Aidah Tayem, a Palestinian woman from Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus now living in the occupied West Bank village of Beitin near Ramallah, has gone through a lifetime of trials.
She was hardly seventeen when her father was imprisoned by Syrian security forces in Damascus during the 1980s for his affiliation with the Fatah party which had split with the government. She quickly became the head of the family, running her father’s business and supporting her younger siblings.
Among only a handful of Palestinian refugees in Syria who received permits from the Palestinian Authority to enter the West Bank, her parents were among the Palestinians who came there after the signing of the Oslo accords in the 1990s.
She appears incredibly tough but behind her stoic demeanor is a woman clutching at the straws of hope — the hope of kissing her eldest son, Oday.
Oday Tayem, a 21-year-old Palestinian refugee born and raised in Yarmouk, was detained by Syrian security forces in August 2013 during an evening raid on his home in Jaramana, southeast of Damascus. Oday was an activist — “peaceful” is the description emphasized to this writer by his friends — and contributed to relief work both in Yarmouk refugee camp and in other besieged areas. This is believed to be the reason for his arrest.
Since he was taken into custody, his family has yet to receive any confirmed news regarding his whereabouts. Aidah knows too well what it’s like to have a loved one languishing in political detention; after all, her father was imprisoned for ten years, most of them spent in the notorious Tadmor desert prison.
But it’s the scarcity of information that makes Oday’s absence even more excruciating. When Oday’s favorite song pops up on her phone, Aidah hangs on to his picture as tears well up in her eyes.
Aidah is among many women who, as Syrian journalist Jihad Asa’ad Muhammad writes, “do not seek consideration or sympathy from anyone. They ask for only one thing: to know the whereabouts of their forcibly disappeared loved ones.”
It is impossible to estimate the number of Palestinians detained in Syria. The Syrian government doesn’t provide any data regarding political prisoners. Neutral local or international monitoring and human rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, are not granted access to the numerous prisons and detention facilities across the country.
And many families keep quiet about the detention of their loved ones. They stay anonymous, fearing the repercussions and backlash of publicity both on them and on the prisoners.
The Action Group for Palestinians in Syria, a London-based monitoring organization founded in 2012, has documented the names of 756 Palestinians currently being detained and nearly 300 more missing.
Death under torture
The vast majority of prisoners documented are held in the various detention facilities run by the Syrian government, but some are detained by jihadist or armed opposition groups. One of those is Bahaa Hussein from Yarmouk, detained by Jabhat al-Nusra in late January for blasphemy.
The same group has recorded the death under torture of 291 Palestinians in Syrian government detention since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. Each of them has a face and a story, but very few of them have made the news.
Among them is Khaled Bakrawi, a prominent activist and cofounder of the Jafra Association for Aid and Development, which works to improve conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria.
A refugee from Lubya, Bakrawi was active around Palestinian refugee rights well before the uprising began and was shot by Israeli occupation forces in June 2011 during theNaksa Day march to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. But after masses of displaced Syrians sought refuge in Yarmouk, he directed his efforts towards organizing humanitarian aid to them.
Bakrawi’s friends told me that he was arrested by Syrian security forces in January 2013 and his family learned of his death in September of that year. One of the most tragic aspects of death in Syrian prisons is that families are not even allowed to pay a final farewell glance to their dead and their bodies are not delivered back to them. Instead they are called up by security services only to claim the ID cards and the personal possessions of slain prisoners. Not only is it believed that Bakrawi was tortured to death, but his family and friends couldn’t even bury him or give him a proper funeral.
Unlike Bakrawi, Samira Sahli was not a known activist, but some details of her life are known from a profile published by the independent news site Siraj Press. A mother of four, Sahli regularly cooked for displaced Syrians filling Yarmouk’s schools back when the camp was still a refuge for people fleeing violence in neighboring areas. As siege intensified, she and her kids, like the 20,000 residents trapped inside the camp, relied on the sparse food aid sporadically allowed in.
