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My Life's Crossroads: A Prison Cell

By: Aaya al-Ahmed, activist and former detainee.

A fresh morning unfolded, adorned with dew-kissed leaves and the energetic rhythm of people embarking on their daily pursuits—students, teachers, workers, and others. Amidst the symphony of passing cars, I stood by the roadside, coffee in hand, observing the bustling crowd, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the car that would transport me to work. Eight years' worth of memories surged back, a cascade of recollections. As I contemplate both my personal journey and the surrounding world, I find myself here today, having triumphed over days I never anticipated conquering. Emotions of hope, contentment, and pride swell within me, instilling the assurance that I can confront whatever the future holds, having already overcome the challenges of the past. Today, I stand in reflection, gathering the threads of memories—some bitter, some sweet.

On the eighth of December 2023, just a breath away from the year's closure and the dawn of a new chapter, I contemplate the possibility of a fresh start. This contemplation arises from enduring unfounded accusations and scorn, stemming not from any transgressions on my part but rather from my arrest by the Syrian regime. The resonating echoes of their harsh words persist in my ears: "You brought shame upon us! Stay confined at home after your arrest," and their chilling wishes for my demise in prison.

It's hard to imagine anyone on earth desiring to find themselves in such a situation, subjected to such hurtful words. It felt like I transitioned from a solitary one-metre square cell to a broader confinement, reminiscent of my experiences under the Syrian regime—albeit with the exception of the appearance of jailers.

The story began in 2015 in Hama, within the confines of Hama's State Security branch. Locked in a small, solitary cell, the dim light filtering through a small window near the ceiling barely illuminated my surroundings. The jailer at its door had dark skin, massive muscles, broad shoulders, and a tall stature. On his left hand was a tattoo that read Labbayka Ya Ali. He tormented me, repeating words that made me feel like I would die soon. Those words, still engraved in my memory to this day: “Can you hear those sounds? That's the sound of death coming for you.” "Do you think you'll ever get out? Whoever enters here can never see the light again.” “Your turn will come in an hour... tomorrow it's your turn. Prepare yourself!” All accompanied by mocking laughter, terrifying to me.

The passage of time within those confines was an enigma; specific dates and hours were elusive. The only markers were the transitions between sunrise and sunset. The cloak of night descended, punctuated by the heart-wrenching cries of women, pleading to be spared. I didn't know where he took them, yet their desperate pleas resonated deeply within me. The jailer leading the women was different from my jailer, his voice more terrifying, more brutal. I never saw his face, but I heard his voice several times. Another day passed, and one day my jailer's conversation changed slightly, but his mocking laughter remained: "Today is the first step towards your death. Prepare yourself; it's enough for you!"

I didn't understand what he meant, but later I learned that he would take the women to a high-ranking officer to rape them and indulge himself with them. I was in the early weeks of pregnancy and the chilling thought gripped me: Could I lose my unborn child within these prison walls? Surely, neither I nor my child will survive," I answered myself. Hours passed, darkness fell, and the jingle of keys approached the door. The key turned in the lock, signalling the dreaded moment. "Hurry! The officer is awaiting you," he declared. 

“What kind of interrogation at a time like this?” I wondered. I went out, and he grabbed my hand, propelling me forward, causing me to stumble repeatedly to the ground, until I reached the office of the officer, which had a small bed. My thoughts wavered, drifting away and snapping back in fleeting moments. Pinned down on that bed, I cried out, pleading desperately, “For God's sake, have mercy! I'm pregnant... for God's sake.” That day etched itself as the most agonising experience I have ever endured. 

To my relief, he did not rape me. He satisfied himself with humiliating and suppressing me. His twisted words were "If I wanted to, no one could stop me, but I refuse to rape someone like you.” Returning to the cell, I beseeched God for the solace of death, convinced that it would be a merciful release from the torment. With the threat of an inevitable assault looming, I fervently prayed: Would I survive? Oh God, in this plight, You are my only refuge!

I was unaware of the passage of time within the confines of the prison, yet eventually, I got out. At the time, I did not know how, but I did. Later, I discovered that my family had paid a substantial sum for my freedom. Departing from the confines, I anticipated expressions of relief and joy upon my return, only to be confronted with the opposite. Welcomed by new jailers, albeit lacking the imposing stature of their predecessor, they proved to be the individuals closest to me in blood and heart-- regrettably. They condemned me to a new prison without a hint of mercy. Their hearts tainted with darkness, filled with hatred, and their minds echoed with gossip about my arrest and release—irrespective of the familial bonds and affection that should have united us.

The memories of what you did to me and my little baby linger, etched into the fabric of my recollections. I won't forget the accusations that stabbed my honour. I won't forget the unfounded claim that I bore the child of one of the jailers. I won’t forget the hateful look in your eyes as you poisoned my food, urging me to ingest it and falsely declare my suicide. What kind of heart does a mother bear to perpetrate such a grievous act? Despite my attempts to justify your actions, I found no justification; not even for the words of those around me. The thought that a mother could contemplate harm upon her own daughter is a harrowing reality I am reluctant to revisit and find challenging to believe.

I took the poison, yet destiny spared me. Later on, you sought forgiveness, Mother. Mother, I bear no ill will for you, but I can’t find it in me to forgive you. Perhaps you could forgive me for not being able to forgive you.

Today, I want to say to those who rushed to judge me: Did you think I willingly chose to be arrested? Was being confined among people devoid of mercy something I aspired to? You passed your judgement without knowing the harrowing experiences I endured behind those prison walls. What if I were to share the stories of those days? What have I done to deserve your disdain? Young men often get arrested; did society react to them with the same harshness it showed to me? Now that I'm free, shouldn't I be entitled to encounters with those who commend me "You're a hero, thank God you’ve returned to us!" instead of enduring your hurtful remarks?

Take a good look at where I am now. Look at the achievements I've accomplished because I faced you with courage. Today, I stand firm, head held high. I welcomed a daughter into this world; I was unsure if she'd make it or if so if she'd be healthy, but Naya came out strong. Now, I work at a humanitarian organisation dedicated to saving lives. I've tirelessly worked on self-improvement to reach this point. Along the way, I've had two more blessings in my life: Hisham and Qais, and professionally, I've achieved success. Now I am proud of who I've become. All of this with my husband who weathered the storm by my side.

To all those who turned their backs on me the day I was released: can't you sense a tinge of guilt seeing that I've become the support you now rely on, even though you were absent when I needed you? I've become the shoulder you lean on to escape the harshness of life. Don't you feel remorse for what you did to me in the past? Nevertheless, here I am today, living my life, despite my circumstances, cherishing success, and brimming with pride and strength.

My plea to each and every one of you is simple: lend an ear to those you cherish, refrain from hasty judgments on matters beyond their control. Take a moment, and try to step into their shoes before casting any judgement. Be a source of support, particularly for the countless detainees in Syria, where tens of thousands have paid the ultimate price – a cost not open to instalment plans.

By: Aaya al-Ahmed, activist and former detainee.



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