DAMASCUS — Since the start of the Syrian conflict, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of women.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which describes itself as an independent and neutral human rights organization, estimated in 2014 that the government was holding some 215,000 people, including 9,500 children and 4,500 women. The organization alleges that a significant number of those have been tortured.
While a large number of detainees have spoken about their time in prison, it's still very rare for women to come forward to describe their experiences because of the stigma and shame in Syria surrounding sexual violence, and because of fears that their families may be targeted.
Women are often imprisoned for delivering humanitarian aid to those injured by conflict. Many are then subjected to arbitrary detention, torture and sexual assault.
Speaking to Syria Deeply, one woman, 29-year-old Hana, an avowed anti-Assad activist, described being tortured and forced to confess to crimes she didn't commit. While we can't independently verify her account, her testimony is consistent with reports from human rights groups about conditions inside Syrian detention facilities.
SYRIA DEEPLY: How did you become involved in the uprising?
HANA: I was studying at the Secretariat Institute when the revolution erupted in parts of Damascus. It started to become clear to me that this corrupt regime was killing innocent people for claiming their freedom and dignity, and I decided to join up. I joined demonstrations to demand freedom, and eventually I heard about a relief campaign to aid the besieged areas, so I rushed to join that too. I even educated myself about nursing to join a local field hospital. One day I went to a field hospital in the south of Damascus, and I saw my friend lying dead. At this point I joined this field hospital.
In April 2012, opposition activity increased in the southern areas of Damascus, and we formed a group of activists. I was the only girl. I used to take pictures and videos of the raids and the demonstrations, and if there was a raid I would rescue the guys because the regime avoided arresting girls. I even began to transport medicine in secret. We had to establish a small field hospital in a house. I started smuggling food to the activists who couldn't leave the streets of Damascus, as the fields they had to cross were covered with snipers.
Can you tell us about your experience in detention?
The first time was in October 2012 when I was taping the clashes, the raids and the tanks in southern Damascus. Suddenly I was caught in a military ambush. One of the soldiers grabbed me and took me to some old houses and an alley, where I saw dozens of dead bodies. When he went out, I hid my camera in an old fridge. The soldier came back again with the officer in charge of the raids, who asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was escaping the shelling in the alleyways, and got lost because I was so scared.
He wasn't convinced, so they called another officer to question me. Then a miracle happened: One of the regime tanks defected and starting firing close to us. The tank driver was captured, tortured and killed right in front of my eyes.
Then the soldier grabbed me and took me to a corner of a house and searched me. I tried to refuse, but he threatened to do it in front all the other soldiers if I didn't keep quiet. He finished searching me and found nothing, so he took me to another officer who searched me again. The officer slapped my face twice and told me to "get out of here," telling me to take a certain road. Suddenly I heard one of the soldiers yelling to me, "Hana, don't go that way!" I froze and turned around and saw the other soldiers beating him. I started wondering why he told me not to go that way, then realized the road was filled with snipers targeting anything that moved.
Then the soldiers took me, blindfolded me, tied my hands and my legs, put me on the ground and put a gun to my head. I started begging and telling them, "I beg of you to kill me on the way, so that someone may see my body and bury me." I was given to another officer, who again accused me of working with the opposition, but I didn't confess, and they hit me and tortured me all over my body. Then they got bored with me and took off the blindfold and said to me, "Get up and leave, you scum."
At this point I thought I could finally go home and sleep, but at about 11 p.m. they took me to a black armored car that I stayed in for a whole night. The next day they took me to a military intelligence division. I was like the walking dead. I felt nothing and said nothing. I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to cry and forget everything that happened.
I was taken to a dormitory that contained nine women of different ages. I didn't speak to any of them. I just slept, feeling nothing and not wanting to feel anything. I was awoken by a loud voice saying that I was requested for questioning. I was forced to sign papers saying I wouldn't speak to any media about what happened to me. But I wouldn't sign the part that required me to cooperate with them to fight terrorism and hand over names of wanted people. I claimed I was too scared to help them with such things. I got out of jail after three days, but I was still wanted by some intelligence divisions.