According to Siraj Press, the 53-year-old was arrested at a government checkpoint while going to receive her food basket. Five months later, her family was informed of her death, making her the first Palestinian woman known to be killed in regime prisons since 2011.
“Tortured in the name of Palestine”
In an interview with The Electronic Intifada conducted via Skype, Abu Julia, a Palestinian activist who sought asylum in Germany at the end of 2013, where he remains, gave a glimpse into the horrors faced in Syrian regime jails.
The 29-year-old asked to be identified as Abu Julia in reference to the name of his first-born. When he was arrested by Syrian security forces, his daughter Julia was only five months old. He was arrested in October 2012 and released a year later, but there were moments when he thought he’d never live to see her again.
Abu Julia told the Electronic Intifada that he faced eighteen charges, the most serious of which was inciting against the state, as well as charges related to working in makeshift hospitals; sowing division and fueling chaos in Yarmouk camp; working with local coordination committees; making contacts with foreign agents and aiding the wounded.
“I was held in a detention center called ‘Palestine,’ which is a security branch established by Hafez al-Assad specifically for Palestinian factions in Syria,” he said, referring to the father of the current head of state. “That’s the most painful thing: being tortured in the name of Palestine.”
Abu Julia recalls being “welcomed” with a beating as soon as he entered the branch. He was placed in Cell One, which held 48 prisoners upon his entry. Detainees crammed in the 36-square meter cell reached as many as 120 in the hours before Abu Julia’s release.
“Following the first interrogation, which included beating with electric wires, I was told to forget my name. They handed me the number 16/1,” he recalled. “When you get in you lose everything: you lose your name, your confidence in people, in your family and in yourself. You lose your hope and love for life even though you hang on by the hope of returning to life.
“You are stripped of your feelings and turned into an animal who is only allowed to eat and drink, and even sleep is only permitted by a military order. Perhaps the only thing you don’t lose is your ability to dream while asleep.”
The decisive day of Abu Julia’s life came two days after his arrest. Following the interrogation in which he refused to make a confession, the interrogator ordered his torture for a week in the narrow corridors near the cells, he recalled.
“I was hung in the air several hours each day and I was subjected to whips and burns,” he explained in graphic detail. The physical torture was accompanied with cursing, such as being called “Palestinian dog,” and being told “we hosted you in our country and now you betray us, traitor.”
The week of torture in the corridors, in which Abu Julia remembers that at least six inmates were killed, was followed by another, longer round of torture after he refused to confess to any of the charges again.
As Abu Julia meticulously detailed what he went through, it was hard not to wonder how he actually coped with all of this.
“You know what really made me survive? My Palestinianness. This feeling of being Palestinian is what helped me persevere throughout all of this. Somehow, Palestinians would be on the verge of death and remain defiant,” he said.
For Abu Julia, this feeling, this added “Palestinianness” he found after his detention was not a cliché but an actual harbor. “It was a kind of response we developed during times of need. We drew strength and solace out of being Palestinian. When we were tortured or faced the interrogator, we just reminded ourselves that we are Palestinian,” he added.
After ten months in the Palestine branch, Abu Julia was transferred to Adra, the central prison in Damascus, and when he was moved from the car that transported him to a military court that he saw sunshine for the first time in ten months.
“I spent nearly a month and a half in Adra before being released … and then I hugged Julia; she was able to walk and say baba and mama,” he recalled.
Even while telling his harrowing story, Abu Julia still cracked jokes. “I weighed 129 kg when I was arrested and was only 65 kg when I was released. This free diet is the only good thing that happened to me there,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ammar, Aidah Tayem’s son and Oday’s seventeen-year-old brother, is still hoping for his brother and best friend to get out.
“I’m waiting. Actually waiting for him is the only thing I’m doing.”
Waiting is the punishing ordeal to which thousands of Palestinians and Syrians are sentenced.