Jailed in Damascus

Two years after President Bashar al-Assad's regime had me arrested, there seems to be no end in sight to the bloodshed in Syria.


My time in Syria was short but decidedly varied: one week as a tourist, 10 days as a student, and two weeks as an inmate. As the Syrian conflict continues to unfold, my brush with the regime’s paranoia was just one of the first instances of what evolved into an extremely bloody crackdown.

I was arrested on March 18, 2011, the first Friday of what was then termed the Syrian "revolution," after stumbling upon a protest in old Damascus. Just a student at the time, I was suspected of being a journalist, spy, or other unwelcome ilk. I was charged vaguely with "breaking Syrian law" and spent the next two weeks crammed in a basement prison run by the infamous secret police.

This week marked the second anniversary of my release. Since then, the Syria I so fleetingly knew has, for better or worse, unraveled.

The pre-revolution police state in Syria was stifling. No one publicly talked politics, communication networks were monitored, and the consequences of dissent made opposition practically unthinkable. I distinctly remember one college-aged friend refusing to even mention the then fledgling Arab Spring until we were in my apartment, and he had convinced himself that we had not been followed. I thought he was overreacting.

After being swept up by plain-clothed police, I realized why the authorities were so feared. My three interrogations consisted of a strip search, blindfolds, accusations of stoking unrest, and vows to "deal with [me] with violence." At one point, my interrogators even paraded me in front of a state TV camera in an apparent attempt to show that "foreign hands" were behind the protests. Between questioning sessions, I was locked away.

I spent the first week in a three-by-seven-foot cell with one other man. That was followed by another week in a 12-by-12 foot bathroom alongside more than 20 others, some of whom had been living there for more than a year. My companions included weapons dealers and counterfeiters, but also a mentally handicapped soldier and innocent bystanders. Most everyone was beaten, electrocuted, or otherwise abused regularly. Fortunately, I avoided this fate, but was threatened with and forced to listen to torture for days on end.

The regime’s tools of repression have become drastically more ruthless throughout the past two years. They now routinely include rape, kidnapping, cluster bombs, missiles, attack helicopters, and more. An estimated 70,000 people have already lost their lives, and the violence is only getting worse: March was the bloodiest month yet of the Syrian uprising. The flow of refugees has also gone from a trickle to a torrent, with the total recently climbing above one million. What began as a struggle for dignity has devolved into a messy civil war with no end in sight.

Syria’s cultural heritage is being destroyed as well. The covered market (souq) in Aleppo, with its labyrinth of shops, colors and smells, was the largest of its kind in the world and a favorite stop during my short-lived Syrian travels. In September, the souq burned to the ground when clashes between government soldiers and rebels sparked a fire that ripped through the wooden stalls like kindling. Hundreds of years of history gone in an instant.

Even Damascus has not been immune from the conflict. Bombs have exploded near my old apartment in the Mezzeh district, and also in Bab Touma, the predominantly Christian quarter of the old city where I used to go for the occasional beer and where, lore has it, Saint Paul once lived. The 2,000-year-old synagogue in the Damascus suburb of Jobar — which stands as a reminder of the country’s once-thriving Jewish minority, which has now all but disappeared — has reportedly been damaged and looted as well.

The surest sign, however, that the battle for Syria is creeping closer to seat of power came last week when mortar fire hit a Damascus University cafeteria, killing at least 10. During my brief time as a student, I studied Arabic in the university’s non-descript set of classrooms and courtyards. The flagship institution of the Syrian education system was not a particularly inviting house of learning, but by breaching the relative calm within its walls, the uprising has taken a symbolic step closer to the heart of the regime.

Until the attack, Damascus University stood as a symbol of the regime’s strength in the capital. Alumni include President Bashar al-Assad, his sister, and other high-ranking members of the government. Current students have been subjected to censorship and dorm raids, in a largely successful attempt to keep rebellion at bay. Assad has even used the campus as the venue for a number of his fervent speeches aimed at discrediting the opposition and drumming up support for the regime.

Irrespective of how the shells landed in the university — a topic of much debate — the attack is surely a blow to the regime’s confidence. It represents a loosening of its grip on a city it has controlled with an iron fist for decades.

The jail in which I was held has likely seen thousands of Syrians go through its doors over the last two years, with many fewer coming back out. Yet revolutionaries continue to fight on. The fear barrier was broken long ago, and there is no going back.

While few will miss the regime, what comes next is far from certain. The fractured network of freedom fighters is underequipped, inexperienced, and vulnerable to extremism. The infighting within the political opposition, which the United States has recognized as the sole representative of the Syrian people, has also raised concern.

Observing from afar, my predictions are bound to be futile. Moreover, the Syrian experience has diverged dramatically from the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and even Libya, making it difficult to use those events as guideposts. That said, whatever or whoever replaces Assad will be new — an intimidating prospect, but one that should not preclude progress. But if the magnitude of a conflict is any indication of the path to recovery, Syria has a long and difficult road ahead.

Regardless, tomorrow’s Syria will undoubtedly be different than yesterday’s, and I look forward to visiting again soon.

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