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Syrian Stories from 'The World of Ghosts'
By Elie Chalala
"Syrians" by Gilan al-Safadi, from Arts & Freedom Exhibition, France
Over the years, we have devoted generous space to covering dissent by Arab intellectuals, especially the Syrians. We believed that most of them who were arrested and imprisoned for long periods of time (poet Farag Bayrakdar, 14 years; Riadh al-Turk, 17 years; Yassin al-Haj Saleh, 16 years) had been seen as members of different leftist and communist parties, thus posing threats to a repressive regime. But after reading Michel Kilo's stories from his time in Al Maza Military Prison (the article to follow is based on one of Kilo's stories), it is clear that even ordinary Syrians, who hardly harbor any hostile feelings toward the regime have spent similar periods of imprisonment.
Michel Kilo, a leftist intellectual and opposition figure who spent time in Assad's prisons, has recently decided to share some of his stories from his time behind bars. They appeared in the London-based Asharq Alawsat daily, which has been a strong supporter of the Syrian opposition.
Ahmad's story about "concealing secrets from the Syrian authorities," powerfully narrated by Michel Kilo, hit me on two levels. First, Ahmad's personal tragedy, while expected, was nonetheless powerful; second is the testimony to the sheer stupidity of the Syrian dictatorship, which led some to believe that even though it was authoritarian, represented some sense of order and justice. This false hope of legitimacy ended quickly though as images appeared of MiG 23 and Sukhoi jets bombing the Syrian people and destroying their cities and villages.
While on the upper floor of the notorious Al Mazza Military Prison, Kilo noticed a prisoner had posted on the wall behind him two pictures: one of a red rose with a picture of the Lebanese diva Fairuz and the second of Hafez al-Assad, Syria's former president and, of course, Bashar's father. The prisoner’s peculiar choice to place the picture of his jailer over his head intrigued Kilo.
When Kilo asked if that prisoner was an informant and supporter of al-Assad, he was told no. On the contrary, the prisoner distinguished himself during the 1973 October War and was the recipient of a prestigious award. Kilo also noted the prisoner's eyes appeared red, and that at night he was constantly crying and moaning. But when the prison warden passed around at 11 o'clock to shower the prisoners with insults, the prisoner had gone to sleep.
Ahmad, the prisoner, told Kilo that he was asked by his brigade commander to travel from Al Qatifa, the center of his military base to the city of Qatana, in Rif Damascus to transfer a tank. When he arrived, the maintenance officer told Ahmad to wait in a coffee shop and that he would be notified when the tank was ready. He obliged and went to the coffee shop and sat in a far corner. Because he did not know any of the officers then in the restaurant, he put on his headphones that were nearly a part of him and tuned into the songs of Fairuz. In fact, he loved Fairuz so much that his tank bore her name. There was a group of officers sitting in another corner, but he hardly noticed their conversation because of his preoccupation with Fairuz. Hours passed and a soldier came and told Ahmad, “the tank is ready,” and it was later put on a carrier.
Ahmad was arrested only two days later and accused of keeping secrets. The investigator asked about the officers’ conversation in the restaurant, but Ahmad told him that he had heard nothing but Fairuz. The investigator became upset and kicked, slapped, and electrified Ahmad, all on the grounds that he was concealing information. Ahmad eventually concluded that the officers were accused of talking about orders to defend the Euphrates Damagainst an Iraqi attack. Then one of the participants complained after hearing the order, and said, “We have the Israeli enemy, and apparently this is not enough, so we have to have an Arab enemy?"Ahmad says that the investigator identified these officers as the "conspirators," seven of them, three of them like Ahmad, recipients of awards of honor. Ahmad also said the Baath newspaper published an interview with him about his award in the October War and reprinted it every year he was in prison for six years. Also, it did not matter that the conspirators said that they neither knew "me nor my identity."
Ahmad also said that the conspirators ridiculed him as a "womanish" officer for wasting his time listening to music.
The accusations of concealing secrets landed Ahmad in prison with the other "conspirators" and subjected him to torture that lasted three months. Kilo said that he did not ask him about the picture of Hafez al-Assad hanging over his head, but Ahmad noticed it as if he is seeing it for the first time and said, "His mercy is the only saving hope.
“I am now 33 years old, and if he pardoned me, I will be able to resume my life, work as a driver, marry and make a family, and perhaps build a home and become happy..." Ahmad’s excuse for posting the picture was his hope that one of the prisoners or the policemen would write a report about it and thus the authorities would grant him freedom. One night, Kilo writes, "while we were in the midst of a chess game, Ahmad asked me loudly, apparently intentionally so the others could hear: ‘Isn't the president a beast and criminal when he imprisons a person until death, though he would have been able to grant him mercy or issue an order to execute him.'
But the president did not have mercy upon anyone; he did not release him from prison until after 17 years and two months, when he became a ruin of a human being, "almost blind from crying,” wrote Kilo. Ahmad did not marry after his release from prison, did not have children, or build a home, and never tasted happiness. He confined himself to a room, that he never left except to relieve himself. When he died after two years, his brother told Kilo, “He never left Kafar Soussa -- his home town -- to Damascus except once, and during his last days, he refused to eat despite his mother's pleading and constant cries.”
This is one of many stories which Kilo describes as "actual stories from the world of Ghosts."