This article is part of a SyriaUntold series featuring daily life stories from Damascus.
When Omar Wafi (a pseudonym) was eight years old, he tortured an ant to death. The reader may wonder, how can a human being torture an ant? What method did he use? To kill an ant is one thing, and to torture it, trying to keep it alive for as long as possible before it dies is another thing.
Wafi placed the ant on his open palm, took a long strand of his mother’s hair and started to strangle the ant slowly. He watched its delicate little legs twitch and flex until their movement slowed down. Then, using the tip of his fingernails, he tore off its limbs one by one, before crushing it to death with his little finger.
He may have been only eight at the time but this experience taught Wafi a few facts. First, humans are very evil, and it needs huge efforts to contain their viciousness. Second, there is a dark side to humans—evident even in childhood—that relishes causing pain to others and controlling their fate. Third, that he was now confronting a fateful decision: either he embraces the feeling he got from seeing the ant struggling and finally being crushed by his might, or he renounces it completely, tries to control it and lock it in a thick iron box, then toss it into the lowest depths of his self.
Wafi’s mother was a Muslim woman and a follower of a women’s only sect called the “Qubaisat.”They gathered in secret in private homes thinking that their activities would not be accepted by the state. When Wafi was small, he was forced to sit along with his mother in these assemblies, until he finally got too old to sit with the women.
The lengths to which the women went to sustain the artificial pretense of secrecy surprised Wafi. Dozens of shoes piled high outside the front door of his house every Monday clearly indicated regular meetings took place inside. Wafi had no doubt that everybody in the neighborhood knew about the religious meetings underway in his home.
At one of the meetings he attended, Wafi witnessed his mother and other women shaking and crying. He asked his mother: “Why are you so frightened?”
“Its humility not fear,” she replied in a whisper.
He asked her to explain the difference between the two..
“Humility is the fear of God and reverence to his might,” she replied.
Wafi retorted: “Then it is fear.”
“Shut your mouth and bring us juice,” snapped his mother.
As Wafi went to the kitchen he imagined the women as fat ants, trying to repress his laughter on the way back with hospitality trays. Hospitality trays were an important part of the religious meetings, a sensory temptation and an instrument of religious persuasion. Whenever Satan and the importance of resisting his temptations and machinations was mentioned in these gatherings, Wafi would automatically recall the ant incident. Was it Satan, who made him do it? He had been aware of everything and enjoyed it. It was his own free choice after this incident not to release the beast inside of him, to lock it in a cell and then throw the keys away. There was no angel or devil who made him do anything.
In one of their meetings, the discussion leader said: “There are people who are deaf, dumb, and blind, who do not understand what is being said. God’s mercy doesn’t reach them. They are not convinced by anything. Arrogance prevents faith from reaching their souls. They seek philosophical interpretation but they will never find it.”
The 11-year-old Wafi asked himself at the time whether he was really damned and an outcast from God's mercy. Is arrogance alone what prevents him from faith? Doubt sneaked into his soul, but he remembered the ant incident and cast it out. He chose to be a person of free will, not controlled by a devil, or god, or some group of whining, crying women who gathered in his house every Monday.
Wafi grew up and nothing could rid him of his stone cold certainty of his capacity and freedom to choose. And when the time came to choose a job, he chose to be an intelligence agent! He wanted to challenge his self as hard as possible. He wanted to know what would happen when he had absolute power. Would he be able to keep the beast locked? It was an existential question for him, greater than any issue of professional outlook or conduct. When protests broke out in Syria, just shortly after he started work, and when prisoners started arriving at his workplace, the branch of military intelligence, he didn’t have a personal political point of view.
He was neutral on the inside. He watched as a spectator and studied how the intelligence agents and shabiha (pro-regime militia) mistreated the poor, unarmed prisoners. He remembered the ant in his palm. He loved and cherished it and felt as if god had opened a door of light for him. Was the ant really an angel?
Wafi didn’t hit any of his detainees. He always found a way to dodge torture orders, performed administrative duties, chose to pass some water to the detainees, and tried to convince the executioner to ease the pace of torture so the prisoner wouldn’t die on his watch and leave a big mess.
But Wafi knew he couldn’t stop the executioner from enjoying torture and crushing his victim physically and psychologically. He watched how the executioner lost control, unleashing the monster that he had never locked in a cell, leaving it to feed and grow. He also watched how the bleeding defeated prisoner looked up at the executioner when he wasn’t paying attention, another beast of hate stirring and growing inside the victim.
“What would have the ant done if the roles were reversed?” Wafi used to wonder. "Would it eat my body piece by piece? Would it plant her tiny legs in my liver? He imagined himself in front of a terrifying giant insect with broken limbs and a disfigured eye. What a wonderful revenge!”
Wafi started to imagine the prisoners with giant ant heads crunching their jaws.
A few months later Wafi could not take being there anymore and started thinking of ways out but the opportunities were not favorable. Wafi was circumspect around his colleagues but he paid attention when they told stories about dissident soldiers and failed escapes ending with the death of the fugitives. His colleagues were talking about dissidents as traitors. The stories of their fate were even more terrifying than what had befallen the opposition detainees.
As violence from all sides escalated into an armed conflict, torture became even more vicious at the branch of military intelligence, earning it a reputation for criminality that spread far and wide.
Wafi needed to get out no matter the cost. He had discovered new levels of evil of which humans are capable. Although the detainees were severely punished for knocking on their cell door, even when it was to tell the jailers one of them had died inside, Wafi started to hear the roar of monsters emanating from another kind of cell. These were cells deep inside the detainees, where monsters roamed looking for a way out so that they could confront the monsters on the outside, their executioners.
Wafi questioned the margin of freedom of choice in this case. Can a person really choose when all his surroundings are continually feeding that viscous dirty animal inside him with hatred, injustice, and grudge? The margin of choice becomes too narrow when you are forced to choose between existence and revenge.
A tough decision: walking away from the branch
Wafi came out of the security branch after midnight. The smell of blood, vomiting, dead and sick bodies overwhelmed his respiratory system and prevented it from functioning. He decided not to return no matter what. That was the moment when a car stopped beside him in an empty street.
Someone called him from the front seat, asking: “Hey brother, what time is it?”
As Wafi was looking down at his watch, someone suddenly hit him on the head and knocked him unconscious. He woke up later in the trunk of the car, vomiting from severe headaches. He tried to scream but no one answered him.
A long time passed. It may have been a full day before a masked man opened the car trunk and took him out. He and a group of men, also masked, started hitting Wafi all over his body. He heard his ribs and leg break.
“I swear to God, I haven’t killed anybody,” Wafi began to plead. “I swear, I swear, I haven’t done anything.”
As he tried to catch his breath, one of the men yelled: “You’re a filthy intelligence agent. I swear we will cut you to a thousand pieces.”
So, the roles were reversed at last. After hours of hitting and torture Wafi lost consciousness. When he woke up, he was tied in a painful way.
It occurred to Wafi that perhaps his choice to become an intelligence agent was not because he wanted to test his capacity to resist abusing power, but because he didn’t want to be the victim of others. It is best to be at the top of the food pyramid so that others do not eat your flesh. Whether you choose to eat—or not — the flesh of others is your own business.
Wafi recalled for the first time that he chose this career because of whispers he heard in his head. Whispers he had interpreted it in his own way. Is that the devil that his mother and her friends used to talk about? Wafi was not going to start believing in Satan now. It was only the beast long imprisoned in the Iron Box. To be in a position of authority in this world regardless of your reasons, carries in one way or the other wickedness inside. How many voices, voices one should not listen to, does a person hear inside him?
Fortunately, the kidnappers did not want to take his life, but his mother's gold. They called her and she secretly collected the ransom payment. They threw Wafi tied up and blindfolded in a remote suburb. She went with her relatives to pick him up. Wafi asked not to go to the hospital and to be treated secretly at home because he did not want the Security Branch to know that he returned alive. He hid at home until he recovered.
At the first opportunity, Wafi left Syria and headed to a European country. Nightmares filled with ant-headed human protagonists crushing each other haunt him to this day.