Just Five Minutes: Nine Years In The Prisons Of Syria


Heba Dabbagh
Language: English | Format: PDF | Pages: 260 | Size: 2 MB

Like the color wheel, the days of our lives feature different colors. Some days bring splashes of glorious white. Other days are stained with the darkest of hues.

My life began as bright and lively as a budding flower and the days of my childhood were filled with love from my beloved parents and feelings of belonging and warmth from my family. I flourished lifted by this love and goodness and grew to become my father’s favorite, my mother’s confidant and a princess among my seven brothers and four sisters, the one they went to for help. Most nights I went to bed thinking about my dreams, fell asleep trusting that my dreams would come true and awoke feeling safe and serene.

I took no part in any political activities. Although I loved my faith and spent much of my time studying it, that did not make me a political activist. My lack of affiliation with political organizations did not mean that I was blind to the injustice and cruelty of the government and its oppression of all factions of the Syrian population. When I became a hostage in the hands of the government, I saw first hand the evil that ruled my country. I shared cells and stories with people like me and others who came from a variety of different backgrounds and faiths, some from the sect of the ruling party itself.

I lived a happy, carefree life until I went to university and faced the difficulty of parting with my family. It pained us to part, but it was a parting of our choosing, a decision we arrived at together, unlike the forced parting that came later. That parting separated me from my family and landed me in the prisons of oppressors and in the depth of darkness. Then came a final parting, a permanent one. The oppressors killed my parents and eight of my brothers and sisters and forced my remaining three brothers to flee the country and live far away from home.

The picture I had created of my life blurred and darkened. The buds of all my hopes and dreams never bloomed. I sat in the depth of prisons, a hostage for my “politically active” brother, the years of my life slipping away, my heart breaking and my soul withering.

Everything that happened to me was based on informant lies. The government knew well that the allegations against me were baseless. They chose to ignore the truth. They did not want to waste the efforts of their paid informants and their mob of agents who screeched onto my street, ripping through the silence of the night to capture me. They did capture me and they dragged me from one prison to another for nine fruitless years, slamming every door of mercy and humanity shut in my face.

Nine years were long enough to kill every last one of my dreams and any hope I had in any human being. During those nine years, I had but one ray of light in my heart, my hope in God. No matter how much that hope dimmed, it never died. My hope in God knew no limits, although pains did obscure it for short periods of time. My pleas to God were my only comfort. They saved me.

When people slept and the whips retired, I prayed to God. Oh God, the only one who can, when nightly despair overcomes us, shine upon us from His light and ease our sorrows; God, who when tragedy befalls us, can bring relief; God, who when all roads for help are blocked, can send ships of rescue through means unbeknown to the oppressors; God, who in Him is safety and comfort and stability and under his protection we find peace. I prayed to God to grant me the patience to bear any test that he gives me. I prayed to Him, to conform my will to His and to fill my heart with acceptance for the path He chooses for me. I prayed to God to assist me in His praise during times of ease and strain. Oh God, in patience we grow and in your praise and acknowledgement of your blessings we rid ourselves of selfishness and pride. In hardship we find virtue. Grant us good character and peaceful hearts. Your power encompasses everything.

The Kind and the Almighty bestowed upon me invaluable blessings. He grounded me, protected me and sent to me from amidst the blur of sticks and whips that which eased my pains and sorrows. He gifted me with my cellmate and soul mate, Majida. Majida always found more patience and peace than I could muster and was always more ready to give and sacrifice.

God showered his mercy upon us both in the form of our other cellmates, a group of women with many virtues. We will never forget their goodness, their love and their open arms. We were partners in our imprisonment, our worries and our suffering. I would like to thank them here and ask God to grant all of us his forgiveness and his blessings. I would also like to ask for their forgiveness and pardon if I mentioned anything in this book that may hurt them in any way. But the duty I feel to speak out against the oppression of the Syrian regime overpowers my worries of the consequences of doing so. I feel entrusted with the task of documenting these events. As painful as it is to bring the past to light, it seems easy in comparison to keeping the secrets of the oppressors and allowing all of our suffering to be in vain.

