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Justice inside old plastic bags

By: Rawiya Harb, civil activist from As-Suwayda.

Requiem for justice

Setting: Palestine Security Branch (Branch 235)

I am unable to recall the time, weighed down by the gravity of the situation. An unavoidable confrontation loomed, particularly for us, people besieged by the very air we breathe, which seemed to suffocate those who seek survival. There I stood, facing the colossal building of the security branch, resembling a mountain of black, charred rubble collapsing over my chest and shoulders. It’s a place that was transformed by death into a cemetery without any tombstones, a mass grave capable of summoning any Syrian man or woman with a hastily written scrap of paper in blue ink—decipherable only by those accustomed to its sight.​ Fear of the unknown invaded every cell in my body. All my organs were on the edge, and my heart beat in my confusion, as if trying to escape from my chest to avoid entering the building. Memories of death, assault, and violence, once witnessed on television screens and internet platforms years ago, flooded back. I was there now. Would I become one of those scenes—a mere incident that arrived on this earth and departed from this building?

The security industry in Syria is inherently a fear-inducing enterprise. The security branches are designed to create terror in the collective memory of Syrians. Scenes, images, narratives, rumours, and stories surrounding Syria’s security forces often evoke a sense of the Middle Ages. This terror crept into us when we saw a security officer or witnessed a military vehicle passing by chance on the street. Once summoned by one of these branches, the hours leading up to the interview felt like a suspended state between life and death, a period to prepare for one’s final resting place in the dark basements of a security branch.

Lines of detainees awaited inside the building. In the corner of one of the corridors, I sat, surrounded by the stories, pain, and voices echoing from the basements. Amidst these sounds, I occasionally caught the echo of my own voice, as if my soul had migrated to the torture basement. I suspected that I might have bruises on my body from the beating during the interrogation, even before my name was called. From this point onward, I was a potential survivor among victims. Before departing, one wants to feel the walls, the old benches, and chairs. Others passed through here—their steps, scent, and traces lingered. These were people with dreams and a desire for life before entering this building, just like me minutes before. However, I was still dreaming of survival; death had not claimed me yet. I continued to resist, leaning on the memories of those who passed before me.

In the waiting room, I could sense the terrified breaths of those around me—the rapid exhalations, the whispers of their hearts, the tremor in their hands, the cautious touches of their feet as they feared the very ground beneath them, their confused eyes, and the pervasive darkness that tightened the space around us. In this dimly lit environment, focus wanes, and one forgets who they are and where they were just minutes ago. It’s as if this scene paved the way for us to forget the light. Every subsequent step was masked in murky blackness, and a sense of surrender was palpable in the movements of all those, like me, who were moving like the living dead.

Words seemed lost, and the desire to resist faded. The place showed cold regret and a pile of broken dreams, as darkness loomed around every corner, leaving humanity there shackled and repressed.

Nothing can be forgotten, yet memory is often unfair, as it tends to retain the worst. I vividly recall the moment when I saw an old man with a frail body, weathered by difficult times, carrying a few worn-out plastic bags. Those cheap plastic bags he clutched seemed to be his only possessions, which was evident from the way he embraced them, fearing that they would disappear. Perhaps he dreaded their imprisonment or feared that they might never see the light again. These bags weaved stories that unveiled the bitter truth of torture victims, where silence sometimes became the only language. Each one of these bags was like a new page from the record of injustice, carrying within it a human tragedy. For the victims, these plastic bags became their final resting place, narrating the unique story of each one of them.

It was as if my mother sensed that there was hope lying inside these bags. There was something that made her feel free, comfortable, safe, and confident that there was still some time left in life. It was as if she was aware of this and sent me this old man along with his plastic bags, so that I would remember her. I remembered my mother—a life to which I must return. She, too, filled her pockets with bags, much like the man I met in the Palestine Security Branch. She used them to carry gifts, fruit, potatoes, or dry bread so that she would not return empty-handed. She never gave up her bags, even when they summoned her to the Palestine Branch to receive my late brother’s body. On that day, she expected justice but received injustice.

