Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons: How Bashar al-Assad Crushed Dissent
By Anne Barnard
New York Times
May 11, 2019
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Syrian security officers hung
Muhannad Ghabbash from his wrists for hours, beat him bloody, shocked him with
electricity and stuck a gun in his mouth.
Mr. Ghabbash, a law student from Aleppo, repeatedly
confessed his actual offense: organizing peaceful antigovernment protests. But
the torture continued for 12 days, until he wrote a fictional confession to
planning a bombing.
That, he said, was just the beginning.
He was flown to a crammed prison at Mezze air base in
Damascus, the Syrian capital, where he said guards hung him and other detainees
from a fence naked, spraying them with water on cold nights. To entertain
colleagues over dinner, he and other survivors said, an officer calling himself
Hitler forced prisoners to act the roles of dogs, donkeys and cats, beating
those who failed to bark or bray correctly.
In a military hospital, he said, he watched a nurse bash
the face of an amputee who begged for painkillers. In yet another prison, he
counted 19 cellmates who died from disease, torture and neglect in a single
“I was among the lucky,” said Mr. Ghabbash, 31, who
survived 19 months in detention until a judge was bribed to free him.
As Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, closes in on
victory over an eight-year revolt, a secret, industrial-scale system of
arbitrary arrests and torture prisons has been pivotal to his success. While the
Syrian military, backed by Russia and Iran, fought armed rebels for territory,
the government waged a ruthless war on civilians, throwing hundreds of thousands
into filthy dungeons where thousands were tortured and killed.
Nearly 128,000 have never emerged, and are presumed to be
either dead or still in custody, according to the Syrian Network for Human
Rights, an independent monitoring group that keeps the most rigorous tally.
were “killed under torture.” Many prisoners die from conditions so dire
that a United Nations investigation labeled the process “extermination.”
Now, even as the war winds down, the world’s attention
fades and countries start to normalize relations with Syria, the pace of new
arrests, torture and execution is increasing. The numbers peaked in the
conflict’s bloodiest early years, but last year the Syrian Network recorded 5,607
new arrests that it classifies as arbitrary — more than 100 per week
and nearly 25 percent more than the year before.
Detainees have recently smuggled out warnings that hundreds
are being sent to an execution site, Saydnaya Prison, and newly released
prisoners report that killings there are accelerating.
Kidnappings and killings by the Islamic State captured more
attention in the West, but the Syrian prison system has vacuumed up many more
times the number of people detained by ISIS in Syria. Government detention
accounts for around 90 percent of the disappearances tallied by the Syrian
The Syrian government has denied the existence of
However, newly discovered government memos show that Syrian
officials who report directly to Mr. al-Assad ordered mass detentions and knew
War crimes investigators with the nonprofit Commission
for International Justice and Accountability have found government
memos ordering crackdowns and discussing deaths in detention. The memos were
signed by top security officials, including members of the Central Crisis
Management Committee, which reports directly to Mr. al-Assad.
A military intelligence memo acknowledges deaths from
torture and filthy conditions. Other memos report deaths of detainees, some
later identified among photos of thousands
of prisoner corpses smuggled out by a
military police defector. Two memos authorize “harsh” treatment of
A memo from the head of military intelligence, Rafiq
Shehadeh, suggests that officials feared future prosecution: It orders officers
to report all deaths to him and take steps to ensure “judicial immunity” for
In an interview in his office in an Ottoman palace in
Damascus in 2016, Mr. al-Assad cast doubt on the truthfulness of survivors and
the families of the missing. Asked about specific cases, he said, “Are you
talking allegations or concrete?” and suggested that relatives had lied when
they said they saw security officers haul away loved ones.
Any abuses, he said, were isolated mistakes unavoidable in
“It happened here, all over the world, anywhere,” he
has said. “But it’s not a policy.”
