Archive for category Middle East North Africa
One year on: Egyptian government shuts down country’s only rehabilitation centre for victims of torture
A year ago, we shared a story about how Egypt’s last remaining centre for the treatment and documentation of alleged torture victims was ordered to close by the Egyptian authorities. The reason given at the time was that the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture had ‘breached unspecified health ministry regulations’. Critics on the other hand labelled the order a crackdown on human rights organisations and defenders in the country.
Now El Nadeem has been closed after it allegedly violated terms of its licence. A few weeks ago, El Nadeem staff arrived at the centre to find that it had been sealed by police. According to the co-founder of the centre, Aida Seif el-Dawla, the building’s doorman was taken into police custody, but was later released.
Last year, when the centre was ordered to close, Aida Seif el-Dawla called the decision politically motivated. She said at the time that: “This is a political decision and it’s coming from the cabinet that represents all the actors that are keen on the survival of this regime, despite the oppression and the torture that the Egyptian people are living through on a daily basis.”
Not much has changed since then. Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took office in June 2014, repression and shrinking of the public space has only increased, targeting the entire spectrum of human rights organisations, professional and labour associations, political activists, journalists and media.
In its 2017 World Report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that authorities continued to effectively ban protests and that police had arrested scores of people in connection with protests, many preemptively. What is more, HRW noted that authorities had also ordered travel bans and asset freezes against prominent human rights organisations.
Despite the constitution forbidding torture and the abuse of detainees, the practice is widespread in Egyptian prisons. Reports of torture and ill-treatment and enforced disappearances in Egypt are frequent, with El Nadeem consistently recording high numbers of allegations of police torture. In late 2015 the centre and other civil society organisations announced they were able to document 625 torture cases in Egyptian prisons.
In the wake of El Nadeem’s closure, international rights organisations, including the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), of which El Nadeem is a member, have come out in support of the centre.
“El Nadeem provides crucial psychological support to torture victims and is a credible public voice when the Egyptian authorities try to silence the victims. We know from our members around the world that torture inflicts terrible damage to individuals, families and societies. El Nadeem performs a crucial societal function in promoting human rights and democracy and it is high time that all of us who believe in human rights and democracy take a close look at Egypt,” said Victor Madrigal-Borloz who is the Secretary-General of the IRCT.
Whether the government will eventually provide an explanation as to why it closed the centre remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: as long as the El Nadeem remains closed, torture victims in dire need of help are not able to receive the treatment they need.
“When we succeeded, funders asked us to open other centres, as they saw the impact of what we were doing. It was the first time people were speaking about torture. The word torture had been forbidden, the previous government forbid people to talk about it.”
When Salah Ahmad founded a rehabilitation centre in the city of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq in 2005, it was the beginning of a journey that would lead to the establishment of a network of nine branches throughout Kurdistan-Iraq.
Since 2005, these centres have provided services to more than 20,000 men, women and children. It is a remarkable success, but has not been an easy journey for the organisation, which is now called the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights.
Salah recalls that when the Kirkuk centre was founded in 2005, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, people were still living in fear. “I had a patient who came to me and told me he needed my help, but said I had to promise not to write down anything. I asked why and he said, ‘Because I am afraid if they come back they will know everything about me.’”
Yet the Kirkuk centre went from strength to strength and funders like the German Government, EU and the UN recognised the need for more centres like it. All the centres have the same system in place and provide psychological, medical, legal and social support. Some have specific programmes to respond to the needs of torture victims in the area. One of these programmes is an inpatient clinic for women victims of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
The programme came about through the work the Jiyan Foundation is doing in the Khanke refugee camp near Dohuk in Northern Iraq, which is home to over 18,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many of the women living in the camp have been liberated from ISIS and have had horrific experiences.
“They are in a very bad state. They lost everything, their life, their city, their health. These women have been sold, raped, every awful thing you can imagine. ISIS destroyed them as human beings,” Salah says. He realised they needed specialist help, having seen how many of the women were committing suicide, and that one two-hour session each week was not enough to help them.