Although a single plastic bag may weigh only a few grams, in prisons, they arrive by the ton, serving as veils to conceal the grim realities and horrors within. Wrapped around the bodies of countless victims, they function as unyielding chains, stretching hearts to their limits. These bags were silent witnesses to the brutalities of torture and humiliation, quietly exposing unbearable wounds.

Amid the chaotic and dangerous environment, I noticed someone wearing a traditional Galabiya. This garment not only indicated identity, place, and culture but also reflected the surroundings where one grew up. On the other hand, the bag he carried, and his trembling body seemed to represent the nature of our current location and the life we led outside this building. There’s a constant fear passed down through generations about entering this place. The terror industry has been part of our lives for many generations.

I was observing him, examining his difficult situation. Resentment and curiosity filled me, and I couldn’t help but have many questions. The foremost among them was: What had an elderly man, unable to move, done to end up here? Suddenly, a security officer’s loud voice interrupted, shattering the silence and startling us all. The old man was called forward, and he began moving towards the officer with heavy, tired steps, leaning on the table for support.

The security officer inquired about why he was in the branch. In a whispered and intermittent voice, the old man started explaining, “I came from the Aleppo countryside to Damascus.” Despite his efforts, he struggled to recall the details, managing to say briefly, “They gave me this paper at one of the checkpoints.”

My curiosity deepened; why was this person here? An elderly man, clearly struggling with his memory and in poor health, forced to undertake a long journey from the Aleppo countryside to Damascus. The man returned and took a seat directly in front of me, casting a gaze filled with pity and sympathy. An order came for us to proceed to the investigation room, and it was by chance that we found ourselves together. As we walked, a security officer led the way. The old man attempted to communicate with me in hushed tones since speaking was prohibited. We had left our voices outside.

“My daughter, what are you accused of?” he asked me. “I don’t know,” I replied. He whispered back as if he didn’t want me to hear, “I have spent my life here, and I still don’t know why.” Then, his voice turned stern, and his back tensed, saying, “Don’t be scared; you’ll be able to leave soon. There’s nothing to fear; I am with you.” He tried to reassure me every step of the way until we reached the investigation room. A man brought our files to the officer to initiate the investigation, and during this time, the old man continued repeating, “Don’t be afraid; I am with you. There’s nothing to fear; soon you’ll be able to leave.” He assured me of his support, leaning against the wall.

The investigator emerged from the room and addressed him abruptly, “Hey, what are you doing here?” The old man raised his hand in confusion, replying, “I came with her, sir.” He cast a frightened look at me. I struggled to comprehend, but I was certain that, in those moments, he sensed my strength surpassing his, despite my challenging circumstances. Perhaps he wanted to shield himself from a recurrence of what had happened, or maybe his memory failed him upon remembering what this place meant, and he sought refuge in me. They separated him from me, leaving me astonished and helpless. The person who became a victim never experienced justice; instead, his life unfolded within the prison corridors, devoid of rights and health. Justice eluded him, with basic rights and human dignity stripped away. In one final glance, the old man seemed to convey that pain was not the sole occupant of his thoughts. His story remained unfinished, viewing me as a new beginning, much like many others in this place. Despite the sacrifices made by Syrian men and women for a decent life, nothing had changed.

There we were, the man and I, in this cold place, unaware of our charges. We were there without a specific crime, but we understood that our presence was a consequence of seeking something simple: a decent life. They brought him back to take away the last possession he had—the worn-out plastic bags—as if confiscating his entire past wasn’t enough. Justice painfully perished before us, bearing witness to the indifference of societies and regimes towards human rights and justice values.

In this darkness, rights vanished, hopes transformed into faded memories, and people found themselves vulnerable to abuse and injustice without protection or mercy. In that moment, the cries for justice echoed in the void of indifference, and truth teetered on the edge of the abyss. Those degrading bags became silent witnesses, performing a requiem for justice.

By: Rawiya Harb, civil activist from As-Suwayda.



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