A watchtower of a prison in Afrin on March 24, 2018. (Photo by Hisam El Homsi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Analysis

Post Detention Life for Syrians: Attempts to Restore Normalcy

I remember the few days with my father during my childhood before he was detained and disappeared—all my memories are full of the joy of playing with him and his spending time with me.

When I would visit him in prison. I had dreams of my future life with him based on all the talks and conversations we had.

However, after he was set free when I was a teenager, I had to get to know him anew. Undeniably, he was not the same person who had left me during my childhood—because of his forced disappearance. He wasn’t the friendly father I used to visit in Adra Prison, who had been so close to me that even two sets of bars half a meter apart could never separate us.

Behind prison bars, he tried hard to seem like a friend. He was always quiet, balanced, friendly, and understanding.

After his release, he became an utterly different person. He was disappointed and hot-tempered. His passionate love for my mother changed into ceaseless fights, and we became accustomed to daily quarrels on everything and over trivial matters.

For many years, I resisted my father’s reemergence in my life and wished that I could have only continued visiting him in prison. I used to reject his behavior, hot-tempered actions, and his continual attempts to assume the role of a father and friend in my life.

Over more than a decade, I failed to understand what my father had experienced during his detention. Although I became a human rights lawyer and—because of him—was specializing in defending prisoners of conscience, I was far away from him—very far away!

That remained the case until the Syrian Revolution erupted and my relationship with Bassel began. Both events made me see my father, Marwan, in a radically different light. I realized that I was breathing Marwan in and was seeking to walk in his shoes. I realized that I believe in him when I discovered how much I am willing to sacrifice for a cause I believe in; that is indeed what he did. I followed in his footsteps in everything: in the vigorous defense of my principles, in the dedication to my work, in the way I got married, in my love for Bassel, and even in the minutest of details.

When I began preparing for this article, I had a brief discussion with my father, as we always did. He poured his heart about things regarding his life in his solitary cell. I have always avoided listening to these things in the past.

He shared how he was always asking himself dozens of questions that he never dared to voice to his fellow prisoners, who were in dire need of power and positive energy to survive. However, these questions—he guessed—flashed across every detainee’s mind as well. He used to ask himself, “How is my family right now?” “What will I do if I am set free?” “Will I hold up during the interrogation and the torture so that I will not inform on my friends?” “Will I get out of here in the first place?”

The crisis of victims of detention and forced disappearance does not end with a simple release. On the contrary, the suffering continues; so does the restrictions of freedom, likely forever.

I interviewed two women and a man who had all experienced different forms of detention. They spoke of the experience and life after it.

Let us start with Zainab, 42, an activist woman from the countryside of Damascus and a mother of five boys and a girl.

She was detained for a month in 2014. However, she was exempt from standing trial thanks to the many high profile connections and the enormous amounts of money paid by her family. She was arrested on the Lebanon-Syria border, where she was with her children. With great difficulty, she managed to call one of her relatives to take the children—otherwise, they would have been detained with her. Zainab recalls:

Going down the stairs blindfolded while hearing the voices of men screaming in pain was the cruelest thing I suffered from, especially since I was arrested with my youngest brother-in-law whom I raise with my children. Every time I was led to be interrogated, I would see men stripped naked in the corridors. I tried to scan for the face of my brother-in-law among them. These images and voices still haunt me and keep me from sleeping. 

During my detention, I could not tell the time, which made me feel that I would remain imprisoned forever. 

Cells in the detention facility are too dark for the detainees to distinguish between day and night. They end up counting the days with difficulty. Time passes so slowly because of fear, worry, and the lack of distractions to kill time, which is the hardest thing a prisoner can withstand. 

After my release, my husband was arrested as well. And after his release, he lived in shock, thinking I was sexually assaulted, which negatively impacted our marital life. 

I am deeply struggling with the idea that I will not see Syria again, especially since I never felt safe in Lebanon. I sense the eyes and allies of the Syrian regime following us here and fear that I could be arrested again. Besides, I cannot integrate into a Lebanese society that discriminates against. In 2020, the Lebanese authorities handed my son over to their Syrian counterparts, and he was detained for a month before being conscripted into Syrian military. 

I sometimes feel that post-detention life is harder than detention itself!  