The Jiyan Foundation started a centre 300 km away from the camp where the women could go for different periods of time and could bring their children with them. The recommended length of a visit is eight weeks and Salah says the intensive therapy has made a big difference in their lives.
“It is important to get them out of the camp, because there they only speak about their problems. We take them in small groups, because the cases are so complicated and difficult. Then they can get follow up treatment when they go back to the camp. This clinic is now more than a year old and we have helped more than 100 women this way.”
Yet just finding the money for transport to get the women to and from the camp is an ongoing challenge for the Jiyan Foundation team. The lack of infrastructure in general makes getting things done, and done quickly, difficult. Salah says, “You have to start from zero all the time. This makes the costs higher. The government cannot help because we have such a big financial problem. We have a large number of IDPs and refugees. We don’t have the capacity, it is too much for us.
“When we started the Kirkuk Centre there was no infrastructure. To build up the foundation in a country like Iraq is not easy. Sometimes you can need up to two months to get to speak with the authorities to get an agreement to get something done.”
Despite all of this Salah says the Jiyan Foundation is going in the right direction, “In these 11 years we have succeeded in doing a good job in many ways and we support thousands of people.”
The Foundation is named after Jiyan, the Kurdish word for life and it is clear that the work that Salah and the 170 staff members working in the centres are doing, is bringing life and healing to Kurdistan.
UN International Day of Non-Violence is marked every year on 2 October. At World Without Torture we regularly share the stories of those who have experienced acts of violence that have changed their lives forever, so the effects of torture can’t be forgotten or ignored. Today, the story of Palestinian AA reminds us that for some, violence is seen as a tool of oppression and fear and torture is seen as an effective means of interrogation. It is because of this that days like the International Day of Non-Violence are important, it is because of people like AA.
In Jerusalem in January 2014, 17-year-old Palestinian AA was walking home from football training with his cousin when they were attacked by soldiers who first shot them in the feet and then told them to get on the ground. As they called for help a dog was unleashed on them. They allege that a group of ten Israeli soldiers beat them with their rifles and stood on their bullet wounds.
AA’s cousin describes how they were then blindfolded and dragged to a military camp. “I was put in a room and interrogated violently; my clothes were torn. I had one wound in my hand, three on the right side and seven on my left thigh and area around my knee.”
The interrogators refused to believe they had been playing football and tried to force them to admit they had been throwing stones at the soldiers. They were told that if they confessed to these charges, they would not be beaten. They both refused to sign the confession, which was written in Hebrew so they could not understand it, and were continuously beaten for four more hours.
They were eventually brought to a hospital where they received medical care. AA’s cousin was operated on and woke up at 2pm the following day to find himself handcuffed in bed and under the supervision of eight soldiers. AA had three infected bullet wounds in his left thigh and was kept in hospital for a week, with his hands and legs handcuffed the entire time aside from when he was brought meals. During this time they were not allowed to have any visitors.
They were then transferred to a court and met by their lawyer who petitioned the court to release them since no indictments had been brought against them. Both were still in need of serious medical care and were transferred to a hospital in Jordan where they received treatment for two months. AA needed stitches on his head and his right thigh bone was fractured, while his cousin also needed stitches, had a fractured hand and torn hamstring. His legs were also badly damaged from the bullet wounds.
When returning from Jordan, they were not allowed to travel via the airport in Tel Aviv so they had to cross the border between Jordan and the West Bank as they both have West Bank identification cards. En route they were arrested by Israeli intelligence officers and brought to a settlement near Jerusalem. They were then interrogated for three hours and allege they were forced to confess to charges stating they had been trying to attack a military camp.
In the presence of their lawyer they were transferred to Ofer Prison, an Israeli facility in the West Bank where they were detained for 18 days until a deal was struck between their lawyer and the military prosecutor to prevent their families from pressing charges against the soldiers. They were both sentenced to 70 days in prison and fined 3,500 shekels and subsequently released in June 2014.
