In June, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad issued a decree granting general amnesty to prisoners who he said had committed crimes against the regime during the course of Syria’s three-year conflict.
Hussam, a 29-year-old carpenter from the Damascus suburb of Harasta, was one of those released after the pardon. His salary, put on hold while he was detained, supports his parents and younger brother.
After his first arrest in April 2013, he says he was held for five months in a makeshift detention center in Harasta run by air force intelligence. He was detained again that November, while attempting to cross the Syrian-Lebanese border, and returned to the same prison in Harasta until Assad’s pardon.
Here, Hussam and his mother, Leila, tell his story.
Hussam: I’m my family’s sole supporter. I was worried of being anywhere near anti-Assad supporters. But Assad forces raided the neighborhood I live in. They arrested many young men. The only accusation I faced was that I’m male and from Harasta, a town that was active in the uprising.
Leila: I pleaded with the officer who took him. He said that I don’t need to worry, and that Hussam would be back in the evening. Six months passed before he returned.
I lost so much weight during those months. I started having problems with my blood pressure and suffered from painful migraines as a result of worrying about my son and his fate. One Saturday, I heard a knock on the door. It was Hussam in worn, dirty clothes. He was barefoot with an awful smell and lice in his hair. But when I saw him, I couldn’t help but take him into my arms and weep.
When he was freed and returned, I took him to the bathroom and closed the door. I went to pray, and then I heard him weeping in the bathroom. I called out for him, and heard nothing but the sound of his weeping. He came out about an hour later. I tried to sit with him and talk to him, but he said nothing. He said was feeling completely isolated. I thought he had gone mute. I got him some food. He ate a few bites and went to sleep. When he woke up, some of his friends came to visit him. They made a few jokes, and finally he said a few words.
He wasn’t able to enunciate well, so we called a doctor. The doctor said that was normal, because he was isolated for so long. He kept to himself for several days. His friends and I tried to lessen his burden. He got better with time and started to regain his normal social personality. That’s when we decided he had to leave the country.
In November 2013, Hussam packed his bag and went, with a taxi driver, to the Syrian-Lebanese border, planning to continue on to Turkey. That evening, Leila received a phone call from the driver.
Leila: He said, “Your son was detained at the border, because they had his name. The security officers took all the money he had in his pockets and the food in his bag. They left some clothes. I’ll get them to you, tomorrow.”
I almost went crazy. Weeks and months went by, and I started to lose hope. I tried to adjust with the new situation, until Assad issued the pardon, and my son was released in mid-June.
Hussam: I was accused of smuggling arms for an armed opposition group in eastern Ghouta. Detention was relatively easier the second time than the first. But we slept near dead bodies. If we asked officers to bury the dead, everyone in the cell would be punished. When I spoke to one officer, he said, ‘You’re from Harasta? You think you’ll get out of here alive?’
Once they stripped off my clothes completely and laid me on the floor. They poured cold water on my body and hit me hard with a whip. It felt like line of fire against my skin. Then, they hit me on my private parts and poured hot water on me. They made me stand up and hit me with electric cables while I was wet. I thought I was dying.
When I was first taken to my cell, I saw children. People were taking shifts of standing and sitting, even sleeping. Some would sleep standing up or sitting down. Otherwise, they’d sleep between a fellow detainee’s feet. It smelled of blood, because of the torture, and of mold, because the cell was in a closed basement underground.
The worst feeling was hearing girls screaming and weeping. It was very painful not to be able to do anything to help them. It was painful for all of us. I was released on June 15. When I first saw the sun, I thought I was dreaming. I saw many strangers. I felt like I didn’t know anyone in this town. To each group of four people each day, they’d give each group an orange, three olives and a small piece of stale bread. That food barely kept us alive.
There was a 12-year-old child in my cell. He’d hug me all the time. I didn’t know why he was attached to me, until he said he loved me because I looked like his brother, who had died fighting for the opposition.
This child was tortured like the rest of us. It was very painful to see that. Three months later, I was moved to solitary confinement. One day, a guard came to me and took me to his superior officer. The officer told me about the pardon issued by Assad and that I was included in it.
I couldn’t believe my ears. I tried to find my parents but knew they had fled the area. I didn’t remember any phone number but my sister’s, who was in Damascus. I called her and she told me my family members were at her house. An hour later, I was among them.
I’m afraid to travel and I’m afraid to stay. I expect another detention. In this country, no one knows what will happen to them in the next hour.
Edited by Karen Leigh.