak", Syrian author Ghada Bakir tells the story of Idlib residents who were detained by the Syrian regime and died in prison as a result of torture.
The book lists the names of 600 detainees who were killed under torture in detention facilities from Idlib province alone, and documents several of their stories.
Starting at the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, it describes how the detainees were arrested, and includes interviews with the families of those who died during their incarceration.
During a wide-ranging interview, Bakir told Diyaruna that one of the main challenges she encountered while working on the book was the refusal of some families to accept that their sons were dead.
Many still cling to the hope that they are still alive and might return someday, she said.
Diyaruna: Tell us briefly about the book.
Ghada Bakir: My idea for the book dates back to the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2012, when the martyr Ahmed Daas, a youth from Saraqib and a peaceful demonstrator, was arrested at a checkpoint manned by elements of the regime and the (pro-regime) shabiha militia, who occupied the oil factory in Saraqib and turned it into a torture detention facility.
The youth, who was in his 20s, was martyred under torture and left the facility as a mutilated corpse.
During the same period, Ahmed Yasser Haj Ahmad, also of Saraqib, was arrested and transferred out of the oil factory to Idlib and then Damascus, where he was tortured, and he too left as a mutilated corpse.
I conceived the idea of the book during that period, and sought to tell the stories of the martyrs who died under torture in the detention facilities, sharing the stories of their lives from childhood to martyrdom.
Diyaruna: Why now?
Bakir: Due to personal circumstances I had stopped work on the book. I resumed this year after the regime released lists of the names of those killed under torture, after their families had waited years for their release, in addition to the photos leaked by [photographer] "Caesar" from inside al-Assad’s prisons that show the martyrs' mutilated bodies with a number on their foreheads. I wanted to turn those bodies into human beings who had lives, dreams and aspirations, and prove that they were not mere numbers.
Diyaruna: The book notes that the documentation was done by a team. Tell us about the team, and where will the book be distributed?
Bakir: The work was undertaken by al-Baraa Centre for Psychological Support and Rehabilitation and Zaytoun magazine in Turkey.
The work was divided up between the two teams. Al-Baraa team, which consists of myself, Noureddin Abbas and Hala Hajj Ali, conducted visits to the families of the martyrs, obtained the required information about the martyrs from childhood to their martyrdom and photographs of them, and wrote their stories.
The Zaytoun team, which comprised Raed Razouk and Waad al-Balkhi, edited the stories and printed the book at Noon Publishing House in Turkey.
The book was presented at the Book Fair in Istanbul and a number of copies were distributed in Turkey and the rest were brought to Syria, where the al-Baraa Centre team distributed it in Idlib and its rural areas. An electronic version was released recently to make it accessible to all who wish to read it.
Diyaruna: You focused on the Idlib region, why? Is there a project in the works to expand and include other regions?
Bakir: We confined our work to Idlib province and its rural areas because it is the only region in which we could move about and interview the families, as the regime has no presence there. We feared being arrested if we stopped at regime checkpoints.
We hope that this constitutes a first step toward documenting the stories of all martyrs from all Syrian provinces.
Diyaruna: How many Idlib residents were imprisoned, and how many of them died under torture?
Bakir: Unfortunately, there are no precise figures for the number of detainees from Idlib because there are no documentation centres.
Efforts were made to document them, but they were not completed, as most of the offices affiliated with the local councils were targeted with airstrikes and everything was lost.
For our book, we were able, with the help of some sources, to document 600 cases in the index, and included the stories we recorded, but the [actual] number of detainees is much larger than that.
Diyaruna: What difficulties did you encounter during the documentation process? And how did the families respond to you?
Bakir: The team faced several difficulties in the course of our work, including the refusal of the families of some martyrs to provide any information about their sons for fear the regime would enter Idlib and they would be in danger or killed by the shabiha.
Some also refused to talk in the hope that the reports of their sons’ martyrdom were not true, and that they will come out of detention; and some refused to believe the reports of their sons’ martyrdom, despite the fact that their names were on the lists of martyrs handed by the regime to some areas in Idlib.
This in addition to the difficulty of movement in rural Idlib, and the long distances we had to travel on a daily basis, and the difficulty of talking to the families and stirring up painful memories when recalling details of the martyrs’ lives.
Add to that the fact that some families had more than one martyr in detention which made dialogue with them painful for both us and them.
But despite all the difficulties, many of the families expressed happiness that we remembered their sons and wanted to commemorate them in this book for perpetuity.
Another difficulty was the fact that we had to complete the work within a limited period of time not exceeding one month and a half and cover a specific number of martyrs, which prevented us from pursuing many stories. Although there were hundreds of detainees from Idlib province and its rural areas, the size of the book prevented us from expanding further and we tried to get around this issue by listing the names of the martyrs in the index at the end of the book.
Diyaruna: Is there any information on those who are still in detention?
Bakir: There is no information on the detainees who are still in the regime’s prisons. Many families say there has been no news of their sons for more than four or five years. They are forcibly absent and it is not known in which prisons they are being held despite their families’ efforts to obtain any piece of information about their sons. Meanwhile, the [various] branches of the security [apparatus] are denying that they are in the detention facilities.