Today, AA and his cousin are receiving treatment from a psychiatrist and psychologist, as well as individual behavioural therapy at IRCT member centre, the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture (TRC Palestine). They still struggle to process what happened and the impact their injuries have had on their lives as AA has not been able to return to school or play football again.
Sadly, the story of AA and his cousin is far from unique. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues so does the violence, which affects thousands of people. TRC Palestine works with many people like AA and his cousin to reduce the devastating physical and psychological consequences of torture and politically motivated violence, as well as the retaliatory behaviour of the victims through its treatment and rehabilitation programme.
With no prospect of peace between the two sides and violence continuing, the work of organisations like TRC Palestine provide invaluable support and a glimmer of hope to the many victims of violence.
Five and a half years on from the ousting of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, the country remains in an unstable state, facing the threat of IS and political infighting. Gaddafi was killed in February 2011 and on this year’s anniversary of his death, interim president Abdul Jalil insisted his government had, “opened our arms to all Libyans, whether they supported the revolution or not”. Acknowledging this message of inclusion, let’s not forget the many people with links to Gaddafi who were targeted in the aftermath of the dictator’s death. One of these people is HH who was tortured by the police.
HH was just 18 when Gaddafi died and her family was one of many to be persecuted because of their connection to his regime. The fact that they also belonged to a minority ethnic group made their situation even more dangerous. Immediately after Gaddafi’s death HH and her family were threatened and harassed by the new authorities who wanted them to leave the country.
Her father was captured in 2014 and not released until 2016; she believes he was tortured during this time, though he never spoke about it. Soon after his release he was murdered on the street. After her father was taken away, HH was also arrested by the police and taken to prison. Over the course of a month, she was interrogated, sexually assaulted and beaten. Her head was shaved and she received death threats constantly. She was also forced to witness other family members being beaten.
Sadly, her story is far from unique. A UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report on Libya released in February 2016, found that killings and torture are being committed with impunity by “a multitude of actors – both state and non-state”.
HH was released a month later and knew she needed to leave the country if she was to survive. Along with a close relative she made her way to Croatia, but the trauma of what she had experienced made day to day life impossible. HH was referred to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member centre Rehabilitation Center for Stress and Trauma (RCT) in Zagreb by the Red Cross.
When she arrived at the centre she was suffering from depression, insomnia, nightmares and a loss of appetite. She also struggled to form relationships with people as she felt like she couldn’t trust anyone. She had physical injuries as a result of the sexual assault but like many victims of sexual violence, refused to speak about what she had experienced.
RCT Zagreb provided social, medical, psychiatric and psychological support to both HH and her relative – also a victim of torture. The centre found accommodation for both of them and staff worked hard to establish trust so they could start the treatment and help HH integrate in Croatia. She was enrolled in a language course and received help to search for a job.
Through her therapy she began to deal with her grief at losing her family and the promising future she once had in Libya, where she was an ambitious student. A year and a half later and thanks to the work of the RCT Zagreb staff life had become more manageable for HH. She left Croatia in 2016, hoping to find a better future in Germany.
While HH escaped the violence and left her life in Libya behind, an article in The Guardian suggests that many people are losing hope in the country. In the article, which was written around the time of the five-year-anniversary, one student who supported the revolution said, “Some people say they want to go back to the time of Gaddafi. I don’t. Where I want to go is out, out of the country.”
In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges they see in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?
In the latest installment, we speak with Flutra Gorana, the Executive Manager at Centre Nassim, a project of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), which offers rehabilitation to victims of torture through multi-disciplinary professional support and case management. She speaks about how she first volunteered for an agency for refugees in 1999 and has been involved in human rights work ever since, the situation for torture survivors in Lebanon and how every single person who stands in solidarity with survivors can make a difference.
Q: How long have you worked in torture rehabilitation and human rights?
