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One refugee's journey from a Syrian prison to London Open in fullscreen

Katia Youssef

One refugee's journey from a Syrian prison to London

Tens of thousands of Syrians have risked the dangerous journey to Europe [Getty]

Date of publication: 24 July, 2015

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Blog: Revolution, prison and torture on the road from Damascus.

Ziyad is a young Syrian. Not a revolutionary leader or a dissident politician, but simply a normal person caught up in war and forced to flee his homeland. He was imprisoned, insulted, beaten and faced death before he fled.

However, his will to survive and live in dignity was stronger than everything he suffered. He refused to stay in a land where people had forgotten their humanity. Upon leaving prison, he decided to move to where he could feel human, where the word "freedom" would not land him in dark cells ever again.

When Ziyad (not his real name) told al-Araby al-Jadeed his story, he made sure to mention specific details to describe the various stages he and his friends went through, and to justify his position toward the Syrian regime and his participation in the revolution.

Ziyad said the Syrian revolution did not start in Daraa in southern Syria, but in the Damascus neighbourhood of al-Hariqa, where an altercation between a man and a traffic police officer led to a rare and unexpected popular protest.

A short while later, children wrote anti-regime slogans like "the people want the fall of the regime" and "freedom" on a wall in Daraa. Ziyad said it was the word "freedom" that brought him to London.

The killing of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb in Daraa while being tortured was a shock to Ziyad and marked a turning point for him.

The killing of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb while being tortured at the orders of Daraa's chief of political security, Atef Najib, was a shock to Ziyad and marked a turning point for him.

He started taking part in anti-regime protests organised through Facebook.

"Organising protests through the internet was our weapon at the time in the face of the tanks that had surrounded Daraa and Homs," said Ziyad.

They had called for a lifting of the siege imposed on the two cities through peaceful protests for six months, until security forces started shooting at protesters, saying that protesters had shot first.

The protesting youths decided to respond in kind, according to Ziyad, and began arming themselves with pistols, rifles and automatic weapons procured from Arsal in Lebanon.

They began responding to regime fire on protests. However, it was notable that the army did not pursue them for about a month, only later launching a surprise attack against their neighbourhoods and homes.

However, the protesters overran army checkpoints in the Damascus countryside and seized their weapons. They started planning an operation to storm Damascus.

The plan did not materialise, as the regime employed a scorched earth policy in dealing with protesters. According to Ziyad, the regime would surround an area with tanks and then launch airstrikes against it. Hundreds of civilians died in this way, he said.

Ziyad's arrest

With a smile on his face, Ziyad said that, one night, as his family was asleep, the army raided their house and arrested him and his brother. Startled, his father woke up and tried to talk the soldiers out of arresting his sons, asking: "What have my sons done? We mind our own business."

The father was told to remain silent or he would also be arrested. An unfortunate neighbour who was passing by their house was also arrested, as well as a teenager who asked what was going on.

"They put us in a military jeep and sat on top on us," said Ziyad. "We were driven to an army checkpoint where we got out and were made to kneel with our hands behind our heads. We remained like that until the next morning.

"In the morning an Opel Omega station wagon arrived, a vehicle used by security services in Syria, and four officers jumped out. They covered our heads with our shirts so we couldn't see anything and crammed us in the back of their car.

"They started threatening us, saying: 'Get ready to die, you traitors of the country.' We were then taken to the main security branch in Damascus and placed in a prison called 17 Stars - the best prison in Syria because prisoners there weren't tortured much."

Ziyad had forgotten to delete a video of one of the protests from his mobile phone, which was a mistake.

His brother Tareq later paid for that mistake when, in an interrogation, he denied the person in the clip was his brother. Tareq was beaten and his jaw was broken.

The interrogators stopped questioning Tareq when he passed out, and moved on to Ziyad. One interrogator told another that Ziyad "looks like he's sick".

"We should take his temperature before the operation," one agreed with the other, Ziyad said.

They told Ziyad to open his mouth and placed electric wires inside.

Ziyad has suffered from an easily dislocated shoulder since his childhood, and when one of his torturers was dragging him, his shoulder became dislocated again. This discovery amused the soldiers in the room, and they pulled the shoulder out of its socket and replaced it several times just for fun.

Ziyad and his brother remained in prison for about three months, while their parents did everything they could, contacting influential people and giving around two million Syrian lira (almost $40,000 at the time) in bribes to secure their release.

They covered our heads with our shirts so we couldn't see anything and crammed us in the back of their car
- Ziyad

The prison cell in which the brothers were held was only a few metres square, but held approximately 60 prisoners - unable sleep due to the cramped conditions.

The eventual release of the two brothers was like a rebirth, Ziyad said.

Leaving Syria

Ziyad and his brother left for Egypt, and from there boarded a boat to Europe. They spent a week at sea, going from one boat to another, while being insulted and threatened by the smugglers.

Eventually, they were transferred to an Italian ferry with 300 other Syrians and 200 African migrants.

Once in Italy, they were placed in a holding camp where they were told by other immigrants to escape before the authorities took their fingerprints. Ziyad wanted to reach the UK, because he had friends there - and learning English would be easier for him than other European languages. The UK also has better work opportunities, he was told.

The next morning, Ziyad saw many in the migrant camp escaping, and, as the police appeared to be ignoring them, he and his brother followed.

On the way, they met a Syrian man who paid for a taxi to transport them to Italian city of Catania.

There, Ziyad said, they met a Syrian woman named Nawal who was helping Syrian refugees. She arranged for them to spend the night in a local mosque and returned the next morning with 150 euros to pay for their train tickets to Milan.

In Milan, a church hosted the brothers and put them up for 17 days.

"They even provided us with Halal food, despite the fact that they were Christians," Ziyad said, surprised at the treatment they received.

From Milan, they travelled to Nice, then Marseille, Paris and finally to Calais. They stayed in camps in Calais for two and a half months while they tried to arrange to be smuggled into the UK.

Smugglers charged Syrians a higher price because they were guaranteed asylum when they reached the UK. 

When they were finally able to secure the £1,200 ($1,800), paid by their friends to the smuggler's relative in London, the smuggler tried to get them across the English Channel.

After 13 failed attempts, the brothers boarded a refrigerated truck with a number of other immigrants, where they remained for six hours. As the hours passed, the temperature in the truck plummeted and the immigrants were close to freezing to death. One person started showing signs of hypothermia.

Scared for their lives, the immigrants started breaking glass bottles and yelling at the truck driver, who was oblivious. He stopped and called the police. The British police opened the truck door and told everyone to calm down.

"We finally reached Britain," said Ziyad, "and within six months we received permits to stay."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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