The prison guard stood in front of Maryam Khleif. She was shaking with fear.
“I swear to god, I will hang you by your fingernails,” he said.
“I haven’t done anything,” Maryam pleaded. “What have I done?”
The officer held up photos of men from Maryam’s neighborhood. She recalled providing first aid to some of them after they were injured in a demonstration against Bashar al-Assad.
“You treated these terrorists,” he said, throwing the photos on the floor.
“If you saw a wounded bird, what would you do?” Maryam asked him.
“I’d step on it,” the officer sneered.
“Well, I would treat it,” Maryam said. “What if you saw a man bleeding? What if he was your brother? What would you do then?”
The officer reached out and slapped her across the face.
“If my brother was against Assad, I would crush him under my boot,” the officer said, before stepping away from her and moving to the next prisoner.
Maryam Khleif is a 30-year-old mother of four now living in Reyhanya, Turkey. She is one of tens of thousands since 2011 to have been incarcerated in one of the Assad regime’s prisons. The abuses she describes are very much in line with accounts of former prisoners that have been published in UN and Amnesty International reports.
At the start of Syria’s revolution, Maryam was a young mother working at a government agricultural office in Hama. Her husband was a veterinarian. Maryam was happy with her life:
“I was a rich girl. I was living in luxury. But I was not happy with the abuses of Bashar al-Assad. When the demonstrations started, I had to do something.”
Maryam volunteered at makeshift field hospitals in Hama, helping treat injured protesters.
“At first, I couldn’t do much, so I helped the doctors, handing them gauze and needles.”
In the spring of 2012, the regime searching for her, she went into hiding. She found a safe haven at Dar al-Shifa Hospital in Hama, where a pro-revolution doctor agreed to train and employ her as a surgical nurse. To avoid detection, she moved to a new hospital every few weeks.
But Maryam missed her children, and her longing for her family overcame her. She visited her parents’ home in Hama to see them. At 6:00am on the morning of September 27, 2012, Maryam stepped into her parents’ home, and was greeted by her children and her mother’s cooking.
The joyous reunion ended less than two hours later, when plain-clothes officers broke down the front door.
Regime officers tore her parents’ house apart, looking for evidence that could tie Maryam to anti-government activity. Officers beat her 17-year-old brother and began to interrogate her four-year-old son, Mouaz.
“The boy has stuttered since that day,”. Finally, they led Maryam off to a waiting vehicle where several women sat, blindfolded, and drove them to a prison 15 minutes away.
“I will never forget arriving at that prison. When we got out of the car, the officers were yelling ‘the terrorists are here! The terrorists are here!’ I looked around, and just saw other women from my neighborhood. And we had done nothing wrong.”
Soon after arriving at the prison, Maryam and the other female prisoners were brought in front of a lieutenant. “He was eating pistachios, and as we stood in front of him, he threw the shells at us while calling us whores and sluts.”
Maryam and the other prisoners were assigned numbers. Prison officers then tried to take Maryam’s photo, and she resisted.
“A guard yelled, ‘take her’, and they took me to a room where I spent the next three days suspended by my hands. There were three men suspended in the room, as well. The guards beat all of us. The men begged the guards to hit them more instead of me, but they didn’t listen.
“They beat me mercilessly. They broke most of my teeth and kept kicking me in one of my kidneys. I later learned I’d lost 90 percent of function in that kidney.”
After three days, they moved Maryam to a tiny cell with six other women. There was one small vent allowing air to enter from the outside, but the cell itself was nearly pitch dark.
“There was no toilet,” she said. “They would take us to the toilet once per day.”
The women would also be fed just once a day; usually a boiled potato and a piece of bread. Almost every day at mealtime, guards would torture men near the women’s cell.
“I can’t have boiled potatoes in my house to this day. It makes me remember their screams.”
Maryam says the women were routinely brought up to the lieutenant’s office to be interrogated and beaten.
It was here that she met her fingernail-threatening torturer. As he moved on to the next woman, she shouted.
“Against Assad?” Maryam called out. “It’s not like we are going against the word of Allah. We just want justice.” The officer returned and beat her some more.
After the interrogations, the women would be returned to their cell. Some beatings were so intense the women would be covered in blood. But as bad as the beatings became, there was something the women came to fear even more.
“The lieutenant had an office with a bed and a small table for alcohol. He would bring us up there while he drank. Then he would invite officers from outside into his office and tell them to choose a woman. And that’s when we would get raped.
“To the girls who screamed and begged in the name of Allah and the Prophet, he would say ‘Allah is on vacation’. If the girl resisted too much, he forced her to drink arak until she was too drunk to fight.
“I watched them take the virginity of one of my friends… she was a fourth-year medical student who had done nothing wrong. One of my other friends bled severely every time she was raped. A man called Ahmad from Aleppo would come to our cell and bring her injections to stop the bleeding. He would sneak them in, and pretend he was yelling at us in our cell. He has since defected from the regime.”
Maryam recounts countless more horrors. She remembered a young male prisoner who’d been starved for weeks and then forced to eat from a toilet. One of the women in her cell was tortured with electric wires and suffered lasting nerve damage as a result.
Eventually, Maryam was released in a prisoner exchange deal.
“I thought the world would embrace me, but that wasn’t the case.”
Maryam took her children and fled to Jabal Zawiya, near Idlib, where opposition fighters helped to house and feed them. Eventually, she met and married an officer in the opposition. They had a child, a boy.
“I thought my suffering had ended,” she said. “But then my husband was captured [by the regime]… and now, if he is alive, he is facing the same treatment I did as a prisoner.”
When her husband was captured, Maryam took her children to Turkey, expecting an easier time. “It is so hard here. So many times my children and I have gone to sleep hungry.”
Maryam’s children, traumatized by her ordeal and years in war-torn Syria, are receiving psychological treatment in Turkey. Despite everything, Maryam is hopeful.
“I looked around, and I had nothing in the world but my children. I will raise them and educate them, and pray that they become doctors or engineers. I want to show Bashar, and my parents, and the whole world, that these are the children of the prisoner.
“And I don’t want my children to be embarrassed. I want them to be proud that their mother sacrificed, and left an impact as a political prisoner.”