In 1999 I started to volunteer for a refugee resettlement agency. Ever since I have been working with NGOs. Also with victims of human trafficking, 100% of whom are survivors of torture. Prior to starting to work at CLDH – Centre Nassim in November 2015, I worked with disadvantaged youth in New York. It was a programme for young people from low socio economic neighbourhoods who didn’t finish high school. The idea was for them to graduate from high school and get a good job, not just a minimum wage job but a profession.
Q: How did you end up doing this work?
In 1999 it was a time when Kosovan refugees were coming into the US. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended and the war in Kosovo was going on. Because I speak both languages I was translating in a camp in the US receiving refugees. It’s a job where you go home and feel fulfilled. You can’t save everyone but can see the impact you have on each and every person.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
One time I remember is when a family from Kosovo came to New York. I was helping with everything the agency provided. The old man in the family got up and gave me a big hug and said, “I don’t know where we would be without you”.
Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/area you’re involved with or your home country?
In Lebanon there is very little support for torture victims. There are only three agencies in the whole country. Now there are 1.3 million Syrian refugees in the country and more coming. The need is great and the resources and capacity don’t match the demand. 70% of our clientele are Syrian.
Q: What is a typical day in the office/field for you?
We have a very dynamic office. The staff are great. We have two psychologists, one social worker, an assistant, a doctor, a lawyer and a co-ordinator. We also have five lawyers that work mostly outside the office in prisons and detention centres. On the days when the psychologists and doctor are in we all need to be available because we know we will have an influx of clients. Sometimes it can be as simple as giving them extra clothes or food kits. I also do a lot of negotiation with UNHCR and other organisations to try and get refugees resettled. Then also a lot of report writing, financial management and staff management. It’s a mix of everything.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?
In Lebanon it is not recognised that torture exists or at least the government do not make any comments about it. This means there is no government support, so all the funding comes from outside organisations and foundations. This is the biggest challenge. The stigma around torture is also a challenge. Beneficiaries want to come to the centre when no one is around. We try to explain to them that it is not only torture victims who use our services and they don’t need to be ashamed. It’s also a challenge to ensure staff are safe.
Q: According to various surveys, many people do not think torture is such a big problem; that it is a thing of the past; or some even think that it is necessary. What would you say to them?
Torture is very much happening in many countries. What people need to understand, especially those who say it is needed, is that if a person is being tortured they will say anything to make it stop. It is not an effective way to interrogate someone. It humiliates the victims, destroys their life, their family’s life and society in general.
Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement?
By voicing their opinion, in any discussion, even just around the kitchen table. By educating their family and friends that torture is wrong. Starting small can lead to bigger things. If they have the power to write to government officials and legislators they can do so. They can also support organisations that do this work, not only financially, sometimes moral support can mean more.
On 17 February the last remaining centre for the treatment and documentation of alleged torture victims in Egypt was ordered to close by the Egyptian authorities. The reason given was that the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture had ‘breached unspecified health ministry regulations’. But critics say that the order is part of a sweeping crackdown on human rights organisations and defenders in the country.
At a news conference, the Nadeem Center’s director Aida Seif el-Dawla called the decision to close the centre politically motivated.
“This is a political decision and it’s coming from the cabinet that represents all the actors that are keen on the survival of this regime, despite the oppression and the torture that the Egyptian people are living through on a daily basis.”
The regime that Aida Seif el-Dawla is referring to is that of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Since al-Sisi took office in June 2014, repression and shrinking of the public space has only increased, targeting the entire spectrum of human rights organisations, professional and labour associations, political activists, journalists and media.
In its 2016 World Report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that authorities have effectively banned protests and imprisoned tens of thousands—often after unfair trials. According to the report, National Security officers commit torture and enforced disappearances, while many detainees die in custody from mistreatment.
Despite the constitution forbidding torture and the abuse of detainees, the practice is widespread in Egyptian prisons. In 2014 British newspaper The Guardian revealed that since July 2013, at least 400 people had been tortured and held outside of judicial oversight in a secret military prison.
