torture in Al-Mezzeh Prison - Salem's Story
istanbul, turkey | 24.02.2018
BY martin thaulow & IDA BRINK | PHOTOS BY MARTIN THAULOW & Salem Mdlala
In April 2018 the ‘Green Busses’ left Eastern-Ghouta in long lines transporting allegedly 30.000 people to Idlib in Northern Syria after an international agreement secured a safe corridor. Salem Mdlala was one of many leaving his hometown after 7 years of war.
The Canon camera he carried with him, had been his weapon since his release from prison 6 years earlier. Hope was just as scattered and torn as the buildings passing by the windows of the bus, when driving through the rubble. 18 hours later, tired and exhausted, Salem was looking for a place to sleep in a makeshift camp inside Idlib. Alone, without his wife and 2 children he fell asleep that night.
To this day, Salem still hasn't seen his family since they parted in Ghouta on February 25, 2016. Their family life is now lived through the phone and on the screen he watches his sons as they grow, lose their first tooth or hit a knee. Salem still hopes for a reunion but for each day life slowly passes.
Salem, Afraa and their two sons Muhammad and Marwan. Salem took this photo with the self-timer the day Afraa fled with their children. This is their last photo together. Today they havn't seen each other for 3 years.
the imprisonment of Salem
Salem was born and raised in an area called Haran Alawameed in Eastern-Ghouta. When the revolution started he was studying to become an electrical engineer, but he also began broadcasting live videos from the demonstrations in Ghouta to the news channel Aljazeera. Something that got him arrested an early morning on March 14, 2012.
Friends warned him as soldiers entered the area in the pursue to catch him. He tried to get to the university to seek hiding, but a government informant gave him up and he was caught in a taxi by a group of soldiers. The beatings started right away and he was taken directly to the Al-Mezzeh Prison.
Each person had their own way of torturing
The torture chambers
Al-Mezzeh Prison was hell. Salem was placed in a cell measuring 1,5 x 1,5 m2 with 14 other prisoners. Twice during the first 3 months, he was shortly moved to other facilities in relation to violent interrogations. During those stays he would be cramped together with 85 other prisoners in a cell of 4 x 4 m2.
What Salem didn’t know was that he would spend the next 8 months in a living nightmare in an underground cell. Only dressed in underpants with lights switched on 24 hours a day.
Food was served two times a day; either a potato, an egg or halawa with a piece of bread in the morning. In the evening they would get a handful of rice with a piece of bread. Water was assessed during their 3 daily toilet visits or sometimes a small bottle was passed around for everyone to share. Some days food would be denied as a an extra punishment.
Violence was everyday life in the facility. The first 3 months Salem was tortured when interrogated, but after that it was days on end for 5 months. Salem and his inmates were tortured with sticks, beaten with electrical cables, water tubes and got electric shock through their bodies. Salem was tortured the most with electrical shock. He would be placed on the floor face down with his hands and feet tied together on his back with a rubber band. Poured with cold water his body would contract uncontrollable when the cables reached his body.
Salem recalls the constant sound of voices screaming. How one of his fellow prisoners got severely beaten with the green sewer tube for an entire week. His body swell to double its size, leaving him flat on the floor in the dirty, stinking and overcrowded cell. He ended up dying between their legs and feet in front of everyone’s eyes as his body couldn’t take it anymore. His name was Deaa. He was 28 years old and came from the area Almuhajreen in Damascus. When he died they all lost hope.
The limited square meters of the cell only allowed Salem and the other prisoners to sit in rows between each others legs. Sometimes they would all stand up in order to stretch their legs and sleeping was done when sitting in line in shifts. On the other side of the cell they could hear women crying out begging for food for the children kept in captivity, and how they got violated by the prison guards.
Video of Salem in Istanbul. He has been separated from his wife and children. Now he sees the children growing on the blue screen og his smartphone. Closed borders and strict policies in Turkey and Lebanon keeps the family separated. Video by Martin Thaulow.
How can I get out? Will I ever see my family again?
Salem’s luck was Yasser Kashlak. He is a controversial and well-known Palestinian politician from Yarmouk. He has strong ties to Bashar Al-Assad and at that time it is said he wanted to gain acknowledgement from the Syrian people, as they are known for supporting the Palestinians. Allegedly he was working on an initiative to rebuild Syria with people that hadn’t been using arms, and were well on their way to be educated.
Salem was one of these candidates, and therefore he met Yasser Kashlak at two preliminary interviews in prison to make sure he wouldn’t fight against the regime if released. One day, in November 2012, Salem and 49 other prisoners were taken to the warden’s office. Yasser Kashlak had selected 50 university students to be part of the program. What other agreements had been made between Yasser Kashlak and the regime is unknown, but Salem was set free.
He got dressed and received 2.000 Syrian Lira from the prison. Pale from the lack of sun and crippled from being kept in the overcrowded cell for 8 months, the prison doors closed behind him. He walked to the nearest bus station and went directly to his parents’ home in Eastern-Ghouta.
The time in besieged Ghouta
Before the revolution Salem met Afraa in the neighbourhood. They fell in love and were planning their wedding, when Salem was taken to Al-Mezzeh Prison. 3 months after Salem’s release they were finally able to get married. One year later their first son was born in an underground hospital.
