He Refused to Say “Bashar”

A woman walks through the Salah al-Din neighbourhood.

A woman walks through the Salah al-Din neighbourhood.

It was Sunday, July 31, 2011, and we were preparing to welcome the month of Ramadan.

My son Radwan had high hopes that the revolution would finally succeed during this holy month and that Bashar al-Assad’s regime would collapse.

It was on that day that communications were suddenly cut off. I was scared and prayed for God’s mercy because that I knew a disaster was about to take place. This is the regime’s method; it cuts communications before each raid.

Radwan had gone to Damascus university to take part in a compulsory “summer camp” where students received basic weapons training and took part in organised sports.

My younger son was playing innocently outside with his friends.

I had asked Radwan not to make any trouble, especially since he had previously only narrowly escaped arrest for his political activity.

When communications were cut off, I rushed out to look for him but returned alone. My daughter, my other son and I were terrified.

The bell rang and I ran to open the door. It was one of Radwan’s friends, who asked for his father’s phone number. His request scared me.

“Radwan hasn’t come home yet and I am very worried,” I asked him. “Do you know anything about him?”

He replied, “He is fine, we were together and he will return shortly.”

The bell rang a second and a third time. All the callers were friends of Radwan asking after him. Each time they promised to come back and reassure me, but they didn’t. I became convinced that Radwan was in danger. If he was fine, why would they keep asking about him?

I decided to go with my little son to Damascus to try and find Radwan.  I tried to call him, but communications were still down.

I was sure that everyone knew what had happened but were hiding it from me. Then my neighbours’ daughter came to tell me that she had service on her phone, so I used it to try and call Radwan.  What I expected happened: his phone was dead.

I almost collapsed and called his father, who told me, “Radwan is in jail.”

“What are you saying?” I asked in disbelief.

I felt that the world had stopped turning and I could no longer stand on my feet. I wept so hard that my nose started bleeding. I could only say three words,”My heart, my love, my son.”

Once I had come back to my senses, I started looking for someone who could help me get my son out of jail. I prayed to God to bring him home safe and sound. For the first five days of Ramadan, I prepared iftar then sat and waited, hoping that he would come come eat with us.

Prayers had ended on the evening of August 5, 2011, and once again Radwan had failed to return home. I ate a few bites of food then went to the mosque to pray again, asking God to have my son back by the time I came home again.

Once again, the house was quiet when I returned.

But suddenly the doorbell rang and shattered the silence my daughter and I had become so used to. We rushed to the door; she got there before me and looked through the spyhole but didn’t say a word.

“Who is it?” I asked her. “Is it Radwan?”

I didn’t wait for her answer, but pulled her aside and looked for myself.

It was indeed Radwan.

I screamed, opened the door and said, “My darling, come in!”

He stood there stiffly, looking at the floor. As soon as I saw his face, I could see the sorrow and grief etched there. I held out my hand.

“Come in, my son,” I said again and hugged him.

He still stood there and began to cry.

“Oh my God, what did they do to you, my love?” I asked.

I hugged him again to try and ease the pain while thanking God. I couldn’t believe that he was back with me, safe and sound.

After a few minutes, he calmed down and asked his brother for the phone so that he could call the parents of other friends who had been arrested alongside him so to reassure them that all was well.

But it was clear from his face that they were not okay. The torture they had gone through would leave them permanently disabled or with serious psychological scars.

He sat down and told us what had happened to him.

During morning exercises on the second day of summer camp, the officer demanded that the students shout the word “Bashar” with each movement of the drill.

Radwan was silent then for a few moments, the pain visible in his face, then he continued.

“Some of us refused to say the word Bashar and some said it very timidly, they were afraid. The officer got furious and started swearing. I got angry, mother, and I couldn’t remain silent so I asked him, ‘why do we have to say Bashar?’

“The colonel came and took me aside and asked me, ‘What do you want, my son?’

“I told him that we just wanted freedom and dignity and to be able to hold people accountable for their mistakes.

“He shook his head and said to me, ‘You are right.’

“I liked what the colonel said, I thought he was a nice person. However, as we spoke together, with him, a security car drove onto the campus. Along with five of my friends, I was bundled in and taken to military security.”

By this point I was crying. Radwan continued, “There we found ourselves squeezed into a one-by-two metre room with many others. I spent the whole night on one foot, there wasn’t a place to put my other one.”

Radwan showed us the marks torture had left on his body. He looked at me with a wry smile and said, “At least they only tortured me once using the breaking wheel; others were repeatedly tortured.”

The breaking wheel method consists of attaching the detainee’s hands to his feet and then beating him on various parts of his body.

That experience of torture and imprisonment served to encourage my son Radwan to pursue freedom and dignity with even more determination.

He pursued this path until he was killed on August 24, 2012.

Zuhur al-Sham, 42, is a divorcee from Darya who moved with her daughter to Lebanon where she works teaching literacy to women and adolescents.