Detention has affected our financial situation. I used to be a hairdresser, and my husband worked as an internal designer. However, we both lost our jobs, and we cannot work now because of our health and emotional states. Meanwhile, our children are having to work in Lebanon for low wages to support the family. 

Such health and emotional states are a direct result of detention. 

I struggled with a thyroid condition and had to undergo an operation before detention. Now this condition has worsened, in addition to high blood pressure, low blood sugar, and neurological disorders. On top of all that, I am haunted by the fear that my children might experience detention as well. 

Detention has similarly affected my family life. I felt guilty about neglecting my children and my duties immediately after my release, especially since the older ones were forced to leave school to work. 

Furthermore, my marital relationship with my husband is almost nonexistent because of his ceaseless suspicions that I was sexually assaulted—something that did not happen.  

What I need the most is an opportunity for my children to live in dignity and complete their schooling in a country that values human rights.  

For years, I have been calling on competent international organizations to help me educate my children, but in vain. Moreover, the assistance we receive is truly basic, not enough to cover all the needs of our family—to the extent that I thought about selling my kidney. 

I never regretted participating in the Syrian Revolution regardless of the high price I had to pay. I do believe in the legitimacy of the Syrian cause and the necessity of the departure of the authoritarian regime.

Zainab concludes that she learned a lot from detention despite its cruelty. One of the most important things she learned was her confidence in herself and the Syrian cause. She feels somehow that she is now stronger and more committed to her principles and her stand against injustice.

The second interviewee is William, 41, a former officer and detainee from As-Suwayda City, and the father of a 13-year-old girl.

William was detained for seven and a half years. He had initially been sentenced to death by Al-Midan Military Court before it was commuted to 10-year imprisonment. Afterwards, he was granted amnesty. After being released in 2019, he left Syria for Lebanon in 2020.

William recounts:

The cruelest thing I suffered from during detention was hunger. My colleagues and I used to get excited when the food rations increased slightly. What a terrifying condition to feel that I was willing to give up anything in return for food! Besides, this caused me to feel cold and nervous. Up till now, I still try to avoid feeling hungry at any cost, for whenever I do, I recall all I went through. This is in addition to the physical and psychological torture I underwent. I do not have the strength to get into that now. 

Upon my release, I had great hopes. I was thinking about my family and how we will live together. However, reality hit me hard as the community of As-Suwayda City had dramatically changed during my absence. It became full of religious and armed groups. On top of that, most people became afraid to deal with me as a former detainee. I had no choice other than to escape illegally to Lebanon. 

I live in fear in Lebanon and do not mix much with people. I am also afraid of letting anyone know that I was a former officer or detainee, except for very close people, who are few. I am also always engulfed with fear of all checkpoints. So that I do not get handed over to the Syrian regime again, I avoid moving around very much. 

I have a difficult time adapting to my surroundings after being released. Everything changed during my absence—things like the dollar exchange rate and technology. I can no longer trust people, especially since I was detained after being report by a close person who I was helping. All of this has made me avoid any disputes with others and fear any screams. These act as triggers to all I have gone through. 

I do not feel that I have regained any of my emotional health given all the depression surrounding the Syrian cause, which made me feel that the high price I have paid was in vain. Added to that, my disappointment in the poor treatment, lack of value, or sympathy where we live. I do not find many opportunities to express what I am going through without causing pain to my family. 

Moreover, the financial hardship with the deteriorating economy in Lebanon have made it difficult for me to find a job in Lebanon. I depend on my sister, who supports me financially in addition to a part-time job with a Syrian organization. They cannot publicize my work with them, because I am a former officer. Everybody is afraid to interact with me; even my chances of obtaining asylum are slim. 

My family life has fallen apart. My wife, who used to visit me sometimes in prison, is no longer the same. It became impossible for us to continue together. I became a different person during detention. When I came out, I was exhausted and needed special care. Undoubtedly, she too waited, suffered, and carried the burdens of life and our daughter alone. It became difficult for each of us to understand what the other suffered. We became estranged from each other. Neither of us was able to ease the pain of the other, which is typical for many detainees. 

As for my daughter, who was 3 years old when I was detained—she treats me like a stranger now. I do not sense that she has any feelings toward me, and I do understand that. She did not live with me, so she does not know me well. However, recently, I have begun to feel that our relationship is improving, and I do my best in this regard, especially since she is a teenager now. 