He was named after Salem’s deceased brother Muhammad. Salem had 3 brothers, who were all killed by the regime. Muhammad, Diya’a and Marwan. Two of them were shot dead by Assad's soldiers when they tried to help the dying and wounded after heavy bombardments. The third brother was killed by a barrel bomb. Salem’s and Afraa’s second son was named after him - Marwan.
On February 25, 2016 Salem and Afraa finally decided that it was time for her and the boys to leave. Ghouta was besieged by Assad and his allies and the situation was getting more and more dangerous. Starvation and bombardments killing people in the streets and in their homes happened all the time. The bombardments had caused the young family to move 3 times, and Salem was injured twice by shrapnel when bombs fell too close to their shifting homes.
That afternoon when the decision was final, Salem took their last family photo together. The self-timer was set as they all posed in front of the camera. Muhammad on Salem’s arm. Marwan on Afraa’s. A young and beautiful couple leaning towards each other. Only hours later Afraa managed to flee with Muhammad and Marwan in her arms. Their way out was through the underground tunnels that the rebels had excavated at that time. Salem had decided to stay and fight with his camera.
Salem and Afraa together in Eastern-Ghouta before they were separated. Photo by Salem Mdlala.
For 2 months Afraa and the children hid at relatives in Damascus and then continued to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Today they still live in Lebanon in a small house with Afraa’s mother, father and brother. The brother of Afraa works 9 hours a day in a restaurant, for which he is payed a monthly salary of 275 dollars. He is the sole provider of the family and the monthly rent for their accommodation is $400. This leaves the family struggling and suffering from poverty in the same way as the large number of other Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
An emerging hope is that Afraa managed to get a grant to get into the University of Lebanon, where she now studies Computer Science at her second year.
My heart is hurting every day. We are losing the most important time of our lives. We were supposed to be together.
After the green busses transported Salem to Idlib from Eastern-Goutha, he managed to get to Istanbul a few months later, and this is where he lives now. He lives in an apartment with 4 other friends from Ghouta. All of them representing the displaced youth and what used to be the future of Syria.
Finding a job is difficult. The economy is bad and Syrians are exploited, and struggle to survive. The same goes for Salem and he only manages by the help he receives from his family living in Germany.
Every 5 minute he and Afraa share their life through the phones, and Salem witnesses how his sons are growing on the blue screen of his Samsung.
When Afraa, Muhammad and Marwan left, he decided to stay back in Syria to make a difference. He had seen the brutality of the regime from inside. He survived torture and humiliation. He wanted to show the world what was going on through the lens of his camera. All the killings and the misery in this warzone, the brutality of the regime and its allies. He wanted to give the people of his hometown a voice.
Staying in the besieged Ghouta he ended witnessing children dying in his arms as well as the loss of friends and family. He saw people dying from the use of the chemical agents, people starving to death and how everything turned into rubble, ashes and dust colored red by the blood of his fellow citizens.
WARNING - This video Contains graphic content. It is a video by Salem. It was filmed in Eastern-Ghouta, when he tried to save the life of the 2 months old boy A'alaa Rasoul after an airstrike by a Russian jet-fighter. An attack where a house with 5 families were hit. 10 people died together with A'alaa Rasoul. One of the victims a pregnant woman.
- People in the rubble inside besieged Ghouta.
- A young man walking with crutches next to a destroyed building in Ghouta.
- Two boys in the ruins of Ghouta.
- Salem and fellow photographers in Ghouta.
- A young boy being treated after an attack in Ghouta.
- Children in a basement in Ghouta.
- Two girls in a basement in Ghouta.
- A group of girls hiding in Ghouta.
- Self portrait by Salem.
Photos by Salem Mdlala taken in the war torn Eastern-Ghouta.
I ask Salem how he feels today when the 3 years anniversary of being separated from his family approaches. Silence... Then a long and sad gaze towards the rooftops outside the window. The sound of a text message breaks the silence. It is Afraa asking what he is doing now. The birds in the cages of the apartment makes a subtle calling as Salem answers Afraa. He looks up: If I could reverse time I would have left together with them. I feel I have let them down. I have brought misery on them.
I wish they were here with me so I could just throw away my phone.
Note: We have spoken to one of Salem's fellow prisoners in Al-Mezzeh Prison, who was in the same cell as Salem to confirm the story, the death of Deaa and the torture described. We have tried to contact Yasser Kashlak to get further information in relation to his involvement in the release of the 50 people from the prison. He has not replied. Martin Thaulow has met and interviewed Salem Mdlala in Istanbul several times in relation to this article.
About Victims of Torture / War Crimes
At Refugee.Today we want to address the ongoing and growing problem of torture and war crimes committed in the global society of today. As you read this text people are being tortured, violated, oppressed, sexual assaulted and killed in prisons and torture chambers.
We aim to bring attention to these dark matters by telling the stories of those who experienced it and survived. We believe their voices are important to address these unacceptable acts and war crimes. Thanks for reading along, for sharing and for your support. We are All connected let’s Unite!
A special and deep-felt THANKS to all who have chosen to share their stories and by that addressing this important matter!