Surviving hell

The city of Palmyra has been under the control of the self-styled "Islamic State" since mid-May. But for many Syrians, the city was a gateway to hell long before the arrival of the jihadists: Palmyra was home to the infamous Tadmur prison, where the Ba'ath regime tortured tens of thousands of people. When IS seized the city, one of the first things it did was to blow up the hated jail. Bara Sarraj, who now lives in Chicago, was one of its inmates. He told Fabian Kohler about his years in prison

By Fabian Köhler

What does it feel like to hear that the prison where you were once detained has been liberated by, of all groups, Islamic State?

Bara Sarraj: I don't think it can be described as a liberation. It sounds as though there were only a few detainees left in the building whom the guards had prevented from escaping. The army just took off. They could have attacked IS, but instead they just withdrew. No one can be happy about it.

You've been living in the US for 20 years. Have you been following what's been happening in Tadmur?

Sarraj: Yes. Acquaintances told me that up to 11,000 people were detained there until recently. That really would be incredible. When I was locked up in the prison, there were already too many people there – around 5,000 detainees. People were apparently being shot around the clock in the prison in recent months.

There was a war going on in Syria 30 years ago too. Back then, the regime was fighting against the Muslim Brotherhood. This was also the time of your detention…

Sarraj: It was 5 March 1984. I was in the second year of my electrical engineering degree in Damascus, and I was on my way to a seminar. Intelligence agency employees detained me at the gates of the university and took me away. That happened a lot at the time. The regime had imposed a state of emergency in 1963. People were disappearing without a trace every day. They would regularly take students from outside the university, and on that day, it was my turn.

What were you accused of?

Sarraj: I had been praying at a mosque. That was enough in those days. Others were arrested because they had been reading the wrong book on the bus. From the point of the view of the regime, everyone was a potential Islamist or whatever else.

And you were then taken directly to Tadmur?

Sarraj: I initially spent a few days in a Damascus jail, then in Hama. To begin with, I was beaten for several hours. Then they interrogated me; then I was beaten again.

Tadmur prison is blown up by Islamic State (source: Wilayat Media Group/Twitter)
Detested symbol of Assad's brutal Ba'ath dictatorship: in late May 2015, IS terror militia blew up the notorious Tadmur prison in the Syrian city of Palmyra. Back in 2001, Amnesty International described the high security jail as a place where prisoners endured "the greatest suffering, the most severe humiliation and most intense fear"

What did they want from you?

Sarraj: They wanted names. It was always about names. First and foremost they wanted the names of acquaintances. And at some point you'd give them those names, although you had no idea what they were going to do with them. In the end, I was presented with a three-page confession that I wasn't allowed to read, with my fingerprint on it. That was the start of my 12-year detention.

An Amnesty report speaks of a torture method known as "Istiqbal", used to "welcome" every new prisoner at Tadmur. Were you also made to endure this torture?

Sarraj: Yes. The guards said it was common practice to first introduce the detainees to the regime of violence in the prison. I was chained to 20 other prisoners. Then one of us was hit by a truck, which knocked all the others over. Then they would put us head and feet first through a small tyre – folded over like a sandwich. Two to four men would then start beating you. Some prisoners were never able to walk again after that, others died as a result of the "Istiqbal" torture soon after arriving at the jail.

What was everyday life like in one of the worst prisons in the world?

Sarraj: The days in Tadmur were long – often very long. Life consisted of torture and the time you had until the next torture. We were beaten as we got up in the mornings, as we ate, as we shaved. The cells were often so full that we would be pushed up together feet to feet. There were three olives per person to eat, one egg shared between eight and a bit of bulgur, rice or bread, which the guards often urinated on.

How do you survive something like that – both physically and psychologically?

Sarraj: The Koran helped me to survive. I spent most of my time reading it and learning it by heart. There was nothing else to distract you from the screams of the other prisoners. As time passed, you simply learned to be patient. It was also forbidden to talk to other inmates. If they caught you doing that, you'd get beaten up. For example, they told one prisoner to lie on his back. Then one of the guards jumped on his stomach. A few hours later, he was dead. Or they would break a prisoner's fingers by shutting the cell door window on it. In 1989, one of the guards there killed around 100 prisoners.

We tried to organise ourselves and voted on who should perform which duties. One person was responsible for food allocation, another cleaned the toilet, one made sure our whispers didn't get too loud, and the "cell president" controlled everything.

Bara Sarraj (photo: Bara Sarraj)
The gate to hell: Bara Sarraj (pictured here) was arrested on 5 March 1984 in Damascus and taken to Tadmur high security prison, where he was tortured on multiple occasions. He was released in 1995 as part of a prisoner amnesty issued by former dictator Hafez al-Assad. He now lives in Chicago

In other words, you took part in your first democratic election among people the regime had weeded out of society as "enemies of the state".

Sarraj: Yes, that's right.

In 1995, the president at the time, Hafez al-Assad, issued a prisoner amnesty, and you were eventually freed.

Sarraj: Yes, I was repeatedly interrogated in 1993 and 1995 and then released together with 1,500 other prisoners from across Syria. But that had nothing to do with justice; the amnesty was just as arbitrary as the original arrests had been.

Was your family told that you were in prison?

Sarraj: No. From the day I was arrested, they were told nothing about my time in Tadmur. In the late 1980s, they moved to Chicago to be with relatives. In 1996 I tried to leave Syria. I never thought I would make it. I saw my mother again for the first time in many years at Chicago Airport.

You eventually became a lecturer in microbiology in the US. How did that come to pass?

Sarraj: I studied biology and chemistry at Harvard University. I got a doctorate in 2006 and now teach in Chicago. I often spend all night researching in the lab. I like doing that. I have always liked being alone. That's why I found it really difficult being in those crowded prison cells, especially in the early days of my detention.

How are you doing these days?

Sarraj: I'm doing well. I've achieved academic success. After work, I play with my two cats. I like going to Arab restaurants with my wife and I travel a lot. I lead a good life. But I'd still like to return to Syria some day. That's what I really want.

Interview conducted by Fabian Kohler

© 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon