The walls of my 3-by-7-foot cell, which I shared with another man, were covered in carvings made by former prisoners. The tick-marks in the plaster, meant to indicate how many days a person had been there, were most unnerving: Khalid, 12; an unnamed man, 24; and poor Ashraf, 31. I asked myself: How many am I going to be making? I was lucky. I only got to seven, at least in that cell. I spent a second week packed into a 12-by-12-foot cell with 22 other men.
I am a student at Middlebury College, and I was planning on spending my junior year studying in Alexandria, Egypt. I did spend the fall there, polishing my Arabic skills, meeting Egyptians and traveling around the country. In January, I watched my friends, neighbors and professors join the crowds on the streets of Alexandria. I became a surprise witness to the country’s largest popular uprising in modern history.
By the seventh day of the revolution, our program evacuated, and I could choose to finish my year abroad in either Morocco or Syria. After consulting many people and doing plenty of research, Syria seemed like the clear, safe choice. After all, who could imagine a revolt in a police state?
I spent only 10 days as a student at the University of Damascus in March. In that short time, and in a December trip to the country, I explored the old cities of Aleppo and Damascus, visited the water wheels in Hama and made the breathtaking drive from Beirut to Damascus. I felt very safe; there were few signs that the country was heading down the path of Yemen, Bahrain or Egypt.
On March 18, the first day that protests in Syria attracted more than a couple hundred people, everything changed. I got caught up in the regime’s crackdown.
I was in the old city of Damascus that day to meet a friend when I unexpectedly ran into a crowd of people. I never got close enough to determine whether it was a pro-regime or anti-regime demonstration. My immediate reaction was to try to capture the moment as discreetly as possible. I had my BlackBerry out of my pocket for less than 10 seconds when I was swept up by the secret police and put in a Suburban with my head down on the seat. Five minutes later, we arrived at the prison where I spent the next two weeks. I was later told it was a secret facility on Baghdad Street. This is where I saw what it really means to live under President Bashar al-Assad’s iron fist.
The Syrian authorities appeared intent on turning me into something I am not: a CIA agent, a journalist or some other active saboteur of their regime.
During my detention I met a cross section of the hundreds of men being held in the same prison. Many told me they had been held for months or years without charge or humane treatment. They ranged from boys as young as about 14 to men as old as 70. They were mostly Syrians but included Iraqis, Lebanese and Jordanians. Most were uneducated; one was a mentally handicapped soldier who appeared to be detained solely because no one knew what to do with him.
My first cellmate told me that he was photographed by secret police at a small gathering near Damascus on a Friday afternoon, tracked down overnight and dragged out of his bed Saturday morning. He was not given enough time to put on his shoes.