I lived in the hell of Syrian prisons for nine years, a hostage. The pen would tire before I could describe every detail of what took place and every pain I felt while I was imprisoned by this evil regime. But I lived through it all and in the end I can say that the days of our lives come in black and white and every shade in between. Some days are easy; others are hard. Some days pass with ease; others with friction. But all of our days are products of a predetermined destiny.

While the ruling dictators thought that they held the reins over the land and people, it was, and still is, God’s will that holds ultimate power and final say. Today the rulers of our lands use their power to oppress. Tomorrow they will stand with the rest of us in the hands of the Ultimate and Just Ruler.

Although my unjust imprisonment and the loss of nine years of my life pain me, today I live in the midst of God’s bounties. God’s kindness has healed my wounds and replaced anxiety with peace and deprivation with blessings. I feel these blessings in my beloved husband who planted hope in the hearts of the deprived and kept his promises. My husband is a light and hope that shines in my soul and makes up for all I lost. I also feel these blessings in our lovely daughter Wafa, who introduced new happiness to our lives, and in our other two children Jabir and Sarah. Jabir and Sarah’s mother, Hanan, left her children in our care for she had taken under her care the fight for justice and honor. Although she is gone, her life remains a shining example for the rest of us.

I feel now, as I felt before, that thffe end of my story has not come. The chapter of accountability is yet to come. The oppressors who rule the land today will stand in the hands of God in this final chapter. I put my trust in God and there I find comfort.

Heba Dabbagh

A Historical Introduction

Syria, an ancient nation rich in culture and history, has been home to many civilizations. Until today, Syria remains the homeland of people from many different backgrounds, religions and sects including: Sunnis, Shias, Druze, Alawis, Ismailis, Christians and Jews. In the beginning of the last century, Syria’s division left it vulnerable to French occupation. Syria struggled to regain its independence from France and did so in 1945 with an army that reflected Syria’s diversity.

In 1963, the Baath party took power in Syria. They ignited trouble by slowly weeding out non-Baath factions of the army, including Sunnis, who made up the majority of the Syrian population. Hafiz Al-Assad of the Baath party gained the presidency in 1970. President Al-Assad further alienated the multitude of sects by putting together a government of Alawis, the religious sect he belonged to, and personal friends. This pushing aside of the Sunni majority and other factions who desired to have a voice in the governing of their country aroused feelings of anger and resentment that soon led to the desire to overthrow the government.

Certain groups from within the myriad of oppositionists considered revolution and armed resistance as the best means to end Hafiz Al- Assad’s dictatorship and exclusive government. As those opposition groups watched their government destroy the democratic process, forbid the forming of political parties and terrorize its own people through martial law, military court and cold blooded murder, they grew certain that an armed resistance was the only way to make their voices heard; so they began to take action.

The government reacted to the threat of opposition by instituting the complete eradication of the armed faction of the resistance movement. This cleansing began with the persecution and execution of the armed resistance, but quickly expanded to include non-militant factions, until identities blurred and no family felt safe from government persecution, imprisonment and murder. The government’s wrath, executed largely by the Mukhabarat, the notorious secret service agents, spread terror throughout the country. Often, a friendly conversation or a mere cup of tea with an oppositionist landed people in jail. In addition, the Mukhabarat commonly took hostages in place of “wanted criminals”. Soon, the prisons of Syria filled with members of the resistance movement, as well as innocent men, women and children whose only crime was being related to or casually associating with someone from the resistance movement.

The Syrian government acted under a veil of darkness, with the international community turning a blind eye to the atrocities and human rights violations. Fueled by a systematically ingrained fear, the Syrian people learned to never speak of their government’s crimes. As a result, the shocking stories of mass imprisonments and slaughter, including the 1980 Hama massacre, which according to some reports took the lives of 25,000 people, remained a muffled cry. Human rights organizations estimated that during this period of turmoil, the Syrian government killed tens of thousands of men and women and imprisoned tens of thousands more.

Although many political prisoners have been released over the years, Mukhabarat agents continue to show up at people’s door steps and take them away, with no regard for due process or basic human rights. Until today, few Syrians dare to speak out against the crimes of their government, for they have learned well the consequences of such boldness.

Bayan Khatib

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