Solitary Cell 22

Alice Al-Shami writes about Huda, a woman who was leading her simple life in Damascus and content with the regime’s narrative portraying the protest movement as terrorists’ sabotage and riots, until one day the security apparatus came for her husband and took her as a hostage. Al-Shami walks us through the world of solitary cells with Huda.

17 May 2019

Alice Al-Shami

Alice Al-Shami (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer.

In 2012, Huda, a 26- year-old, stood in her kitchen cooking a vegetable-meat stew as she fought off the morning sickness common among women in early pregnancy. She knew lunch had to be ready by the time her husband, Hussam, came back at 2 p.m. from work.

Huda reduced the cooking stove’s heat before stepping outside into her garden on the ground floor of her small house in Jeremana in an attempt to escape the cooking smells, which worsened her nausea. But as soon as she sat on the hay chair, ten armed men in military uniform jumped over her garden fence. In complete shock, Huda tried to scream but only gulped in air. Feeling dizzy, she fell to the ground as the men screamed around her: “where is Al-Arrouri?[1] Where is that shithead? Look in the room! Look in the attic!”

Huda could hear the men search the house, the sound of glass smashing. She tried to get up, but one of the soldiers pointed the barrel of his rifle at her head. “Stay down!” Either way, Huda couldn’t move. Panic had left her utterly paralyzed. As men ransacked the house, Huda gathered that they were looking for her husband. Just before they were about to leave, one soldier turned to her. She was still lying on the floor. “Bring her along,” he barked at the others.

She could sense the hesitation among some of the men. It was evident from the looks in their eyes, but sure enough, she found herself being carried by two large men as the rest of her limp body was dragged along. Huda whispered in a quavering voice, “Hand me the headscarf.” One of the men threw her the scarf that was hanging behind the door. She scrambled to put it on as the neighbours watched in fear and amazement. The men shouted at them, telling them to get back to their business. “Get lost. There’s nothing to see here.”

The men walked away with their hostage. The front door was still open as the smell of the stew filled the house and the building hallway. The shock rendered Huda unable to think. Ordered to get into the back seat of a Jeep by the leader of the group, she responded mechanically. She didn’t know how much time had passed before they arrived at the Al-Khatib security branch located in the heart of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Shaking severely, Huda was unable to stand. So two men carried her into the building to a solitary cell with the number 22 written on its door. Huda looked around: The cell was very narrow. There was a blanket on the floor and a light bulb above, which was switched on. The walls were covered with writings, but she couldn’t make out a single word. Distraught and disorientated, she wondered if she had died and if this was her tomb.

Huda originally hailed from a simple family in Homs, but she has been living in Damascus for many years. At the end of 2010, she got married to a man from Douma who worked as a foodstuffs distributor in the capital. The marriage was preceded by the customary engagement period of a few months. Huda’s marriage was quiet and without any disputes worth mentioning. Quiet and slow paced, she wasn’t much of talker. Her husband was kind and discreet, a man of few words. He never raised his voice – except once – at the onset of the protests in Syria. At the time, Huda had tuned into the pro-government TV channel, Al-Dunia, watching a guy pour cola on his friend’s face to wash away the tear gas. Being simple and naïve, Huda believed what she saw on TV, and expressed her resentment against those “ignorant people” who wanted to destroy the country. Her husband, Hussam, would never comment when she watched the news before and simply changed the channel. Except for that time, unable to hold his tongue as he heard the lies on TV claiming the cola is fake blood and that the scene is staged to tarnish the image of the security apparatuses.

“When are you going to stop watching this shit channel?” said Hussam.

“I’m trying to see what’s going on, Hussam. Why are you getting upset with me?” replied Huda.

“If you really want to know what’s going on, I’ll tell you. People are protesting, and the security personnel are killing them. You understand now?”

Huda sat there for a moment, then asked. “And you? Do you go [to the protests?] Please Hussam, if something happens to you, I’d die of grief.”

Hussam sighed. “Don’t worry. I’m not going.”

That was the one time Huda got a glimpse of her husband’s stand on what was going on. And the truth was, she didn’t have any opinion with regards to what was happening. She had pictures of Bashar al-Assad and his dead brother, Bassel, on her cell phone. Just like she had pictures of singer Kazem al-Saher and actor Bassel al-Khayat. Her attitude towards the regime was similar to how one would feel towards a celebrity poster: a superficial admiration that wasn’t even worth looking into.

At the Al-Khatib security branch, Huda waited for two days, was alone and distraught in her solitary cell. The first time she was interrogated, the interrogator wasn’t rude. He was calm and didn’t accuse her of anything. He simply asked her a few questions about her husband: Where he worked, what his political stance was, and if he took any part in anti-regime activities. Huda didn’t know anything about Hussam, which made her feel panicked and strange. Could it be that her husband is a terrorist? Could he be a murderer? What will she do now? What about the fate of her unborn child?