Over seven years, The New York Times has interviewed dozens
of survivors and relatives of dead and missing detainees, reviewed government
documents detailing prison deaths and crackdowns on dissent, and examined
hundreds of pages of witness testimony in human rights reports and court
The survivors’ accounts reported here align with accounts
from other prisoners held in the same jails, and are supported by the government
memos and by photos smuggled out of Syrian prisons.
The prison system was integral to Mr. al-Assad’s war
effort, crushing the civil protest movement and driving the opposition into an
armed conflict it could not win.
In recent months, Syria’s government has tacitly
acknowledged that hundreds of people have died in detention. Under pressure from
Moscow, Damascus has confirmed the deaths of at least several
hundred people in custody by issuing death certificates or listing them
as dead in family registration files. The Syrian Network’s founder, Fadel
Abdul Ghany, said the move sent citizens a clear message: “We won, we did
this, and no one will punish us.”
There is little hope for holding top officials accountable
anytime soon. But there is a growing movement to seek justice through European
courts. French and German prosecutors have arrested
three former security officials and issued international arrest
warrants for Syria’s national security chief, Ali Mamlouk; its Air Force
Intelligence director, Jamil Hassan; and others for torture and deaths in prison
of citizens or residents of those countries.
Yet Mr. al-Assad and his lieutenants remain in power, safe
from arrest, protected by Russia with its military might and its veto in the
United Nations Security Council. At the same time, Arab states are restoring
relations with Damascus and European countries are considering following suit.
President Trump’s planned pullout of most of the 2,000 American troops in
eastern Syria reduces already-minimal American leverage in the conflict, now in
its ninth year.
That impunity is not just a domestic Syrian problem.
Without security reforms, the five million Syrian refugees in the Middle East
and Europe are unlikely to return home to risk arbitrary arrest. And in an age
of emboldened authoritarianism from the European far right to Saudi Arabia, Mr.
al-Assad has demonstrated that maximum violence against civilian dissent can be
a winning strategy.
“This will not stay in Syria,” Mazen Darwish, a Syrian
human rights lawyer, said in Berlin, where he has assisted prosecutors.
“People forget what is dictatorship, because we have 70 years of peace after
World War II. But human rights is not in the DNA of states or politicians.”
“Justice is not a Syrian luxury,” he said. “It’s
the world’s problem.”
An expanding gulag
The Syrian detention system is a supersized version of the
one built by Mr. al-Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad. In 1982, he
crushed an armed Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, leveling much of the city
and arresting tens of thousands of people: Islamists, leftist dissidents and
Over two decades, around 17,000 detainees disappeared into
a system with a torture repertoire that borrowed from French colonialists,
regional dictators and even Nazis: Its security
advisers included Adolf Eichmann’s fugitive aide Alois
When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000, he kept
the detention system in place.
Each of Syria’s four intelligence agencies — military,
political, air force and state security — has local branches across Syria.
Most have their own jails. CIJA has documented hundreds of them.
It was the detention and torture of several teenagers in
March 2011, for scrawling
graffiti critical of Mr. al-Assad, that pushed Syrians to join the uprisings
then sweeping Arab countries. Demonstrations protesting their treatment spread
from their hometown, Dara’a, leading to more arrests, which galvanized more
A flood of detainees from all over Syria joined the
existing dissidents at Saydnaya Prison. The new detainees ranged “from the
garbageman to the peasant to the engineer to the doctor, all classes of
Syrians,” said Riyad Avlar, a Turkish citizen who was held for 20 years after
being arrested in 1996, as a 19-year-old student, for interviewing Syrians about
a prison massacre.
Torture increased, he said; the newcomers were sexually
assaulted, beaten on the genitals, and forced to beat or even kill one another.
No one knows exactly how many Syrians have passed through
the system since; rights groups estimate hundreds of thousands to a million.
Damascus does not release prison data.
By all accounts, the system overflowed. Some political
detainees landed in regular prisons. Security forces and pro-government militias
created uncounted makeshift dungeons at schools, stadiums, offices, military
bases and checkpoints.
