Syrian jails 'a factory of madness and death'

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The civil war in Syria has forced two million people there to seek refuge in other countries. Many have ended up in neighboring Turkey. That's where Zaidoun Al-Zoabi is right now with his family. He's a Syrian opposition activist and former university professor who has been jailed twice by the Assad government. Both times he managed to win his release. Al-Zoabi described for me the two jails he was in, including detention center number 215, where he was held with his brother.

Zaidoun Al-Zoabi: I once called it the factory of madness and death. I used to see like every day, for 26 days, every day five to six people dying. Not because of torture in fact, it was just because of the conditions we were in. There was no oxygen, there was no food, you can't sleep, there's no way to sleep because of noise and because of the congestion inside the room. Oh my god, that is the worst place I've ever even thought of in my life, or seen. I saw people inside a cage, literally a cage. You cannot recognize whose body is this head, or this arm belongs to this body, just people over each other. Just watching death on daily basis has really changed my life. My brother used to ask me, why in hell you just go and watch people who are dying. I said they at least deserve a bit of smile just to show them that you have sympathy. You can't do anything to them, but at least tell them, oh my god, I am with you, I wish I can help you. And again, I'm not talking about torture, because physical torture is nothing, nothing, as compared to the death because of lack of oxygen, lack of sleep. And then you just watch, keep watching, your friends one after another, including myself, losing their minds. I started seeing, I don't know, nightmares. My brother used to help me a lot. He saved my life, literally, because he used to tell me, Zaidoun, I'm losing your mind, your father is not next to us, your father has died.

Werman: Given what the world knows of the war in Syria, why were the opposition, why were you, just not summarily killed?

Al-Zoabi: I was about to die, but then by coincidence I was called that day for interrogation, and then the officer sees me and says, what in hell, what's wrong with you. I said I'm, if you just waited for 24 hours you would have seen me with the people who are covered with a blanket and thrown away. When he saw this he put me in a bit better place. Otherwise I would have lost my life. It's just coincidence.

Werman: So how did you get out of the prison and how were you able to leave Syria?

Al-Zoabi: The first time I was jailed, there was an exchange of prisoners with Iranian detainees, or POW, and then I went back to my activism because I felt that I would not give up my fight for democracy. Then I was jailed the second time on 30th of April. I was jailed all over, I mean, the 66 days. No one was allowed to call me by name. The officers there used to call me 12, I was 12. Again they put pressure on me and I was released. Immediately after I released I asked them, I want to leave the country. They said, we will allow you, but this is one permission. If you come back you will not be allowed to leave the country.

Werman: So the people that you were in jail with, what happened to them?

Al-Zoabi: The biggest drama is the people who are inside. This is not any usual place. This is hell literally. Marco, there was one child, whose age was three years. They jailed his mother, they jailed his father, they didn't know what to do with him, so they brought him with them.

Werman: Three years old?

Al-Zoabi: Three years old.

Werman: In jail.

Al-Zoabi: In jail. That was in Branch 248 in the second detention.

Werman: And was this child with his parent?

Al-Zoabi: His mother was in one cell, his father was in another cell, and he used to play in the corridor and cry when he's with his mother he wants his father, so he was just peeping at him from a small hole, and what in hell? Three years kid.

Werman: If I asked you, Zaidoun, ten years ago for your opinion of Assad, what would you have told me?

Al-Zoabi: I would have told you that this guy is decent. Even one day before the revolution, by the way, and I have to be frank. I never thought of a person who is a medicine doctor, who's a physician, who was educated in the West, I've never thought of this guy to be such brutal criminal person.

Werman: Zaidoun, what kind of future do you see for your children?

Al-Zoabi: That's a difficult question. Now I don't know where Mr. Assad has taken us. I know my children might not be very much thankful for what is left of the country, but everybody has to understand it wasn't us. We wanted freedom, we wanted peace, and we wanted Syria for all Syrians disregard of sectarian affiliation, religious affiliation. It is difficult for us, Marco, to understand, but what can we do? That is our destiny.

Werman: Zaidoun, thanks very much for speaking with us, and for your candor. Greatly appreciate it.

Al-Zoabi: Thank you.

Werman: Syrian opposition activist Zaidoun al-Zoabi. He spoke with us from Istanbul, Turkey.