“Fear that doesn’t leave us”: Surviving a Syrian torture prison

Peaceful activist Hussam (not his real name) survived 20 months in Saydnaya, one of Syria’s most brutal prisons. Now held elsewhere, he wrote this letter in an attempt to describe the “daily hell” he experienced.

To whomever it may concern:

What I tell you is not fiction or a request for sympathy.

From our dark basements hidden from the sun, we raise our voices and search for an echo. We call you to halt the bleeding of life from the young men and women of Syria. Halt the fire that consumes their youth in the prisons and detention centres of President al-Assad.

They do not belong here. They are not born just to be a piece of paper in the hands of al-Assad and his dictatorial regime, or timber in the fire which he burns with hatred and lust for revenge – just because we dreamed of a dignified nation that safeguards our rights.

I write to remind you of the thousands of souls who have been lost, and who are still being lost. To tell you of the stifling of our dignity, of wanton killing in every atom in the air around us, in the water that we drink, in the stick of the prison guard that eats what is left of our skin and bodies, in our weak and meagre bodies.

Words fail me when I try to describe our daily hell, which ends with one of us dying, wrapped in a blanket. And where the choice is between a quick death at the hands of an interrogator who doesn’t like your words, or a slow death in a cage that slowly consumes your body.

The fear does not leave us even after we leave the prison – the fear of returning to Saydnaya, for those who newly enter, for the friends left behind, of the sounds of the metal gates, and the screams that do not leave me until I sleep. Fear of our journeys to the court, of the cold, of illnesses, of hunger that is not comparable to any other hunger. We survive on eggshells, the skins of oranges if we can find them, even soil.

We have been tested with the ultimate hunger. Food is thrown in front of us but we’re not able to take even a crumb of bread. We do not dare to touch it, as the punishment will depend on the mood of the guard.

We were tested with thirst until our lips stuck together and we could not separate them. And then we saw how you die if you complain of your illness or request medicine.

Our bodies wither and are overwhelmed with disease. For whoever is safe from TB, is still not safe from diarrhoea, scabies or abscesses.

We bade farewell to many of our friends, and we waited our turn at any moment. At times we called to death because we saw in it the end.

All of this we lived without anyone knowing where we were, ailing in the cold nights of Saydnaya, and without anyone hearing our screams under the flaming whips that pressed on our bodies.

A new life was written for me when I was transferred from Saydnaya to another prison. So I request of you, in my name and the names of my friends who are detained, expend all effort in rescuing all the detainees. And stop this criminal regime that still keeps us and our friends in detention centres for five consecutive years in pain beyond description.

Pain that does not go away.

One who is still detained

Note: This letter was shared with Amnesty International by Save the Rest, a Syrian human rights campaign focused on the issues of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances.

Read Amnesty’s research and take action: Harrowing accounts of torture, inhuman conditions and mass deaths in Syria’s prisons