I need to leave Lebanon and live in a country that respects me as a human being, where I may experience dignity and freedom. I also need some emotional support and rehabilitation. I have a dire need for a partner in my life after years of loneliness and intense suffering in prison. 

I have never regretted what I did out of humanity, patriotism, and belief in the right of the Syrian people to freedom and dignity despite everything I lost. After all, I knew great people in prison and after my release. Besides, I learned that man can learn to be patient and to adapt to circumstances, and that we must hold onto hope because it is our only way to live. 

My third interview was with Malak, a 39-year-old woman from Eastern Ghouta, and the mother of six boys and a girl. She was detained for one and a half years with her nursing baby girl in different facilities and women’s prisons. She was referred to the Counter-Terrorism Court and was released in an exchange deal. After that, she was accused of treason by Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) and was interrogated daily by the Shura Council of Eastern Ghouta for six months until she finally left Syria for Lebanon.

Malak says:

The cruelest thing I suffered from was feeling humiliated and weak, which continues until now. I am afraid of everyone, especially men. I also fear screaming, which reminds me of interrogation sessions. I am always sad regardless of my attempts to improve myself. Nonetheless, I have neither courage nor the ability to express myself, especially with the constant fear of having my previous detention history discovered by anyone. 

I never feel safe in Lebanon. The torture and the raids haunt me so that I always act under a sense of a threat and fear of being forced to return to Syria.  

I was never able to adapt to my life anew after my release from the detention facility. I feel everyone rejects me and my children, particularly my daughter, who was imprisoned with me. It gets worse with embarrassing questions that are always asked. Even my family members have asked these questions, rejecting me after my release. Now I feel imprisonment was much more merciful than them. I am particularly disappointed in my relatives in Ghouta. My interaction with them was the reason behind my detention, as the Syrian regime treated Ghouta as a region of terrorists. 

The best thing that happened to me in prison was dreams. Those dreams helped me feel free. But I am no longer even able to dream!  

I feel that I have aged emotionally and physically. I no longer have the energy to do anything. In addition to malnutrition and anemia, I am still fighting conditions such as urogenital infections and inflammation in the hands’ nerves because I used to hold my daughter while handcuffed.  

All of this hinders me from having any permanent work. With my inability to secure any source of income, my older children are forced to work. Sometimes, I go to clean houses with my daughters, in addition to the financial help some people send our way. 

Not only was I rejected by my family but by my ex-husband as well. He married another woman when I was detained. After my release, he treated me as a maidservant and forced me to serve his second wife. He beat me in front of my children. He also raped me many times. Then I escaped, hid, and resorted to the United Nations, filing for divorce. After our official divorce, he abandoned our children and stopped providing for them. My family accused me of having my daughter—whom I gave birth to while in prison—out of wedlock. 

How much I am yearning for things to go back as before! I need to feel safe and regain my confidence in myself and other people. That will never happen until I leave Lebanon for a country that respects me and supports the children and myself. All of us need health services and emotional support, especially the daughter who was detained with me. She struggles with a fear of everything, particularly darkness, and refuses to leave me even for a second. My children must complete their schooling and live normal lives. 

I am overwhelmed with dreadful guilt because I went to Syria when I was pregnant and caused my daughter to be detained with me. She is still living with that pain now. 

Everything is distorted in my eyes: my family, men, and Syria. I learned to consider myself alone with no one to help me, and I must depend on myself to help myself and my family. 

I do not wish anyone to experience the suffering I endured!

These are three cases, which may be similar in some respects and different in others. They depict a telling and comprehensive picture of the life of detainees after their releases. It is noteworthy that their suffering increases in a country like Lebanon. The current total collapse there has had adverse effects on Syrian refugees.

Despite all the efforts exerted by national and international organizations regarding the issue of detainees, there remains a big gap and a severe lack of meeting the needs generated by detention, which exponentially and daily increase. As a result, there is a pressing need to establish specialized rehabilitation centers to follow up on these previous detainees wherever they are. It is the responsibility of all of us as workers on this issue and supporters of this cause.

All my interviewees live in Lebanon. So, the interviews shed light on some difficulties and challenges faced by former detainees focusing on Lebanon and their urgent need to leave that country.

I used pseudonyms here at the request of the people I interviewed to maintain their safety and privacy.

 

Noura Ghazi is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on enforced disappearances and detention across the region.