The Nadeem Center is a private, politically independent organisation that is known around the world for speaking out against torture and other human rights violations. It is the centre’s work to document torture in particular that the authorities see as a great threat to the survival of the regime. Just last December the centre and other civil society organisations announced they were able to document 625 torture cases in Egyptian prisons. Allegations that the authorities continue to deny.
Meanwhile, international rights organisations, including the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) have come out in support of the Nadeem Center and Aida Seif el-Dawla.
The IRCT, which has a membership of more than 150 torture rehabilitation centres across the world, including the Nadeem Center, released a statement calling for action and intervention.
“The Egyptian authorities have a duty to protect and promote the work of human rights defenders; any state hoping to be regarded as democratic must abide by the rule of law and respect for human rights. We will continue to be concerned with this situation until it is fully solved,” said Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the Secretary-General of the IRCT.
In the statement, the IRCT also emphasised the importance of the centre being able to provide treatment to victims of torture, warning that without it, torture victims would have nowhere to go.
Other organisations are pointing to the fact that the closure of El Nadeem Center would constitute an unprecedented violation of the right to freedoms of association and of expression, as well as a dramatic threat to civil liberties, with thousands of political prisoners behind bars, all virtually threatened with systematised acts of torture. Despite the pressure, the Egyptian authorities have showed no signs of budging.
Yet the Nadeem Center refuses to give up, saying that, “If both the clinic and the centre are closed, we shall continue to release our reports and we shall continue to help victims of violence and torture as long as we are doctors and as long as this state insists to use torture as a means of oppressing its citizens.”
The release of Australian journalist Peter Greste, and a new report by Human Rights Watch has once again turned the world’s attention to Egypt’s poor human rights record. This time focus is on the country’s prisons and its inhumane treatment of political prisoners.
After 400 days in prison charged with supporting a “terrorist organisation”, a farcical trial and an international outcry, Peter Greste from Al-Jazeera was finally released from Egypt’s Tora prison this month. Despite the relief of being free again, Greste called for the release of his two colleagues, his producer Mohamed Fahmy, and cameraman Bahar Mohamed, both of whom remain behind bars.
Like Peter Greste, the two were given heavy sentences for disseminating “false news” and purportedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt’s first democratic elections.
Sadly, their story is not at all unique. News outlets report of tens of thousands of political prisoners detained in Egyptian prisons. As most of these prisoners cannot claim dual citizenship, their future is one of much uncertainty and despair.
Torture and Abuse
The staggering number of political prisoners is just one side of Egypt’s problem. Despite the constitution banning torture and abuse of detainees, the practice is widespread in Egyptian prisons.
As the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) points out, history shows that the Egyptian military and police disregard the rule of law and have systematically used extreme violence and torture in their repressive tactics. IRCT’s human rights partners in the region have for years documented the systematic torture of those detained by military and police forces.
According to Amnesty International, torture is routinely practiced in police stations and unofficial places of detention, with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters particularly targeted.
Amnesty International also reports that there has been a surge in arbitrary arrests, detentions and harrowing incidents of torture and deaths in police custody in the past couple of years.
Last year, British newspaper The Guardian revealed that since July 2013 at least 400 people had been tortured and held outside of judicial oversight in a secret military prison.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch criticising the Egyptian authorities, detailed scores of detainees suffering and even dying while in government custody, but human rights defenders all agree that the number of casualties is likely to be much higher than that.
Preventing torture in prisons and other places of detention is not an easy task with so few perpetrators brought to justice. Of all torture complaints in Egypt, only a very few reach the courts due to institutional barriers to justice.
The independent Egyptian human rights law firm United Group released a report in which it described how it had interviewed 465 alleged victims of police torture and that it had filed 163 complaints, of which only seven reached the courts.
Sadly, this hopeless and grim situation is unlikely to change any time soon.
