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Imogen Lambert

Childhood's end in Assad's prisons

Omar was seventeen when he was arrested. When he left prison, he weighed 35 kilos

Date of publication: 12 June, 2016

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Testimony: Omar al-Shogre was seventeen when he was arrested in Baniyas. In one year he would experience horrific torture in eleven different detention facilities in Syria.
Omar, a former child detainee held by Syrian regime authorities, shared with The New Arab his first-hand account of his ordeal in Syrian prisons, where hundreds of children are known to be detained and even tortured.

While The New Arab could not independently verify the contents of the testimony, former prisoners in Syria who examined it have corroborated the practices he described.

In 2011 the Syrian revolution spread to Baniyas, the home of then-17 year old Omar al-Shogre.      

Omar was arrested at his aunt's house along with three of his cousins after attending Friday prayers. It was the beginning of a horrific ordeal that would see him go through eleven different facilities in Syria. 

Omar's father had served in the Syrian army for more than 24 years which protected him for some time from mass arrests that were taking place in Baniyas.  However soon the army came for him and violently arrested him and his three cousins in al-Bayda village.  

"They harassed Noor (his cousin) in the car.  It wasn’t normal at that point to beat girls so every time she refused to answer a question they beat us instead," he said.   

Omar had been arrested several times before.  On one of the previous occasions, women of Baniyas took to the street to demand the men’s release.  Other times their "connections" had managed to secure his release, but this time "it was different".  

During Omar’s horrific time in prison his father and brothers were killed in the Baniyas massacre in May 2013, although he would not know until after his release.  

After they were arrested, a bus came and took them to a detention facility in the city of Tartous, where they were immediately welcomed with a beating.

"During the registration they asked us to strip naked, we didn’t want to take off our undergarments so they started talking about my mothers and sisters in a way bad way," said Omar. 

"The soldier asked: 'What is your name?' I said my name is Omar al-Shogre from al-Bayda village. The man said it is not a problem that you were demonstrating, that you are from this village and from this family.  But your name is not welcome here."  (Omar is an easily identifiable Sunni-affiliated name).

There they separated Omar from his cousins, putting them in solidarity confinement.

"The cells were very dirty with old blood and the covers were rotten and there was a really bad cell.  After a few hours they called us for the investigation.  They covered our eyes and put us against a wall. We heard the sounds of other people being tortured all night," Omar said.  

"My cousins were tortured despite being badly injured.  They used their wounds as a way to torture him.  They threatened to harm one of cousins' sister and made them confess to things that they didn’t know," he said.  

Omar would later learn that his cousins Bashir and Rashad died in prison after eight months.

Roving prisoner

Omar was moved eleven times during his imprisonment; from detention centres in Banyas and Tartous, to Homs, Damascus and then to Al Qabun.

From Al-Qabun he was sent to the notorious Sednaya prison where he was held for one month before being referred to the military court.

"I was placed in a section that held 1,250 prisoners.  I had to stay standing all the time. Everyone there was suffering from skin disease and there were a lot of lice everywhere," said Omar.

Omar saw emaciated people weighing no more than 30 kilos each.

He said he saw the two men fighting with each other for a place to sit, who were brothers.

"One of them died when it was around lunch time.  Eight people eat from the same plate.  One of them had a choice - either to eat it or to put it in the corpse room.  They put the food on top of the dead brother," said Omar.  

"Being in these conditions makes your forget that that you are human, you don’t think normally."

Tortured to confess

Omar says that the security branch in Damascus held a number of foreign nationals, including Tunisians, Libyans and Lebanese.  He said that the top floor also had cells for women and children.  

"We didn’t do anything but shut our eyes and listen to other people being tortured," he said.

Omar said his cousin Bashir was interrogated and tortured by a screwdriver and electrocution before his death.

"You can start to tell the torture methods apart by the screams," said Omar.  "When you are in that situation you are on high alert and everything is super sensitive".  

"They started by electrocuting me, poured hot and cold water on me.  They put me on the Doulab and whipped me,” he said, referring to putting detainees on a large tire to whip them.

Omar relayed that he said to his interrogator that he loved Bashar al-Assad and that his father had served in the army.

The interrogated replied: "Ok, so what kind of weapon did you own?"

"I’m 17, do I look like I own a weapon?" replied Omar.  

"How many soldiers did you kill?" Asked the interrogator.  Omar relays that no soldiers had been killed in Baniyas at this time.

As Omar failed to "confess", the interrogators used another method.  

Because he didn’t answer they lifted his whole body using his hands, with the tip of his toes barely touching the ground.  

"Every time you push down your arms they hurt more.  After a short while I couldn’t handle it and said I would confess," said Omar.  

He thought they would change the question but they didn’t.  So they put him in the Doubal again and connected electric wires to his body and administed electric shocks to him.
Omar said one of the guards' divisions targeted young boys. They would take them upstairs to join the investigation in exchange for better conditions or force them too by raping them
Sexual abuse

Omar also told of horrific sexual abuse in Sednaya prison.

"They made everyone strip in prison. The guard would choose the slimmest and largest prisoners and then ask the large one to rape the small one. If they don’t they would get killed," said Omar.  

Omar said one of the guards' divisions targeted young boys. They would take them upstairs to join the investigation in exchange for better conditions or force them too by raping them. 

Omar relayed that these younger detainees were also especially subject to sexual assault.

"One of these young boys was raped in a really bad way and he lost his mind and decided to become one of the people upstairs. He started torturing people in a bad way and burnt people," said Omar.  


Getting inside the prisoners' minds


Omar told stories of corruption and hierarchy within the communities of prisoners themselves.  


He alleged that that one prisoner who was a doctor became so corrupt that he carried out executions himself.  

"If you have money when you are detained you could become head of a cell...you could get your own boy service and sexually abuse him," said Omar.

"Sexual abuse was a daily occurrence.  People got used to it," he said.    

"One of my good friends was transferred to the room where they did the shabha - torture method involving hanging by hands - almost no one survived this room. My friend did bu he came back he was really disturbed and depressed."

Omar asked him what happened to him.  

His friend didn’t want to tell him how he was tortured and raped and how he was wounded and he died two days later.

Fighting over a piece of bread  

"Outside of prison, a piece of bread is nothing, but in prison it would mean the difference between life and death," said Omar.  

Omar was given the job of taking bodies to the corpse room.

"I was involved in carrying the bodies from downstairs to upstairs. People kept counting the number of dead because people started dying from sickness and lack of ventilation."

"Some of the guards told me to go to the corpse room and take bodies to the room. The bodies would be heavily deformed and some would have missing organs."

Omar suspected that organ trafficking was taking place.  

"We witnessed many fires when we were in Sednaya.  Although the guards told us it was from electricity or other stories, we knew better.  We knew that this was the smell of body burning."

After he got out of prison and people sent photos of relatives, he said he managed to identify three prisoners for family members. 

Omar finally escaped prison after his mother made a deal with high-ranking officer, and paid a ransom for his release.  

"The detention system in Syria turned people into merchandise.  Whoever pays the most gets out," he said.

The person who got him released drove him to Hama. Omar was 35 kilos when he was released.  During his escape he was stopped by a security checkpoint.  

"The only thing I thought of doing was to cough blood, and the person at the security was so scared of it."

Omar is now in Sweden with his youngest brother. He recently shared for the first time his story with his Swedish host family.  

He contracted Terburculosis which he is still recovering from and undergoing treatment.  

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