Age: 34 years old

Interviewed in: London, England

Date: November 17, 2015

Name changed and details omitted due to request for anonymity

Damascus, Syria
London, England

© Miguel Winograd

I'm 34 years old. I'm from Damascus.

How was it growing up in Damascus?

On the positive side, Damascus was a warm place where you have lots of social gatherings every week with friends and family. You had a lot of fun places to go. The city was getting, lets say, more and more international, cosmopolitan.

On the negative side, people were afraid. Whenever you mentioned Assad, people would be scared. People did not know their rights and duties. They were always afraid to ask for their rights. There was corruption among the police, the army, the military. So basically you felt insecure because of the lack of the rule of law. This is my general feeling when I was in Syria.

I left Syria in my twenties. I had started to study a couple of things in the university there: law, English literature. I also did computer sciences, later, in Lebanon.

Why did you decide to leave?

I felt frustrated because everyone was scared and I felt that change was not going to happen in the country. I wanted to find more horizons in another country.

Was there any kind of opposition to the regime at the time that you left?

The regime was harsh and used to crack down on the opposition. There were figures that were against the regime, who were active in small groups or individually. But you cannot consider it a proper, organized political opposition. It is not like the West or other liberal democracies were there is organized opposition that can run for elections for example. In Syria, you had individuals who were against the regime, and, because there was a lot of repression, the majority of them spent decades in prison. People were scared to talk about politics, basically.

Did you have any political involvement or ideas before leaving?

During my childhood, I didn't have any political background. But when I grew up I saw injustice in many places. In one incident for example I saw a traffic policeman stopping cars on a junction. The first car he stopped asked him if he recognized the car. The car was a presidential palace car. That means the people inside it were high-ranking military officers. The traffic police said he could recognize the car but was still insisting that they had to stop the car. So four military officers got off the car and beat up the traffic policeman until he bled from his nose. They got back in the car and they left. This is one incident about the injustice, the lack of the rule of law, the corruption that you could see everywhere.

What year did you leave?

I left around 2004. I saw injustice and started to work in a few NGOs while I was still in Syria, even when I was in high school. After I left, I lived in a few countries and then came to London. I really liked it from day one. I told myself: “this is my city, I like the vibe here.” This is a big city and I was born in a big city: Damascus. So basically I stayed here and I'm still working in the NGO sector.

Did you ever consider returning to Syria before 2011?

There was no hope that things would change, so there were no real plans to return to Syria in the short term. But you never know what the future holds, so you could never say in the long term what I would have done.

What is your legal status here?

I came here as a student 10 years ago, then I got a work visa, I stayed here and now I am a British national.

Can you tell me how you experienced the beginning of the revolution?

When the revolution started I felt a spark of hope. I found this opportunity to lead a mission for a major human rights organization. They were starting a mission to treat the wounded in the Syrian protests in the revolution. So I went there to run their office. When I started, I found out that the team they hired was actually infested with intelligence officers. Intelligence officers from the Syrian regime ran their mission. So I decided to close down the office, in consultation with a senior manager. I was in the airport about to fly out to meet him and I was arrested.

Could you speak about your time in jail?

In prison, what they did first was to inspect my laptops. On the first day they beat me so that I would give them the passwords for all my social media accounts and my emails. I gave them some, and they found out that I had worked in human rights for many years. They did not have a record about me. When they found out they kept investigating more and more. They inspected my laptop and found research that I did about the humanitarian status quo in Syria. They kept torturing me every day to give them information about my colleagues in Syria and their operations. I didn't want to put anyone in danger, so I didn't give them any information. This is why they persisted in torturing me. I though if I gave them more information, I would stay more time in prison, because it would give them more proof that I work in human rights, and working in human rights in Syria is a crime. So I told them I did not know anything, that they could kill me.

I realized later what the worst part was. Because they did not know anything about my background, it was more about the humiliation, than the investigation. It was more about humiliating me and breaking me than about me giving them any more information. For example, one of their detectives, who was very stupid actually, would bring me to his room or office and would torture me for hours.

He would tell me he would sleep with my mom, and if I said yes they would return me to my cell. I shouted “No, No!” Just because I didn't want to give him the satisfaction that he had won over me psychologically. This happened over 5 days. He brought me every day, a few officers would hold my hands and legs, and he would beat me with a stick or mainly with a car tire, just for me to say yes. For me it was childish but I didn't want to give this guy the pleasure that he broke me. After two to three hours they would return me to my cell, then another interrogator would deal with me and ask me questions. I refused to answer and they would do another type of torture.

Torture was escalatory. The first type was beating with a whip or car tire. I didn't give them information and they did not know anything, so they increased the pressure, they started basically doing waterboarding. They would bring me to a square and pour water on my face while someone was holding me down until I fainted. They took me back to the cell and asked me, “Now do you have answers?” And of course because you are traumatized you say, “Yes, yes.” You cannot answer their questions because they are very general. Like they would ask, “tell us what you have done in the past 10 years, who have you been with, where have you been in the last ten years?” I just answered randomly, I would give them random answers, random names. The trick is you have to remember these names. Because they interrogate you many times, so if you give random names you have to remember the next time, or they will know you are lying. So this was the main challenge for me.

