Looking back on life under the Assad dynasty.
- By Ahed Al HendiAhed Al-Hendi, a former political prisoner in Syria, is the Arabic programs coordinator at CyberDissidents.org, a division of Advancing Human Rights, a New York-based human rights organization.
They came for me on December 14, 2006. Plainclothes police carrying automatic weapons stormed into an Internet café in Damascus and grabbed me and a friend. They brought us in a car to the headquarters of the Syrian secret police. Around midnight they dragged me from my holding cell to the man I would come to know only as "Captain Wissam." He was a tall, dark-skinned officer. He looked at me and smiled. "We will release you in just a few minutes," he said. "You should be a good citizen." He then called a guard, whom he ordered to "take good care" of me.
Both men spoke with the distinctive accent of the Alawites; in fact, every single person in the prison did. The Alawite minority has effectively ruled Syria since 1963, and especially since President Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970. So when you hear this accent, you pay attention. Ever since I can remember, this has been the way that the people with real power in our country speak.
They did not keep me for a few minutes. They threw me into a cell they called "the Suite." Measuring five feet by one and a half feet, it had no windows. There was a hole in the floor for a toilet and a hose attached to a faucet in the wall. The hose had two purposes: to keep the toilet clean and to provide me with drinking water. They told me I’d be staying for two years.
As it turned out, they let me go in 40 days. But that was more than enough. During that period, which I spent entirely in solitary confinement, I was interrogated constantly. I was tortured repeatedly, both psychologically and physically. (Forgive me, but I would prefer not to go into the details.) Every single day I feared death. When they released me, I staggered out onto the street, bearded and unkempt, wearing the same clothing I had on at the time of my arrest (though now everything was in tatters). Outside, everything seemed to be normal. People in the streets were walking around and enjoying their lives, smiling and laughing.
This was Syria under the Assads. I had drawn the attention of the secret police because of my membership in a student group that set out to publicize the human rights abuses of the regime. To engage in opposition meant questioning not only the government, but the entire version of reality that it had imposed upon us for decades.
Like millions of Syrians, I started my education at the age of six. My first day at school began with a greeting to our "Great Father," Hafez al-Assad. We sang songs in his praise. His picture was everywhere: in our notebooks, our textbooks, our classrooms, even in the bathroom. He was the one who protected us from the danger of the imperialists and Zionists. He was the one who regained the honor of the Arabs. At school we learned that Assad’s cleverness had enabled Syria to win the Yom Kippur War, and we used to celebrate this day every year by holding up pictures of Assad marking the victory.
What we didn’t know, of course, was that the regime had actually been defeated. They used to tell us that Bill Clinton said that he fears two things: death and Hafez Al-Assad. Once our teacher told us that an agent of a foreign enemy country had tried to assassinate Assad, but when Assad was in range, the agent couldn’t see him on his rifle scope. The teacher told us that the hand of God intervened to stop the killing.
The portraits of the Great Father were always striking. When he smiled on TV, we felt intense love for our wonderful president. I was enrolled in an organization called "The Baath Party Pioneers." We dressed in uniforms and chanted every morning that we would stand behind our great leader to smash imperialism and Zionism. Just like any normal school kid, I conformed with the rest.
And why wouldn’t I have? We thought of him as a supernatural being, a kind of god. I remember how once, in the fifth grade, we were wondering whether Assad really used the bathroom; the very thought was strange.
My first shock came at age nine. I was sitting next to my father watching the news on state-run TV, the only channel that we had. There was an interview with a Palestinian activist who ran an Arabic newspaper. I was very surprised. "Don’t they live in tents?" I asked my father. "How can they print newspapers? How do the Israelis allow them to do that?" My father was very nervous and quickly replied, "Yes, they can have newspapers, but it’s hard."
The person being interviewed was harshly critical of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. "Are the Israelis going to throw him in jail, like our neighbor?" I asked. "I don’t know," my father replied curtly.
My neighbor was a political prisoner who belonged to a leftist movement. His children did not see him for seven years. He was released in 2004. When we asked why he was in prison, my family used to say, "He spoke badly about our Great Father, Hafez Al Assad."
The puzzle of my neighbor perplexed me. How could a country like Israel, portrayed as a ruthless enemy, tolerate criticism, while my neighbor rotted in prison controlled by the merciful father, Assad?
When Hafez’s son died, the whole country dressed in black. We were not allowed to sing on the school bus due to public mourning. Every single person around me cried when he died. Posters all around us proclaimed that the son, Basil Al Assad, was a martyr. I was in fourth grade at the time, and I asked my teacher: "Didn’t you teach us that martyrs are those who die while fighting the enemy?" "Yes," my teacher replied. "Then why do you call Basil a martyr when he died in a car accident?" The teacher was irate. She hit me hard and told me to bring my father. Because my school was a private Christian school, the problem was contained and the incident was not reported to state security.
In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died, and was succeeded by his other son, Bashar. There was talk of reforms, but that didn’t amount to anything. One thing did change, though: The omnipresent pictures of Hafez were now joined by new pictures of Bashar. The old personality cult was now transferred to the son.
This was the environment of fear in which I lived until I was 19 years old. That was when I figured out why my neighbor was jailed, why Basil was called a martyr, and why countless people didn’t know the whereabouts of their fathers because they had dared to criticize the regime. I learned about many of these things through the Internet, which exposed me to a range of information I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Some friends and I founded a group that we called "Syrian Youth for Justice." We tried to raise awareness about human rights abuses and to counter the pro-Assad Islamic and national sentiments that were flourishing on our college campus. Activists associated with Hezbollah were openly allowed to recruit students and conduct propaganda. Those, like us, who supported the cause of secularism and democracy were arrested and imprisoned. Some of my friends were sentenced to terms of five or seven years in jail.
Unsurprisingly, many in Syria blamed me and a small group of activists rather than the Assad dictatorship. The state had conditioned people to associate activism with treason. As a result, most people treated activists as dupes or spies of foreign powers. Many of my friends refused to talk to me after I was released, and some of my relatives were even afraid to call and make sure that I was safe. But I knew Syria was a kingdom of silence and humiliation. I never expected the waves of the Arab Spring to reach the Syrian beach.
After my release, I fled from Syria, and lived in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. After a while I was granted refugee status and came to the United States of America. I will never forget the email I got from Alyssa Teach, a political officer at the American embassy in Lebanon in 2008. "Hi, Ahed, are you still in Lebanon? Please let me know if everything is ok with you." Since the Syrian government was trying to find me, the American embassy in Beirut was helping me with my papers to apply for refugee status. She was worried that the pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon could get to us, particularly since Assad did not like the idea of an opposition presence in Lebanon.
That email may look normal to many, but for a young man who was raised to hate America and consider it the greatest enemy of the world, it was an incredible feeling. I was hiding from the regime of the "Great Father," while the "Great Enemy" was checking in on me and helping me.
I never expected that my fellow Syrians would rebel. Now they haven’t only rebelled, they are fighting to the death without fear. Tens of thousands have been killed and yet young men will protest, fight the regime, and refuse to give up. Not everyone has been brainwashed. One of the first things that the protestors did was to destroy the omnipresent images of the two Assads — a signal that the end of the regime is near. As far as most Syrians are concerned, the end can’t come soon enough.