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Hend Alkahwaji, Syria

Hend has been a political refugee in France since the end of 2013. She spent eight years in the hell of Syrian prisons, on the confines of inhumanity. Freed in 1991, she recounts the torture, humiliation, and the negation of mankind and life itself. The horror she describes is however even more terrifying today.

“I was born in 1956 in a suburb of Damascus, where I studied agricultural engineering. It was during this period, in 1980, that I campaigned at the Communist Action League. In July 1982, I was arrested in the street and taken into detention at the Military Investigation Branch in Damascus, due to my political activities.

I was placed in an underground cell, without windows, and equipped with only one light bulb in the ceiling. I spent an entire year in this cellar, without seeing the light of day, without a bed, without anything, without a single book, without a radio. Every day, they brought me a little bit of food but I was not allowed to go out except for the violent interrogations that were held, by day and by night, in a contiguous room. The authorities hoped that I would give up the names of all the activists in my political party and to do so, they used all forms of torture. Blindfolded and gagged, I was electrocuted on my fingertips, ears, and feet, until I bled. Then, they forced me to walk through icy cold, salty water. The pain was unbearable.

Trapped inside a car tyre, my torturers hosed me down with freezing water. They left me then in my soaking wet and frozen clothes. I was shivering. I didn’t have any spare clothes. I kept the same clothes for a year. They hit me, humiliated me, treated me like a dog.

My family and friends didn’t know where I was, they were not informed about my arrest. I didn’t have a trial, nor a lawyer, nor any contact with the outside world for a year. I was negated. I didn’t exist. Sometimes, I sang in my cell to break the silence, not to go mad. But even that was forbidden. My jailers ordered me to shut up. Their abuses were also sadistic and psychological: they forced me to attend the torture of other detainees and to listen to their moans. Everything was a permanent humiliation. Twenty days before my release, I started a hunger strike to demand my transfer to a women’s prison with less appalling detention conditions. I was finally freed in March 1983.

I went back to my job as an engineer, reengaged discreetly in my activities as a mere political activist, and a year after my release, on the 19th of March 1984, I was arrested again, in the evening, at my residence, by the security forces. They took me to the same basement, assaulted me the same way, they beat me, tortured me, and abused me for three months. My detention conditions were even worse. In May 1984, I was transferred to the Qatana Women’s Prison. Here, we were in group cells of 12 to 15 women, cells that were open during the day onto the courtyard. We had the right to cook and receive visits.

As a political detainee, the only one in the prison, I was placed under the responsibility of the military authorities and my visitation rights were reduced to once every three months.

In 1987, I was transferred again, to the Douma prison, in a rural area, along with other political detainees who had followed a similar path to mine. We were grouped into a dormitory of about 30 places. We slept on straw mattresses placed on the floor, there still wasn’t any hot water, but life was less hard. We were allowed to read, write, knit, paint, educate ourselves. I learnt French in prison, by myself. During the rare authorised visits, my family would bring me clothes, food, books, anything that could somewhat soften my daily life.

On the 26th of November 1991, after seven and a half years of detention, I was freed following a presidential pardon for all political detainees. During all those years, they never notified me of anything. I was never tried; I never had the right to a lawyer. I was “under investigation” for almost eight years ...”

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