Saidnaya Prison: the “Red Dragon”

A woman shopping for groceries. Photo by: IWPR

A woman shopping for groceries. Photo by: IWPR

When my 41-year-old husband was arrested, my home became somehow darker. Not a single lamp was broken, but our hearts were shattered into pieces. I will never forget that day as long as I live.

The security forces raided our home and brutally arrested him in front of our young children. We didn’t know the reason for the arrest or where they were taking him.

My dauhter Bayan screamed, “No, Dad, don’t go, I won’t let them take you!”

The soldiers pointed their guns at my husband and beat him. He could not resist. His eyes flooded with tears, but he did not cry out, fearing for his children.

I knew we had a long journey ahead of us.

My husband wasn’t the only one taken to prison at that time. There was a campaign of mass arrests in my city of Idlib in 2007 in which many civilians were charged with religious extremism.

That was a period when the regime was resorting to a policy of mass arrests across parts of Syria encompassing different political movements to stop them spreading. That’s how they destroy peaceful people, via the tools of an illegitimate state which limits people’s movements and their freedom of thought.

A few months after the arrest, after they had been in one prison after the other, my husband and his friends finally went to court.  He was sentenced to a six-year term. Then they were sent to the military prison of Saidnaya.

Saidnaya prison is nicknamed the Red Dragon. Behind its high walls, prisoners languish helplessly in dark basements.

I first saw my husband again after one year of separation. The prisoners, distraught at being forbidden any family visits, embarked on a campaign of civil disobedience. Eventually this was successful.

But getting a visitor’s permit from the Qaboun police wasn’t easy. It was a process filled with trouble, humiliation, procrastination during which I had to pass in front of a series of unforgiving, ruthless faces.

In the end, it was a short visit from behind two barred walls, the first in front of the prisoner and the second in front of the visitor.

Both prisoner and visitor had to scream loudly to hear the other, while a security guard watched them. His mission was to listen to everything that the prisoner and his family were saying.

Although the prisoners’ disobedience was successful, the regime soon took its revenge. Many prisoners were killed and injured in the Saidnaya prison massacre in July 5, 2008. The inmates’ lives descended into tragedy again.

My husband and his friends were kept in lightless basements. Bashar’s soldiers would have even limited the amount of oxygen in the air if they could.

“There was approximately 20 prisoners in each cell,” my husband later told me. “Each person had a specific number so that their names would not be used when they were tortured.”

He continued, “When a prisoner is being hit, blood splatters on the walls of the torture chamber, no one can hear, no one can see, only those who can bear the pain stay alive and those who can’t will die in silence and darkness.

“Dying from a missile is better than staying in one of Bashar’s prisons, especially Saidnaya.”

When the revolution broke out, everyone went out into the streets to demand the end of oppression, freedom for the detainees and the downfall of this cruel regime.

My husband was sent to a civilian court which sent him and his companions to the central prison of Aleppo to spend a few months there at the end of their sentences. Of course, this also meant that the condition of the prisoner improves and they are effectively physically rehabilitated before being released.

In January 2012, many prisoners of conscience were released, including my husband.

He was carried on people’s shoulders in a demonstration that night that called for freedom for all the detainees languishing in the filthy prisons of the regime.

Sama Bitar, 41, is from Idlib.  Married with two children, she has a high school diploma and worked in charities for ten years.