The second time was in December. I was coming back to my neighborhood when our bus was stopped at al-Makhfar checkpoint near where I had been detained in the armored car before. They took the IDs of everyone, including women, and once one of the officers saw my ID he shouted, "Hana, there you are. We finally see you!"
He pulled me aside, hit my face and said angrily, "Give us the names of your brothers." Then he told the soldier next to him to search me, so the soldier took my bag and searched it until a paper fell out of it. On this paper were slogans against the regime and names of those killed, including a friend named Ziad.
An officer took off my hijab and started questioning me, asking me for the names of those who had weapons and those who were distributing bread and medicine. In the beginning I denied everything, but he threatened to slaughter my whole family if I didn't confess. I made up a story that I had run away from home because I was in love with someone and that because my family was conservative, they opposed it and that we didn't speak anymore. I explained to him that I was in love with the dead activist whose name was on the paper. The officer seemed convinced by the story. He said, "All right, but you need to go to the intelligence division first."
They took me in a machine-gun car to the military intelligence division, and there they treated me like a real terrorist. They beat me a little, took everything I had and put me in a cell for two days. Then I was placed in another cell with 11 other women.
The next day, I was called to the investigation room. They put a rope around my neck, blindfolded me and dragged me on the floor, then stood me up. I heard a voice saying, "You'll open your eyes now and don't you dare lie!" I opened my eyes after they took the blindfold off, and I saw a paper with the fingerprint of the dean of the intelligence division. It said the investigator had complete authority to torture me as he pleased and that he was exempt from any responsibility if I died!
I was accused of establishing a field hospital, working with armed groups, participating in opposition meetings, filming the armed groups and receiving money from suspicious groups. My blood froze when I read the charges. They talked about events in my life that I had forgotten about — things that happened with my brothers, my cousins, my aunts and uncles. They knew things about me that I didn't know about myself.
Syria's Adra prison — Photo: Li Muzi/Xinhua/ZUMA
I was held by the intelligence division for 47 days. I was questioned 19 times, and every time they hit me in the face, then with a rifle they hit me on sensitive places on my body. They electrocuted me, then put me in cold water, then electrocuted me again. I died a thousand times each second. Because of the torture, I confessed to things I had nothing to do with, like working with armed groups, and I told them random names that I made up. All this caused me to get in trouble for things I had nothing to do with. I still have marks of the electrocution on my body.
What else can you tell us about the detention center?
Praying was forbidden for all religions, Muslims or Christians, but the majority were Muslims. The food was so bad — some days they brought us rice with bugs in it or old, frozen bulgur. We used to wake up every day to the smell of rotten bodies, people who had died from the torture. Nobody could say anything because it was forbidden to knock on the door of your cell unless you had something to add to your confession. Every day we saw no fewer than 12 bodies.
Men were allowed to shower only once a week for two minutes and to go to the toilet only once or twice a day. Sometimes prisoners defecated on themselves. Women were allowed to shower twice a week and to use the toilets three times a day. But the real tragedy for us was our menstrual cycles — we had to cut pieces of our clothes to use them as period pads.
The situation was miserable for pregnant women. Sometimes their infants would die in their wombs due to torture or malnutrition. Some of them found out their babies had died after they left detention. Even ill people were not spared detention. There was a 20-year-old girl with me who suffered from epileptic seizures, and every time she had a seizure the guard came in and beat her up with cables and wands until she passed out because he thought she was faking it. They didn't let her out until they found a paper in her bag with appointments to see her neurologist.
What happened after those 47 days?
I was transferred to Military Intelligence Division 291, where I was questioned for two hours, before being moved to Division 215.
During the questioning at Division 291, they dressed me in something to completely cover my face, and four or five investigators sat in front of me at a table. They accused me of different crimes and told me they would decide whether I was going to the terrorism court or the military court.