Amid continuous reporting on Peter Greste’s release, an Egyptian court sentenced 183 people to death, 34 of whom were not even present for the trial. If this verdict is anything to go by, Egypt is not reforming its prison and justice system. Instead, it appears determined to continue down this dangerous path, ignoring international human rights law.
Peter Greste’s story offers some relief in an otherwise desperate time. After 400 days in captivity, he is back in Australia. Still behind bars, however, are the tens of thousands of political prisoners. They know about the unjust trials and what police brutality feels like. Now they face the prospect of remaining in prisons for years to come – in a country that took away their freedom and human rights.
“There was a call for help in a house which had been randomly shelled at Mujama’a St, East Gaza City. It was nearly 01:00 on the last day of Ramadan. The house was in complete chaos when the team arrived. There was dense smoke everywhere and a very bad smell, which hardly allowed them to breathe. I got the stretcher and the flashlight and entered the building, where I immediately saw a badly injured woman under the staircase. I took her to the ambulance and went back to the house. We managed to fit 3-6 people into the second ambulance….
“What shocked me most about this incident was that I forgot the flashlight in the house and my colleague asked me to go back and get it, since we would need it later for other evacuations. When I went back, I heard the feeble cry of a small baby, which I hadn’t noticed before. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone. Then I felt that the voice was coming from under a heap of rubble in flames. I searched in the rubble, though I felt my hands getting burnt, and finally I found a baby around one month old. I took her and ran back to the ambulance, but before I arrived she stopped breathing. I performed cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on her, and she came back to life.
“I was shocked by the incident, because she could have been one of my children, and I had almost left her behind in the fire to a certain death. I still thank God that I forgot the flashlight, so I was forced to go back to the house and could find her! I found a picture of her in the hospital on the internet, and I saved it, because it is a great encouragement for me. Now I want to look for her and see her grow, to tell her how proud I am that she is alive.”
The author of this story is Yousef Al Kahlout, a PRCS paramedic, who was part of the emergency response to Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip last summer.
Although accounts vary, most estimates put the number of residents of Gaza killed in the 50-day armed conflict at more than 2,000, of whom at least 70% were civilians. Additionally, more than 11,000 were wounded and over 100,000 made homeless because of the attacks.
The tale of Yousef and the baby he saved is one of hope. However, buried in the rubble in Gaza are many other stories of the short but devastating conflict.
Eight independent medical experts travelled to Gaza to uncover these stories. In a new fact-finding report, commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, they detail the types, causes and patterns of injuries based on interviews with victims.
The report, which is now available, provides a unique insight into the devastating impact war had on the civilians and communities in Palestine, and, at least partly, brings to light some of the stories the conflict nearly erased.
To read the full report, click here.
Today, much the same as 15 years ago, demonstrators in Algiers, Algeria, still campaign for the whereabouts of their loved ones.
A bloody civil war in the 1990s, culminating in a military coup in 1992 stopping Islamists from taking power, killed over 100,000 people.
Amidst this, families fell apart as relatives simply disappeared. Many were murdered. Others were captured.
As a recent Human Rights Watch report notes, since the end of the war there is still widespread impunity and trauma among many Algerians. Reporting in Human Rights Watch’s ‘Dispatches’ series, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division Eric Goldstein reports on his first entry to Algeria for almost a decade. He paints a bleak picture of a country refusing to approach its past.
“I find the families of those disappeared during the war still holding regular demonstrations, chanting ‘Give us back our sons’ on a sidewalk in downtown Algiers,” Eric says.
“The demonstrators have aged. Every several months since my last visit, an email arrives announcing that a parent of one of those disappeared has passed away, without having learned the fate of his or her child.”
In 2006, Algeria’s Law on Peace and National Reconciliation helped 7,000 families receive compensation for the trauma caused by the disappearances. However, the law also provided amnesty to the perpetrators of torture and forced disappearances.
Because of this, there is no justice for the victims. The truth has therefore never surfaced.
“There are those who reject compensation as long as the state does not disclose the fate of their children,” Eric says.