After the torture, which lasted for around a month, I was left in a cell for my wounds to heal for a week, ten days actually. After torture they left me in the cell doing nothing. I was in solitary confinement. After ten days they transferred me to the central prison. I was kept there for three weeks and then I was released on bail.

Did you have any contact with your family during your time in jail?

During solitary confinement I had no contact with anyone outside the prison. When I was transferred, in the last three weeks to the central prison, then I was allowed to have a phone call.

After I was released, my family was very worried that I would get arrested again. I felt guilty because my mom and dad were very sick because I was in prison. My dad had a heart attack and my mom almost had a heart attack, they were both taken to the hospital. I didn't want to cause them any harm. I felt guilty and I wanted to leave. I know myself, and I am not that type of person that would stay silent. My family was threatened. They actually sent intelligence officers to my house to say “your son is taking part in illegal things so you have to tell him to stop.” Then my dad was arrested and my brother was arrested for a while. My mom was called into interrogation as well, until they left the country. They left only recently, a few months ago, to Turkey.

How is life for them in Turkey?

My family realized that there is no set process for Syrians to get residence in Turkey. It's hard and complicated and you need to pay money to get your documents sorted. They are still struggling with the system. I'm not sure how the future will unfold. Basically they need residency to get jobs.

What is your vision of the Syrian situation living in England?

It's a mix of despair and frustration. It's like [the Western powers] see someone getting slaughtered in front of them, and they have the capability to stop this slaughter that is spreading and spreading. This person is killing more and more people, and they don't do anything to stop it. For me, as a spectator from the outside, I am seeing these powers not doing anything to the criminal who is killing more and more people every day and wreaking havoc basically. So, if you think as the Western powers as a person, I would lose faith in that person as a good person. For me now, they are a normal person who doesn't care about anything. Just because they are strong, or they are portrayed in the media as a strong and good person, I had faith in them.

But now, most Syrians lost faith in Western democracies and this is dangerous. Why? When you lose faith in democracy, it means that you are losing faith in the only viable governance model in the world that can generate a rule of law. So this is very counterproductive as well for the future of Syria. Because people saw how these democracies did not do anything for them, so the future is very dangerous. So now you see extremists coming to Syria to claim that they are here to defend you, and you see the “good guys,” the Western democracies doing nothing. So most Syrians of course will be biased towards the extremists who came to support them.

How do you think the refugees see the situation, did they lose all hope?

I can tell form the perspective of many friends who went to Europe and my family who went to Turkey. Basically, my family waited until the last minute, for the last minute of hope. When they lost hope they left. And this is what happened to most Syrians. They lost hope because there is massive devastation, you have the regime, Russia and Iran killing civilians, Isis and Al Qaeda attacking and killing civilians. All these groups commit violations against Syrians. The Syrians are on their own.

Basically the moderate, secular rebels didn't get any support from anyone. I have seen many articles in the media circulating saying that they didn't support the FSA [ Free Syrian Army ] because they were afraid that if they supported FSA they would turn extremists. This is actually the main problem. Because they didn't support the FSA, ISIS became stronger. The FSA is the main force that is fighting ISIS, while on the other side, the regime is not fighting ISIS. Russia is bombing basically moderate rebels. So the media has twisted it. 90% of the articles on the media and TV reflect the policies and views of the government. The media doesn't report the true stories coming from Syria.

For example, the main perpetrator of crimes has been the Syrian regime. The main story in the media has been ISIS and refugees. But the refugees and ISIS are actually just symptoms. You don't treat symptoms and leave the main disease. You treat the roots of the disease, not symptoms. If you don't treat the disease and treat only the symptoms, the symptoms will get worst and your efforts will be useless.

Basically that is what has been happening. The international community has only been treating the symptoms and they have been getting bigger and bigger. ISIS is just one example. We warned the international community for years that ISIS would be able to launch attacks in the middle of Europe. But they have this selfish vision that as long as they don't attack us, we will not do anything.

The problem is when you leave ISIS to grow in Syria, ISIS will definitely launch more attacks in Europe. So in the future you will have millions of refugees who are victims of ISIS and the regime as well coming to Europe. These refugees are Muslims in Europe and they will be prone to attacks from the Europeans who see this ISIS extremism as basically a manifestation of Islamic religion: “it's because of Muslims that we have these attacks.” So it's a cycle of violence.

And the cause is the lack of international will, basically the US's will, because the US is usually the leader in these efforts to handle the crisis. We saw a failure in Ukraine. We are now seeing a failure in Afghanistan, basically for the first time in many, many years we are seeing US forces retreating and the Taliban advancing. And we have seen massive disasters in Yemen, Lybia and Syria. Lybia you have an intervention and you leave. This is basically a disaster: you are creating a vacuum for extremists to grow. In Iraq they withdrew the army and they created a vacuum, that is manufactured.