The officer in charge put Samia’s belongings into a big paper bag before admitting her into the women’s dorms at the forensic security branch in the Bab Musallah neighborhood in Damascus.
She had earrings, a watch, 25,000 Syrian pounds, ID card, and a sachet of painkillers.
“Do you have anything else?” he asked.
“No,” she replied.
“Take out your shoelaces and leave them on the table,” he ordered.
It was customary for prison guards to confiscate belts, shoelaces, and headscarves (in case a woman is veiled) so as not to be used to commit suicide within the branch. He led Samia to the dorm. He opened the metal door and then closed it behind her, and she found herself with thirty or so other women who sat on a filthy floor. The smell of sweat and the remnants of cheap perfume rendered the air heavy and moist. There was a laundry line made out of bread plastic bags tied up together, and it hung between the metal door and the bathroom door located at the furthest corner of the dorm. Recently-washed underwear hung on the line, dripping of water and smelling of cheap soap. The overall odor was so bad, it simply stunned one’s olfactory senses.
A chic woman in her forties – being strangely at odds with the place – asked Samia to take off her shoes at the door and to place them by the bathroom. Samia did as she was told. She carried her shoes and walked barefoot to the where she put her shoes up against a damp wall next to tens of other pairs of shoes. The bathroom was incredibly filthy. Shit covered the corners of the hole in the ground in a thick layer that it would’ve been impossible to clean. Water dripped from a hole in the wall where there should have been a faucet and into a rusty metal bucket. Samia felt dizzy, before composing herself as she left the disgusting room. A lady directed her to sit somewhere close by the bathroom. In detention, it was customary for newer inmates to sleep by the bathroom until another inmate arrives. That’s when the older inmate can move a step closer to the door (and further away from the bathroom) as the new inmate takes his/her place by the bathroom.
It is worth noting that this wasn’t Samia’s first time in prison. She had been arrested more than once back in 2011 for taking part in the protests. She would always leave the prison with her head held high, and she would go back to peacefully demonstrating.
Samia, 35, was an English language teacher from a well-educated, middle class family from Damascus. Stubborn and composed, she rarely lost her temper. When she was arrested for protesting, she wasn’t scared and her experience in prison didn’t bring her down. But this time, things were different. The reasons behind her arrest weren’t political, but rather she was accused of forgery and fraud. In 2014, Samia had decided to sell the house that she resided in with her husband and sick mother and that she had inherited from her father. She wanted to buy another house in a different area.
One of the guards ordered one of the women inmates to body search Samia when she was naked in the bathroom. The girl was barely 18 years old. She seemed adjusted to the place and clearly had some privileges. She was good looking and wore make-up, and one could see a bit of her hot pink string from her low-rise pants. The girl didn’t ask Samia to get naked and she simply patted her breasts and behind carelessly. It didn’t take Samia long to realize that this girl, along with her friend, had been in jail for more than 50 days for prostitution. The prison guards made no effort to conceal their daily sexual exploitation of her when they called her out for an hour or two every day in exchange for soft cheese cubes, cheap make up, or a bottle of shampoo. The girl preferred this special treatment to being treated like the rest of the inmates who were slapped or verbally abused and who couldn’t ask for anything no matter how simple, even if it were from their personal belongings or at their own expense.
The female inmates at the forensic security branch were accused of different charges to those Samia had met at other security branches in the past. Not one detainee was a political prisoner, and together, they presented a weird mix of charges and social classes.
The chic lady wore a cross around her neck. When Samia cried, as is the case with all new inmates, the lady calmly told her: “Calm down, my love. You must calm down so you don’t get sick or go crazy. And you must eat, even if you don’t feel like it. And if you’re really distraught, pray.”
Samia was never a believer, and the place being overcrowded, filthy, and rotten smelling didn’t help her keep her composure. As was common, the women asked about the reason behind her incarceration. When Samia finished telling her story, one of the inmates said: “There’s no smoke without fire.” She herself had been accused of stabbing her nephew, but had been a volunteer in the national defense guards. She often addressed her jailers and interrogators as (Village), that is, she, like them, was from the village. She was also Alawite and worked in security, just like them. It was an attempt to get some preferential treatment, and sometimes, her strategy worked with some guards. That was an acceptable gain in her books.
There was also a group of four Kurdish pickpockets. It wasn’t their first time being in jail, but unfortunately, they had pickpocketed a woman judge, who when they were arrested, personally pressed charges against them. Samia found herself strangely getting along with the group. They were kind and sympathetic, and it could have been because of the Kurdish looks Samia had inherited from her grandmother. They shared food and space with her, even though Samia was a newcomer and had no right to sit anywhere except by the bathroom. Samia soon learned that the four women originally came from Al-Sabinah area in rural Damascus where they had lost their homes. They then moved into unfurnished rooms they rented in Al-Dahadil area where they pickpocket in the Naher Aisha district at a crowded spot where buses and shared cabs picked up commuters to the towns of Sahnaya, al-Achrafieh, and Al-Kisweh. The pickpockets were honest with Samia and that was quite the privilege as they never spoke out the truth in front of the others for fear of inmates who spy for the interrogators.