Huda was sent back to her cell, and she was to be released within hours. But she remained there for another week without anyone speaking to her. She was slowly losing her mind, until one day she shouted and called her guards, crying and begging, “Get me out of here! For god’s sake, please get me out of here!”

In the world of solitary cells

The solitary cell section was mixed, with most of the detainees being men, along with some women. Yet the guards addressed the women prisoners using male pronouns. Perhaps it was so the men detainees wouldn’t know there were women detainees, or perhaps so the men wouldn’t be angered by this fact. This explained why a woman’s punishment was severe if she ever raised her voice when she called her guards: she would be verbally abused, or the vent of her solitary cell would be shut for hours, or she would be slapped before being pushed back into her cell forcefully.

Huda’s screams provoked the guards. They rushed over to punish her, but she told them she was pregnant hoping that they had to treat her more kindly. The prison doctor was brought in to examine her, but it felt like it was a vet examining a cow. One of the guards had some sympathy for her and started passing on bits of tomatoes and cucumbers. Sometimes, he gave her bits of bread that hadn’t moulded yet. Huda smiled at him and thanked him. She stopped wearing her headscarf around him, and before soon, she stopped wearing it altogether.

Huda’s solitary cell was claustrophobic enough and she didn’t want anything tied around her neck. She spent most of her time asleep and would only get up to eat or go to the bathroom. The cells had a shared bathroom, and the guards would escort the female detainees and wait for them to finish. The bathroom schedule was twice a day, with exceptions for the diabetics and Huda who was pregnant. It was unbelievably filthy, and the smell worsened Huda’s nausea. She often threw up before heading back to her cell as she didn’t want to have vomit where she slept.

A week went by before Huda was called again for interrogation. This time, she was blindfolded and escorted to the interrogation room. Unlike last time, her interrogator was rude and cursed a lot. He insisted she was hiding something.

“You don’t want to tell us what your husband did? That Arrouri, the dog. You’re spending Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s money, you traitors. You better speak up or you’ll rot here. The only way you’ll leave is if you’re going to the cemetery.”

Huda denied, cried and begged. Even though her interrogator didn’t hit her, he nearly made her faint out of terror. These interrogations went on for another three days. On the fourth day, Huda was called again into the interrogation room. This time, she wasn’t blindfolded, and when she entered the room she found her husband tied up, almost naked with blood dripping from his head, nose, mouth and legs.

“Hussam!” she screamed.

“Shut up! Who gave you permission to speak?” barked the interrogator.

As soon as he heard his wife’s voice, Hussam started begging: “Please sir, she didn’t do anything and doesn’t know anything. Please don’t hurt her. She is the crown on my head, she is my family!”

Huda stood there, quietly crying, tears streaming down her face. She almost didn’t recognize the man kneeling on the floor as interrogators continued to beat him up.

“And now what? We have your wife, you shithead. You either confess everything and give us names and addresses of your group members, or just forget you have a wife in the first place. You know what we can do to her, you don’t need us to tell you,” said the interrogator.

Huda felt dizzy and collapsed. The guards carried her back to her cell. That was the last time she saw her husband.

Following the interrogation, no one spoke to her for a week. During that time, a girl from Salmiyeh shared her cell. She was accused of talking to the external opposition, and indeed, she had contacted one of the people who had been the target of the Syrian state TV. Although she had confessed, she was redirected to the judiciary within days. Huda was alone in her cell again.

Yet again, Huda was called in for interrogation. This time, her first interrogator was waiting for her. He spoke to her nicely and advised she stay away from her husband and his family. He also promised to release her soon. She signed on blank pages and was taken back to her cell. For two weeks, Huda waited. She would often talk to herself. She would laugh hysterically only to bawl equally hard.

Then she had another cellmate: a woman who was arrested at one of the protests. For three days, the two women shared the cell before she was transferred to another branch. Huda talked to her new cell mate about her plans when she gets out of prison. She would get herself divorced for she blamed her husband for what happened and could no longer care about his fate. She would travel to Argentina to her uncle’s and would spend the rest of her life there without ever getting remarried and without any responsibilities. For Huda, the natural conclusion to her prison experience was as such, “I used to ask myself why the people are protesting. Between you and me, I get it now,” she’d say, before laughing quietly to herself.

You leave the prison, but it never leaves you 

After two months of being abducted from her own home, Huda was transferred to the judiciary. The judge didn’t press charges and she was released. Five months later, she gave birth to a baby girl who only lived for a few days. Her dream of going to Argentina never materialized, but two years later, she found a new partner and travelled with him to one of the refugee-welcoming countries, away from detainment centers and solitary cells and especially away from solitary cell 22 that still closes in on her today.

[1] follower of Adnan Arrour, a Syrian salafist sheik whose religious program broadcasted out of Saudi. Arrour supported the Syrian uprising since the beginning, expressing support for both peaceful protests and armed struggle. He was accused by Syrian authorities of inciting terrorist acts.

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad