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''They Took Sara!'' Memories from the prisons of the Syrian regime.

By Samar Koukash.

My damn memory has betrayed me plenty of times, and it still does. But when it comes to that voice, it refuses to let me down: “Samar, get up, they took Sara!”

Sara’s father was released after fourteen years of detention at Hafez al-Assad’s dungeon, and a year later, he was blessed with a baby girl, Sara. When Sara turned nineteen, she too was detained.

In late February 2014, at the infamous Adra Prison in Damascus, second wing, known as the “financial crimes wing”: most prisoners there had been accused of theft, no matter if the stolen goods amounted to a single item or a whole country. The dormitory door opened and in came a pale, thin young girl with fairly long hair. She went to sit in the corner. Before locking the door, the female warden who had brought her in asked: “Are you Sara Al-Alaou?” She answered “Yes.”

In that moment, my memory broke through the prison walls, taking me back to the day I saw her giving a confession on Syrian television. A large caption at the bottom of the screen read “THE TERRORIST SARA KHALED AL-ALAOU, LEADER OF JABHAT AL-NUSRA IN AL-BUKAMAL”. Yes, I remembered her, remembered how sorry I had felt for her and the intense hatred I had for a regime that would arrest a child. She had been born in 1994— only a few years older than my own daughter.

Five months to the day I saw Sara on television, I was arrested for my aid work: transporting medicine to areas under siege. And then, one day in 2014, I met her. I was being remanded in custody by the de facto Counter-Terrorism Court[1] that the regime had established following the revolution outbreak. I was meant to be sent to the fourth wing in Adra Prison (the “women terrorists wing”, as we called it, and we would be detained there indefinitely)—however, because of the number of women awaiting trial in the counter-terrorism court, prison management decided to move some of us to the financial crimes wing where there was more space. This in itself was a major punishment. We couldn’t stand being in a place covered in pictures of “Mr. President” with women who worshipped him and glowered at us “national traitors”.

I tried talking to Sara. I knew how hard it was to be in such a place, crowded and full of women, yet one would feel so lonely and isolated. It happened to us all on our first day, but those women who tried to support new detainees made it easier for us. This is what I wanted to do for Sara, but she didn’t seem to be in a talking mood. I left to give her space and went to bed.

As the days passed, I sensed that she needed to speak to someone; she walked over and we started talking. We endlessly discussed the revolution and the things we had done to be sent to this wretched place. But we never regretted them: the revolution was and still is an unfading dream. Although I was curious, I didn’t want to ask about that interview, the confession she had to make, or the hijab she hadn’t been wearing yet at the time of our conversation – later she started wearing it, but differently to the style she had been forced to wear it on television. I didn’t want to ask, either, if she really was a “Leader of Jabhat al-Nusra”, or any of my other questions… I wanted her to choose to tell me everything, when she felt ready.

As a pair, we would often stay up when the other prisoners were asleep. Eventually she told me everything she had been subjected to by the intelligence services; how they had deceived her, claiming that if she appeared on television and read out the confession statement they had written then she could return to her mother and father‘s loving embrace: “Give us a confession in a TV interview and you’ll be home tomorrow”… it was a common strategy utilised by the Syrian regime to trick many detainees, men and women, into making taped false confessions. Many women like her had been deceived into filming an interview before being sent to Adra Prison. Others received numerous threats instead, such as their parents or children being arrested by the intelligence services too.

When Sara appeared before the military field court[2], she was brimming with love and life and hope despite the endless torture, the countless unjust accusations… Despite it all, Sara never ceased to inspire patience within me, and hope that tomorrow would be better, that we would get out and see our revolution through to the end. We became very close over time; she became like a daughter to me, and she saw her mother in me.

As the days went by, the good and the bad, we soldiered through several misadventures together with a few other women—and with help from the wardens, we even managed to report violations of our rights to Colonel Adnan Sulayman, the prison superintendent. Sara fed me her thurud al-bamiya, something I hadn’t tried since my mother died in 1992. God bless her soul… and it was delicious!