The chic lady was accused of smuggling hard currency out of the country. She was arrested at the Syrian-Lebanese border as she tried to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars to her husband who resides in Lebanon and who was the owner of a big currency exchange company in Damascus. She had confessed to her crime and was cooperative with her interrogators, who made sure she was pro-regime and wasn’t financing terrorism. Her Facebook page showed that she absolutely supported the regime and was particularly angry with the residents of Joubar who had targeted and bombed Christian areas. When the women were put through collective punishment, such as sitting in the dark if they made too much noise or were not given sufficient water, the chic lady would whisper to Samia: “Do you see this humiliation? The president has a large budget allocated for food, water, and hygiene, but it’s all been stolen.”
Samia would only sigh and hold in her anger which she didn’t dare share with anyone. The truth was the chic lady was nice to her and had given her a small towel to sleep on. This was only possible after lengthy negotiations of the chic lady’s family with the administration of the security branch a month into her arrest so she could receive a small bag from her family with some clean underwear and personal toiletries.
At the dorm was also a woman from Al-Dameer who resided in Damascus. She was accused of contacting armed groups. Indeed, she had lent her phone to a passerby once so he could make a phone call. The security personnel didn’t believe her story and charged her with cooperating with the rebels even though that was the only call ever made from her phone. After weeks of being tortured and beaten up, they started to believe that she wasn’t lying, but they didn’t release her. Instead, they referred her to the judiciary.
Another inmate was a pregnant woman who worked in a medical clinic. She was arrested after she had stamped a birth certificate for an infant who was brought in by his father and who was originally for Homs. The father said he needed a birth certificate to prove his newly born son was in the civil registry, but apparently, his son was born in Homs in an opposition-controlled area. Both the father and the employee were arrested after she was paid 400 Syrian pounds (the equivalent of 1 USD) when she was simply trying to help the infant.
There was a younger woman also at the dorm. She was fuller and wore tight, revealing clothes. She seemed daring and smart. She used to work at a money exchange office and was accused of issuing a suspicious transfer. She told Samia that she was divorced and that she believed her ex-husband had set her up so he could get custody of their daughter. Sometimes, she cried and prayed while holding onto her cross. But what truly put her at ease was a cigarette that one of the older guards would pass onto her and that she would smoke in secret in the bathroom. The young woman taught Samia how to tie her hair using a piece of plastic out of bread bags and how to keep her hair and body clean against lice. At one of Samia’s interrogations, the interrogator offered her a cigarette, which she accepted and then gave to her young mentor to show her appreciation for all her sage advice.
Another inmate had run away from her marital home. Her husband pressed charges against her and when the police caught her, they threw her in jail. Her husband gave her the choice between dropping the charges as long as she came back home or prison. She chose prison. She could sing better than most famous singers, and Samia enjoyed listening to her while she picked lice out of her friend’s hair.
One inmate was a Druze who had secretly married a Sunni man. It was merely bad luck that they were together in the wrong place at the wrong time. While at a friend’s, the house was raided and everyone was arrested. Her family found out about her marriage in the worst way possible. She preferred to remain in prison rather than confront them.
Samia also came across a teacher from Al-Hasakeh who taught in Homs. She had failed to show up to testify at court and was subsequently arrested and transferred to Damascus. She was the only one who dared to publicly criticize the situation: “This is my country. This is how they treat the innocent and turn a blind eye to the criminals…”
Samia wished she was able to get to know her better, but the teacher from Al-Hasakeh was there for only two days before she was transferred to the judiciary.
Perhaps all the stories that Samia heard while she was at the security branch had been embellished. But she felt one with the women: they all slept on the cold floor, ate stale bread, drank from the same old plastic bottle, showered and relieved themselves in the same filthy bathroom, and hung their underwear on the same plastic laundry line.
Thanks to Samia’s family connections, she didn’t have to stay long in jail. After a week, she was transferred to the judiciary, leaving the women who were there before here and who would remain after she’s gone, including the young girl accused of prostitution and who got certain privileges for pleasuring the guards. When Samia left the prison, the girl was lying on the floor, playing with a lock of her hair and said: “It’s so cold. I wish they would give us a blanket.”
Before Samia left the dorm, some women gave her their families’ phone numbers along with some information written on a piece of carton from an old, empty cheese box using eyeliner. After Samia was released for being the victim as the original house owner, she started the long process of negotiations to ensure she had the least amount of losses possible. But she never forgot about the women. She tried calling the numbers she was given: Some didn’t pick up, others hung up on her, and some were grateful. Samia doesn’t know anything about these women anymore but she dreams of running into some of them one day, even if it were the pickpockets working in one of the bus stations. Hopefully, they could pickpocket an officer and get away with it.