When I got to Division 215, I was met by a man responsible for inspecting prisoners. I later found out he was a retired officer from Jableh in Latakia and that he was granted the position for his service and dedication during the days of [former Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad. They called him "Gargamel." He used to inspect girls in a very insulting and painful manner. He used to take off all of their clothes and tell them to stand in certain positions to make sure they weren't hiding anything. He told me to take off my hijab, then took my pants down and took off all my clothes. I started crying from the pain in my heart.
After that I was taken blindfolded for questioning and the investigator started reciting the new charges against me — carrying weapons, joining a civilian opposition group, establishing a field hospital. I rejected all these charges, but I admitted taking pictures of martyrs and destroyed houses and posting them on my Facebook page. We were exposed to hunger, electrocution, beating and insults. We got sick, we got lice and scabies, and were often strip searched, which was the worst part.
Tell us about your dormitory.
My room number was 13. It was dark and smelled like damp and filth. Our numbers were reasonable compared to the men. We were about 20 to 25 girls in our dormitory, while there were more than 115 in the men's dormitory. Since our cell was close to the men's cells, we used to hear the sounds of their torture. They used to hang them by their hands and by the tips of their toes. We also heard about the diseases that ate them up, like the scabs that covered their bodies from the torture and the lice and scabies that got into their skin.
They brought us a kind of jam for breakfast. It was pumpkin jam, and it was extremely bad, but we used to fight to get one bite of it due to the frequent cases we had of hypoglycemia. They also brought one egg every week for each detainee. Sometimes they gave us olives with their branches still on, and they were always bitter. For lunch it was rice soaked in water with weird creatures on it, and it smelled very bad. Sometimes they brought bulgur with some vegetables and weeds. I lost 20 kilos (44 pounds) in prison. Beatings became normal. We got used to the electrocutions, humiliations and insults.
Our monthly periods were terrible for us girls. We used to ask the guard to bring us pads, but he charged us tourist prices. We used to pay 1,500 liras ($6) while they should actually cost 150 liras (60 cents).
Where did you get the money to buy these things?
Our families smuggled money to us through some corrupt officers in return for a certain commission. Some of the girls, their families didn't know they were alive, so the other girls would donate some money for their friends.
Who was detained with you?
There was a physicist with me named Faten Rajab from Duma city in the Damascus countryside. International human rights organizations demanded her release over and over again, but the regime refused to let her go. I learned during my time with her that she was offered freedom in exchange for working with Iran, but she refused, so the guards injected her with weird chemicals that caused her to lose her memory over time and made her very agitated and waste away. Every time she went for questioning, they injected her with this substance — the injection marks were visible on her body. An hour after she was given the injections, she would have seizures, her nose would bleed and she couldn't remember things.
There was also Rihab Allawi, an engineer from Deir Ezzor. I spent almost 15 days with her. The last time I saw her, she was wearing black pajamas. She was called for questioning, and when she was leaving the cell she looked at us as if saying goodbye. Rihab was late coming back that day, so we thought she was released. A few days ago, I saw her among the corpse pictures that were posted recently. I spent eight months in this division, and then I was transferred to Adra prison.
What was it like inside Adra? What happened there?
In Adra, which is a real prison, unlike the intelligence divisions, the situation was a little better. Family visits were allowed, and they could bring food and money. There you could find girls from cities across Syria. Some women died in Adra prison after coming out of the intelligence division. A month before I left Adra, I met a girl from al-Tadamun Street in Daraa who had been charged with inciting soldiers to defect from the Syrian Army. She was 22 years old and had tuberculosis. She was transferred and locked in a dungeon. Later we heard that she died in there.
After three months in Adra prison without trial, my case was transferred to criminal court. I was brought to court nine times and sentenced to 14 months in prison. Four months after I was sentenced, my family found out that I was alive and a prisoner in Adra. They thought I had been lost or died.