In December 2015, Zahran Alloush died. We watched the news from the prison television. The next day, as I recall, an order came to move Sara to another wing, and to give her no bed or locker. I learned why from Umm Ali, one of the officers responsible for our wing (she and I had a relationship of convenience, just like the grand majority of dealings in my country, she’d get what I wanted if I paid her). Umm Ali said that after the news about Zahran Alloush had spread, another warden had overheard Sara say “God bless his soul”.

I flew into a rage. Sara had never said that. I knew—I was sharing a dormitory with her, after all. But who would ever believe one “terrorist” defending another? “What can we do?” I asked Umm Ali. As usual, what we could do was make a deal with Colonel Adnan: a certain amount of money in exchange for returning Sara to our wing, and to assign her a bed and a locker again. The deal was made, but the amount was so large that the other women and I barely managed to pay it, even with Sara’s uncle helping by slipping her money during his regular visits. Living in Damascus, it was hardly difficult for him, unlike her elderly parents who lived in Deir ez-Zor, in northeast Syria. I remember how shocked I was when during visiting hours I saw an elderly man pushing his wife in a wheelchair, who was clutching a watermelon on her lap because Sara loved watermelon! How had he been able to walk all the way to the women’s prison? In any case, we gave the money to Colonel Adnan and he had Sara moved, but not in the way we had wanted—to another wing.

In Adra Prison was a place called the Nadwa – a canteen. It had been set up by a female prisoner sentenced to life for murder. Colonel Adnan had allowed that in exchange for a monthly commission, on top of a startup kickback. For us “terrorists”, the Nadwa was an escape. We could invite women from other wings and spend time together. The Nadwa became the place where I met Sara and our other friends, who shared our dream of revolution. We shared other ideas too, like our small plot to improve prison conditions. We met almost daily, until June 2016, when I awoke to a scream from inside the dormitory: “Samar, get up, they’re taking Sara!”

I jumped up like I was possessed. Hassan, one of the officers, was there; I asked him if it was true. He nodded. I tried to find out more but he wouldn’t answer me—we were being watched, of course. I waited for her to walk past the iron bars; when she did, her face was sickly, her eyes wandering, she didn’t know what to do… I managed to hug her through the bars and she whispered, “Tell my uncle” and then Sara disappeared.

I went back into the dormitory, stunned—no, thunderstruck. So many questions gnawed at me: Had that really happened or was I still asleep? Where had they taken her? Where would she go? How could I pass the news to her uncle when we were being watched all the time? Even our phone calls were under surveillance, the conversations and the people we call. I waited for Umm Ali; perhaps she would have answers to the thousands of questions racing through my mind. Colonel Adnan arrived at the very moment I left my dormitory to see her, as if he wanted me to hear what he would say. Turning to Umm Ali, he, mockingly spiteful, ordered: “divide Sara’s inheritance.” There was a wide grin on his face. A while later, one of the prisoners was taken to an interrogation room. When she returned, she told me what the interrogator had said: “Sara’s being executed; I signed it off.”

Oh Dear God! It’s so easy for those words to leave their mouths… Had she really been executed? Just like that, without a trial or a lawyer to defend her? To this day, I refuse—mind, heart and soul—to accept that Sara is not with us. Will I see you again, my little girl, my friend? I still have so much to tell you about our disappointments, our revolution, our lost dreams and our children’s unknown futures. Who knows, perhaps you’re the one waiting for me to come to you.

Sara Al-Alaou isn’t the only one to have been forcibly disappeared, taken without a trial. The fates of countless men and women remain unknown. And so we wait for the day when there will be justice.

[1] The Counter-terrorism Court was established in 2012 under Law No. 22 to look into terrorism related crimes. It replaced the State Security Court, which was abolished in 2011. Law No. 22 stipulates that "the court shall not abide by the procedures provided for in the legislation in force." The Syrian authorities have used the Counter-terrorism Court to suppress dissidents and peaceful protesters. [2] The Military Field Court was established by Decree 109 of 1968, which provided for procedures that violate the most basic principles of human rights. The jurisdiction of the Field Court was expanded by Decree No. 32 of 1980 and it started trying military and civilian personnel in times of peace and war. The Syrian authorities used the Field Court as a tool to crush opposition, particularly in the 1980s and after the outbreak of the uprising in 2011. The field court was abolished on September 3, 2023, by Legislative Decree No. 32.

By Samar Koukash.



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