I've struggled over how to write this piece because, frankly, I haven't figured out quite how to melt this 'berg. So, uncharacteristically, I'll be sharing a 'berg that remains very much un-melted in hopes that you, my readers, might have some ideas of your own about how to help. The following is a true account shared with me by a brave man whose story gives voice to lives that have unfortunately been ignored and/or forgotten by the mass media. I am honored to share it with you now.
On Wednesday, May 9, 2012, the prison director didn’t send the detainees to work. He gave the order to lock all the prisoners in their cells, telling us it was routine procedure for an upcoming presidential amnesty. It didn’t make any sense, but it was our last hope. That night, locked in my cell with a fever from injuries that hadn’t been treated, I heard the sounds of people with hard heels walking through the hall, which was strange because the guards only walked with slippers.
I had been a prisoner of Palestine Branch for about 60 days. Since 2003, the Palestine Branch had been the questioning and detention center for Al Qaeda members caught crossing the borders between Syria and Iraq, but by 2011 it served mainly in the role of suppressing anti-government protests. As a result, most of the branch’s prisoners were neither criminals nor terrorists: they were involved in demonstrations, relief or medical aid, posting online articles against Assad, financing activities against the regime or armed insurrection. As a native of Damascus, I was detained for participating in protests during the beginning of the war. Most guards are employed by the security branch, though some are soldiers or agents. There’s also a number of guards who were prisoners in the past but provided intel in exchange for the position, and others have been held for decades because it’s not safe for them outside. The intelligence officials in charge of Palestine branch preferred psychological torture such as spreading rumors about mass releases or a presidential amnesty, or forcing prisoners to watch the execution of their family members.
All of a sudden, there was a huge blast and the whole building shook. Then, another blast. I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t see in front of me from the dust and the glass. Water and drain pipes were broken and water was overflowing everywhere. My cellmates and I started taking off our shirts and putting them on our faces like masks. We were worried that the building above us would start to collapse, so we gathered under a main support beam and called for help, but after 30 minutes we were still waiting. We started to break down the cell doors ourselves. The prisoners all worked together to help the rest escape from the cells. Armed soldiers started encircling the prison, and shooting indeterminately inside. After a while, several officials came into the prison telling us there had been a NATO airstrike and ordering us to line up in order to be evacuated. A huge crowd of soldiers started handcuffing, beating, and cursing us. After being locked in the hot buses without water for hours, finally the bus stopped somewhere, and another crowd of soldiers were shoving every detainee inside a small building and over the stairs. Downstairs there was a small room where they kept everybody- at least 180 detainees. The soldiers ordered us to take off our clothes for inspection during which the soldiers were flogging us with electric cables.
At the new detention center, the guards placed 75 detainees per 25 square meter room. The cells were crowded with people sick, injured, or nearly dead. We spent 9 days there before we were transferred back to the Palestine jail. When I was released after about a month, I suffered intense anxiety and difficulties integrating back into my own society. Life in prison seemed much easier, warmer and intimate despite the wounds and the screaming. When I was in prison I thought that “If people outside stop protesting against the regime, I will definately be executed”. Many prisoners die and nobody remembers their names or their faces. Years later, I heard that nearly all my cellmates had died. Although I survived in many occasions, sometimes I feel deeply disappointed to survive alone without the loved ones. So in a loving memory of all my friends: Baraa, Noor, Izzat, Badr, Eyad, Mado, Yaman, Mouaz, Khaled, Hasan, Mohamad, Bilal, Ayman.... and finally Laila.
“Please don’t forget about us!” That is the message!
For more information here are some diagrams of the Palestine Branch as created from the survivor's memory, and a link to see the second blast on a Syrian news network.
A video for the second explosion shows the bombing from the main road about 1 km away from the branch site: