Written for Al Jazeera
Amnesty International says government forces are responsible for “a shocking catalogue of abuses” in secret jails.
Syrian activist Jad Bantha came back to Damascus after a long period of living abroad. He wanted to participate in the revolution and started attending protests. One day, after doing so in early 2011, he was taken from his home, in front of his parents, by security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. He told them not to worry.
“The first week I was just being held, but when I refused to give them information about my friends they started torturing me, humiliating me,” the 32-year-old Syrian, who doesn’t want his real name published told Al Jazeera.
“They hanged me from my hands at the ceiling for eight days. My feet were swollen and I couldn’t feel them anymore. I was afraid they needed to be amputated.”
In those two months of detention, Jad said he was tortured in several ways. Sometimes, when he asked for water, intelligence officers took him “water boarding”. According to him, this method of torture includes electricity and water, and it was the most painful method of them all.
“I felt broken and didn’t care about my life anymore. I thought I would die in prison,” he said during an interview over skype from Damascus.
But he didn’t. After a few weeks, Jad was released. But instead of leaving the country, he started working as a human right researcher.
‘My hands were tied’
Unfortunately, history repeated itself on November 2, 2013, when he was captured again by government forces while taking pictures on the Harasta highway, the road to Homs.
“I got wounded during clashes between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the troops of Assad. When I woke up, I found myself in a military base. My hands were tied and my feet shackled,” Jad said.
Two weeks later, he got released when the FSA took over the military base. However, he said the Syrian regime detained his parents on December 22 to punish him for escaping earlier.
“They want me to turn myself in. Now, I don’t know where my parents are and what I should do,” he concluded.
In Syria, it is not hard to find victims of unlawful detention and torture. Syrian activists and other citizens have vanished into secret detention as part of a “widespread campaign of terror against the civilian population” by the Syrian government, independent UN investigators said. Some are being released, but others are nowhere to be found.
“When I was working in a refugee camp in Barzeh, in Damascus, one of my colleagues was captured at a military checkpoint in August, 2012. We haven’t heard anything from him since,” 24-year-old woman Afraa Salem, who doesn’t want her real name to be published, told Al Jazeera during an interview in Amman, Jordan.
Humanitarian workers are also victims of frequent attacks against the civilian population, Afraa said. After her colleague was abducted, she heard from several people that the mukhabarat, Syria’s secret service, was asking questions about her. In late 2012, Afraa packed her bags and left Syria for good. Now she lives in a neighbouring country.
“If you get arrested, there is a pretty good chance you will never see daylight again,” she said.
Afraa remembers the 13-year-old boy who used to sell cigarettes on the streets of Damascus, just to make a living during the war. “I used to see that kid every day, until the police arrested him. They tortured him so severely that he had to recover in the hospital for weeks.” Rebel fighters have also been accused of torturing detainees.
‘Hard to give answers’
Simon Schorno from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) handles allegations of arrest, working to research and clarify what has happened to the individuals concerned. Representatives in the country visit those detained or arrested as quickly as possible, in order to ensure that the conditions in which detainees are held comply with the national and international standards. The information is then reported back to the family.
“But to be honest, documenting is the only thing we can do now. The Syrian authorities don’t allow us to visit prisoners and they hardly give us any answers about individual cases,” Simon told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from Damascus.
According to ICRC, tens of thousands of Syrians are missing, most likely detained. Those numbers include activists, opposition fighters, journalists, civilians and humanitarian workers. Most of the detainees have been men, but women and children have not been spared. Syrians spread pictures of their missing beloved ones on Twitter and Facebook, hoping that somebody has information about their situation.
The survivors of enforced disappearances consistently described torture as being part their detention. Twenty-year-old Hadi Tammas was studying in Latakia when armed men entered his dorm and arrested all the students inside.
“It wasn’t even the torture itself that broke him. The sounds of other prisoners who were tortured were much worse, he said. They screamed non-stop and begged for their lives,” Rifaie Tammas, the brother of Hadi, told Al Jazeera in an interview via skype.
Hadi was in detention for 24 hours, but was tortured non-stop, his brother said. They hold his head in a bowl of water, until he almost suffocated. Later, they tied his hands and feet and started pulling his limbs in different directions, trying to dislocate them.
After his release, Hadi quitted his study and joined the Free Syrian Army. He died during a battle, just like his father and uncle.
“When the regime won back Qusair in the summer, they arrested dozens of civilians, even old men, for no reason. I stopped counting the numbers of missing people, because there are so many,” Rifaie said.
Qusair is a city in western Syria, 35 kilometres away from Homs, and is strategic both for the government and for rebels who held it for over a year. It was the scene of some of the fiercest combat in the almost three-year-old conflict.
Although the victims hardly talk about rape during their detention, several cases have been reported since the Syrian uprising. According to Afraa this also is a common tactic to silence the opposition, just like other forms of torture.
“My male friend, who was arrested several times, was raped by guards during his detention, and I know some girls who got raped as well. But the problem in Syria is that you hardly hear victims talking about it. They feel ashamed and think it’s their fault, especially men,” Afraa told Al Jazeera.
Most witnesses have identified Syrian intelligence officers, soldiers and pro-government militias as the ones who detain, torture and rape civilians, but the UN said that some armed groups in northern Syria, like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also abduct people.
In a separate report, London-based Amnesty International said armed groups were perpetrating “a shocking catalogue of abuses” in secret jails across northern Syria, including torture, flogging and killings after summary trials.