“I’ve counted eight people from the cell who died slowly, and thought I would soon follow them,” he said, two months after his release. He spoke at his party’s headquarters in Ayn al-Arab, a Kurdish-majority city in Aleppo province (known in Kurdish as Kobani). “I just wished that I could see my children before I died.”
The 47-year-old’s ordeal in the Assad regime’s extensive prison network began in Qamishli, a regime-controlled city in Hassakeh near the Turkish and Iraqi borders.
Sheikh Nabi planned to cross illegally to Iraqi Kurdistan to meet with activists, but was picked up by Syrian soldiers on the way. He said he was detained for five months, from Sept. 3, 2012, until Feb. 1.
Sheikh Nabi said military intelligence in Qamishli originally stopped and confronted him with reports about his political activism, dating back to his participation in a demonstration on Women’s Day in 2006. More recent intelligence detailed his attempts to raise funds for humanitarian aid, membership in the Azadi Party which is outlawed and opposes the Assad regime, and donating his pickup truck, outfitted with speakers, to be used in protests.
Syrian intelligence agencies aren’t centralized, so detainees are often interrogated by multiple branches and transferred around the country. Sheikh Nabi was held in Qamishli for 28 days, where questioning focused mainly on accusations of the illegal border crossing into Iraq. After brief stints in military intelligence buildings in Damascus and Aleppo, he was moved to Aleppo’s Air Force Intelligence headquarters, which is a notorious torture center.
By that point most inquiries had been dismissed, he said. The only unresolved charge was the use of his pickup truck by protesters. But it still took an additional 48 days for the intelligence officers at the Aleppo headquarters to question him on that charge.
For two months, Sheikh Nabi lived cheek to jowl in a room with 104 other boys and men, ranging in age from 12 to 80. They were starved and frequently beaten, leaving visible scars on his back and legs. There was space for 80 men to sit at one time, so 24 others would stand and rotate every two hours.
“We only had access to cold water, and some people didn’t wash because it was uncomfortable, so the smell was horrible,” Sheikh Nabi said. “We all had lice. We would gather the lice in piles. Our blankets were filled with them.”
He said that the guards used sectarian rhetoric and were mostly Alawites, the heterodox Shiite sect that President Bashar al-Assad hails from. “They used to enjoy beating us and watching us bleed. They treated us like insects.”
One prisoner had an asthma attack, Sheikh Nabi said, but his inhaler was with the guards right outside the cell. The guards refused to help the prisoner, who later died. Another prisoner, a doctor, was forced to walk around with his shoe in his mouth. “It’s a humiliating way to treat a doctor, a specialist who has a certain status in society,” he said.
As Sheikh Nabi lost hope and his health deteriorated, his turn to be interrogated arrived. “They wanted me to confess about [donating] the truck, but I refused because I thought they would execute me,” he said, adding that the government’s accusation – that he did in fact loan his truck to protesters – is true.
Still, Sheikh Nabi denied the accusations for three days and was released on the afternoon of Feb. 1, wearing the same clothes in which he had been arrested nearly five months before. His trousers were held up by a belt he fashioned out of plastic bags. “I went to a hospital in Aleppo to treat an eye and ear infection, and for an overall checkup,” he said. “I have a kidney disease and was worried that they were failing.”
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After regaining some weight and reuniting with his family in Kobani, Sheikh Nabi is back to political activism and is part of a movement that opposes both the Assad regime and Kobani’s new de facto rulers, who are affiliated with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is labeled by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.
His time in prison hasn’t deterred him from speaking out. If anything, he said he was “more committed, and feel more responsible for what happens in this country. After suffering in Assad’s dungeons, I will do all I can to end this oppressive regime.”