“For many, the truth means much more than learning if, and how, their children died, and at whose hands.”
Adapted from Dispatches: Algeria’s ‘Disappeared’ as published by Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch. To read the original report, click this link.
In her second blog for World Without Torture, photographer Ida Harriet Rump details the destruction in the Syrian town of Ma’arrat al-Numan, which has a target of heavy shelling and conflict since 2011.
In this blog, Ida – a student in Middle Eastern studies at Lund University, Sweden – recounts the fear of shelling from the Syrian regime, how people escape the danger, and stories of torture encountered throughout her trips to the country.
It is striking that almost no houses in Ma’arrat al-Numan have glass in their windows – it has all been smashed by the shockwaves of the fallen bombs.
Around 60 per-cent of the houses and infrastructure in the city is destroyed and very little has been rebuilt over the three-years of the conflict. All the time it seems as if the citizens are evaluating what seems worthwhile to reconstruct. As one activist I met noted: “You never know when it will be torn down again”.
The abandoned destruction stands not only as a very visual testimony of the recent history of extreme systematic violence, but also as a symbol of the town-dwellers’ approach towards their city, to their general life possibilities and mental state of mind, as they seek to resume a life as full as possible amidst the mess.
The city is shelled on an everyday basis and the Syrian regime has a military base in the eastern outskirt of the city from where they attack Ma’arrat al-Numan with rockets. Certain areas of the city near to the frontline are covered with wreckage and are deserted of people. The streets in the city that are being actively used are continuously cleared from rubble and the remainders of fallen houses.
In some of the busy streets the tempo is high, cars, motorbikes and pedestrians fly across the roads to avoid being sniped or shut at, which is an ever-remaining danger from the nearby front, and to a certain extent an internalised habit.
Where to go?
Though most families have spent long periods in the surrounding villages, and in some cases Turkey, the everyday movement is severely restricted to the extent that many citizens nearly never leave their houses.
The movement between the different cities is limited. It is dangerous to driver on the bigger roads and every day cars are hit by the regime, whether from shooting or in a car accident. It takes much local knowledge to navigate the roads and since many roads are blocked, it is of life saving necessity to avoid the regime-controlled areas. Besides the risk of getting hit from the air, the fear of getting kidnapped or robbed prevent many people from traveling.
Kidnapped by the regime
During my trip, there were relatively calm periods in Ma’arra which opened the possibility for relatives to visit the remaining citizens. Many visitors pass from one house to the other to drink coffee and exchange news from the regions of Hama, Aleppo and Idlib.
One of the visitors was a young doctor from Aleppo. Recently released from one of the regime prisons, he would pace the yard without the ability to relax. It transpired his story was a painful one, but one which is not rare. Arrested for unknown reasons, as he has never interfered with politics of the military, he was released on thanks to a bribe and suffered no ill-treatment at the hands of his captors.
But while he would recount his story without torture, he could remember the other prisoners being tortured. When he spoke, his face was twisted and he became visibly uncomfortable talking about what he witnessed.
Tortured by the regime
Another time, I met Jamila – a Syrian-Palestinian woman who came to visit dring the period of calm. As soon as she entered the rooms she began to cry.
Her brother – who lived in the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in the outskirts of Damascus but worked in a bakery in the central part of the city – was arrested alongside his cousin during their daily commute, despite being in possession of a special paper documenting the purpose for travel.
Why were they arrested? Again, that was unknown. But only three days before I met Jamila, her cousin was released from prison. In his possession was the ID of Jamila’s brother – sent out of the prison as a proof of death.
They did not say it but everybody knew he died of torture. Another person in the group – a lady named Im Tariq – consoled Jamila by explaining that it is better that he is dead than still under the instruments of the torturer
Im Tariq knows the pain herself. Two years previously her son was kidnapped by the regime and she has heard nothing of him since. She does not know if he is dead or alive.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Ida. For more information on the Witness Syria programme which aided Ida in her journey email: firstname.lastname@example.org