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Kingdom of death and madness

Last Saturday, exactly one week before Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is due in Paris to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy in what appears to be a thawing of relations and perhaps even the resumption of high-level contacts between Paris and Damascus, a group of predominantly Islamist prisoners started a riot inside Saydnaya prison. According to their spokesperson, the inmates were protesting mistreatment. Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’s Syria and Lebanon researcher, said that Saydnaya “is a symbol of repression in Syria, and it’s very difficult to get clear information about what goes on there.”

Situated 20 miles outside Damascus, Saydnaya is a military prison and one of the largest in Syria. Built in 1987 to host 5,000 prisoners, today it holds twice that. Yet as terrible as conditions at Saydnaya may be, other Syrian prisons are often worse. NOW Lebanon recently talked to Syrian poet and ex-prisoner Faraj Bayrakdar, who spent four years in the isolated desert prison of Tadmur, and a further ten in Saydnaya.

“The conditions in Saydnaya are much better than any other jail I’ve been to. We were at least entitled to books, papers, and radios. I’m not saying that it is a comfortable prison, but the treatment was not as cruel as in Tadmur,” he recalled.

“In Tadmur, we were beaten up all the time. You feel abandoned in the desert. Tadmur was a kingdom of death and madness. It is a disgrace for the history of Syria and for all humanity. It must be shut down.”

The terrorism of poetry

Bayrakdar was arrested three times by Syrian authorities; twice in quick succession in 1978 for his work at a literary journal promoting young Syrian writers, and the third time in 1987 after becoming an active member in the Party of Communist Action and held without charge until 1993, when he was finally charged with “belonging to an unauthorized political association.”

The third member of his family to be incarcerated, it was six years before his family was allowed to visit him. He was allowed to see his brother, another inmate in Saydnaya, but not his other brother in Tadmur. One of the hardest moments he could remember was telling his mother about his sentence. He recalled, “After swallowing her tears, she said, thank God my son, isn’t that less than you expected from them?”

After a book of his poetry in prison was published, an international campaign was launched calling for Bayrakdar’s release. Syria initially denied holding Bayrakdar, but when increasing political pressure made this impossible the regime told Amnesty International that Bayrakdar was imprisoned because he was a terrorist, although there is no proof of his having any contact with terrorists or ever advocating violence.

Though Syrian writers and journalist unions consistently denied the presence of Baryakdar, or any other journalist or writer, in the country’s prisons, his fame spread. In 1998, Bayrakdar won the Hellman-Hammet Award and in 1999 and International PEN Award. International pressure finally secured his release on November 16, 2000.

A poet’s resistance

Poetry was a defense, but an active, not a passive defense. Bayrakdar’s fourth book of poetry, A Dove with Wings Outspread, was a major undertaking. In Tadmur, he was forced to write without pen or paper. He would compose small paragraphs and memorize them, sometimes with the help of other inmates with better memories. “We also invented ways to make ink from tea and onion leaves, and used a wood splinter as a pen,” he added. “The first time I actually used a proper pen and paper was when I was transferred to Saydnaya. Later I managed to smuggle my book with one of the officers.”

“Poetry had helped me to imprison my prison. Poetry, love, and my desire to preserve my dignity as a human being helped me not to collapse, and made the prison experience easier to resist,” Bayrakdar added.

During his stay in Tadmur, Bayrakdar and other inmates staged a hunger strike against torture and mistreatment. “We were tortured even more at the beginning, but we were very serious, and they finally decided to accept a few of our demands. However, this did not last, and when we decided to strike again, the authorities were busy with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the repercussions of that on the region, so no one listened to us. The response was much more violent; we had to stop after 16 days.”

The worst torture for Bayrakdar was the “German Chair,” which he called “the Nazi Chair.” He said, “It caused me to lose the use of my arms for months, being bent backwards on a metal frame that arched my back to the extreme. It forced me to measure each breath on the edge of pain between two half-breaths. A full breath would have killed me.”

“For the first three years, I couldn’t walk straight, and my utmost dream was that I might walk normally again when I got out, because that’s how I wanted my daughter to see me,” he said. “My body was my only friend, and I still apologize to him for the torture and the pain.” After torture, Baryakdar’s prison cell was like heaven. “It was like returning to my mother’s womb.”

In Saydnaya, Bayrakdar encountered many Lebanese prisoners, activists and soldiers and shared the same opposition to Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs. He also met Syrian Palestinians, released from Israeli prisons. “According to the Syrian authorities, any prisoner is a potential agent until he proves otherwise. Compared to the Syrian prisons, we found out that the Israeli prisons had food, cigarettes, and other basic needs. That was really painful; to know that your real enemy would treat you better than your own state.”

A new life

Today Bayrakdar lives in Sweden. Released 15 months before the end of his sentence, he decided to leave Syria. “Having basic things like dignity, security and freedom would motivate me and hundreds of thousands of Syrians to come back to Syria. Exile is the other face of prison’s medallion.”

“I do not have many ambitions. Simple things, like the end of the emergency situation that has lasted for 45 years. I wish I would be able to say good morning to Syria and not be faced with a frown. I might want to be more ambitious and imagine my country saying good morning to me first. I dream of a day when the Syrian regime would acknowledge that the percentage of those who had suffered from its rule is almost the same percentage that the Syrian president gets in any election.”