Razan Zeitoune

Cheating death in Syria

Escaping hell: Lt. Col. Abu al-Mawt's detention center

Five detainees managed to escape on the last night of Ramadan.

Out of all the stories and horrors documented within the course of my legal work, “Escape from hell” – with its five heroes and the monster figure of Lt. Col. Abu al-Mawt (literally, the father of death), who supervised the torture and execution of fellow detainees – is one I replay every day.


The five escapees delivered testimonies while we were preparing a report on what happened at the documentation center, and speaking about Abu al-Mawt gave them a sense of salvation. That they survived this ordeal can only be described as a miracle – Abu al-Mawt represented the brutality of the Assad regime for decades and throughout the two-and-a-half years of the Syrian revolution.


Out of all the torturers who ill-treated these five prisoners and hundreds of others at the air force intelligence prison in Harasta, Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt was a pure symbol of the hell that claimed more than 100,000 lives since the revolution first broke out.


Lieutenant Colonel Maan, known as “Abu al-Mawt,” represents Azrael, utter power, and the giver of death in the most horrendous of forms. He is the antithesis of anything that is human and has to do with life.


Abu al-Mawt used to call in those who had been detained for more than one year at the air force intelligence prison in Harasta, and tell them they would be sent to forced labor to dig trenches and build barricades for the regime’s army. When physical strength would fail them under the brunt of constant torture and hard labor, he would execute them after “entertaining” himself by torturing them a little more.


Yet, Abu al-Mawt only did this within a framework of special rituals. Detainees chosen to die next would be called in and forced to go down on their knees to kiss Abu al-Mawt’s hand before. But every time, he would close in his hand on the detainee’s throat and choke them for several minutes, exercising his authority over life that was granted to him by the Assad regime.


A survivor gives the following account of his first meeting with Abu al-Hawl: “A short, bearded officer called Maan came in. He was a lieutenant colonel known as Abu al-Mawt. He greeted us and we replied to his greeting before he said: ‘Allow me to introduce myself. I am Azrael, or, come to think of it, I am God and I am taking you to the other world. But since I am God, I shall extend your life for a few more days.’”


The five detainees managed to escape on Laylat Al-Qadr (literally the Night of Destiny, which commemorates the revelation of the Quran by Prophet Mohammad) this past Ramadan as they were doing forced labor near the prison. One former detainee said that no sane person would have tried this escape, as “guards were all around us and bullets rained down on us. But what we saw at the prison made us go mad, or else we would not have tried this.”


But aren’t all Syrian rebels like these five escapees who rebelled against Abu al-Mawt two-and-a-half years ago? No sane person would have thought to rebel against the most brutal of regimes and to go on with this rebellion even as the international community by-and-large abstained from supporting the rebels – and, therefore, disregarding the suffering of Syrian people.


Western media outlets have recently been airing images of Jihadist groups performing executions with edged weapons, the utmost expression of barbarism. However, no one provides any pictures of Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt tying a water-filled bag to one detainee’s penis while torturing him. No one has pictures of Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt emptying gunpowder from a bullet on the detainee’s chest and setting it on fire. No one has pictures of Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt setting a plastic bag on fire and allowing it to drip down on the detainee’s body. No one could ever have images capturing the stench of scorched skin as Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt emptied his Taser gun on the detainee’s body. Nor are there are pictures of the detainee begging for a sip of water shortly before his execution. All of them were executed while thirsty.


The world would rather deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Abu al-Mawt’s role model who gives him the authority to steal away or extend one’s life. This goes without mentioning the thousands of replicas of Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt who have been torturing and killing Syrians for two-and-a-half years. Yet, the West would then express surprise and focus most at the sight of al-Qaeda-linked groups emboldened in some liberated areas and performing theatrical executions openly using edged weapons.


Ahmad Hamada, Louay Bellor, Fawwaz Badran, Hassane Nasrallah and Mowafaq al-Jandali managed to escape from Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt’s hell, avoiding a most certainly cruel form of death that would have eventually ensued.


And, every time I am gripped by despair, I recall the story of these five escapees and harbor the hope that we still have some time left for a miracle, which would see us collectively escaping Abu al-Mawt’s hell sometime soon. 


This article is a translation from the original Arabic

Five detainees managed to escape on the last night of Ramadan. (YouTube screenshot)

"every time I am gripped by despair, I recall the story of these five escapees and harbor the hope that we still have some time left for a miracle."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Do we really need pictures to know what the Syrian regime does to its prisoners? How come people like Razan Zeitoune are surprised and shocked today at what the regime has been doing to the Syrian and Lebanese people for 40 years? Check out the thousands of reports by all kinds of human rights organizations that have been submitted and publicized all over the world, particularly about the tens of thousands of Lebanese who disappeared from Lebanon during Syria's occupation of this country. Many died, many had their identities changed by their jailers so that their relatives can never find them, many - about 17,000 - remain unaccounted for, and a few have miraculously and suddenly returned home without even knowing why they were held in the first place. What the Syrian regime is doing to the Syrian rebels is nothing new; it has done it a thousand-fold more to the Lebanese people for 40 years, but no one in Lebanon - not the cowardly and "self-censoring" Lebanese media, and certainly not the colluding and collaborator Lebanese politicians from all sides of the spectrum, ever made public what we all knew. No Western government ever complained about the Syrian regime's human rights record, eager as they all were to make a deal with the dictator. Now, they are all fumbling for what to do because they contributed to creating this monster by allowing it to persist for so long. We all knew that the Syrian dictatorship is a vulgar tyranny, but the West insisted on cloaking it with a veil of respectability because it needed Assad to make a deal with Israel on the Golan. We in Lebanon had our share. Good luck to all of you, now.

    September 17, 2013