The Syrian Network’s tally of 127,916 people currently
caught in the system is probably an undercount. The number, a count of arrests
reported by detainees’ families and other witnesses, does not include people
later released or confirmed dead.
Because of government secrecy, no one knows how many have
died in custody, but thousands of deaths were recorded in memos and photographs.
A former military police officer, known only as Caesar to
protect his safety, had the job of photographing corpses. He fled Syria with
pictures of at least 6,700 corpses, bone-thin and battered, which shocked the
world when they emerged in 2014.
But he also photographed memos on his boss’s desk
reporting deaths to superiors.
Like the death certificates issued recently, the memos list
the cause of death as “cardiac arrest.” One memo identifies a detainee who
also appears in one of Caesar’s photos; his eye is gouged out.
The prisons seem to have been hit with an uncanny epidemic
of heart disease, said Mr. Darwish, the human rights lawyer. “Of course, when
they die, their heart stops,” he said.
A tour of torture
Mr. Ghabbash, the protest organizer from Aleppo, survived
torture at at least 12 facilities, making him, he says, “a tour guide” to
the system. His odyssey began in 2011, when he was 22. The oldest son of a
government building contractor, he was inspired by peaceful protests in the
Damascus suburb of Darayya to organize demonstrations in Aleppo.
He was arrested in June 2011, and released after pledging
to stop protesting.
“I didn’t stop,” he recalled with a grin.
In August, he was arrested again — the same week that, a
memo from CIJA shows, Mr. al-Assad’s top officials ordered a tougher
crackdown, criticizing provincial authorities’ “laxness” and calling for
more arrests of “those who are inciting people to demonstrate.”
Mr. Ghabbash was hung up, beaten and whipped in a string of
military and general intelligence facilities, he said. His captors eventually
let him go with a stern recommendation given to many similar youths: Leave the
Even as they released Saydnaya Prison’s most radical
long-term prisoners, Islamists who would later lead rebel groups, they aimed to
get rid of civilian opposition. Both moves, critics say, appear to have been
part of a strategy to shift the uprising to the battlefield, where Mr. al-Assad
and his allies enjoyed a military advantage.
With like-minded civilians fleeing or jailed, and security
forces firing on protesters, Mr. Ghabbash struggled to dissuade allies from
taking up arms and playing into the government’s hands.
Soon he was arrested a third time, by Air Force
intelligence in Aleppo. What struck him most was interrogators’ surreal
insistence on some trappings of judicial procedure. They accused him of an
apparently fictional bombing on a date before any insurgent bombs hit Aleppo.
Despite having the power to charge him as they liked, they insisted that he
Sometimes he was stuffed into a tire for the beatings. He
would pass out, wake up naked in a freezing hallway, and then the beatings would
start again. One officer put a gun into his mouth; another insisted that a woman
screaming out of sight was his mother.
His account closely matches those of others held in the
facility, and some described worse. One survivor, who asked to be identified
only as Khalil K. to protect family still in Syria, watched a teenager take 21
days to die after interrogators doused him with fuel and set him alight.
and my conscience, I don’t want to confess something I haven’t done,” Mr.
Ghabbash recalled. “Five people asking questions at once. You’re cold,
you’re thirsty, lips full of blood, you can’t focus. Everybody is screaming,
He saved toenails they pulled out, and strips of skin that
peeled from his beaten soles. He put them in his pocket, dreaming of showing a
judge. But then one day they took his pants.
On the 12th day he wrote a confession.
“Make it convincing,” a Capt. Maher told him. “There
is someone who drove you. Imagine how he looks. Tall, short, fat?”
Mr. Ghabbash settled on a silver car and “a tall guy,
with glasses and light hair.”
“I started to feel my talent in writing,” he said.
In March 2012, Mr. Ghabbash was flown to Mezze military air
base, named for a well-off Damascus neighborhood nearby.
By then, he and numerous survivors said, there was an
industrial-scale transportation system among prisons. Detainees were tortured on
each leg of their journeys, in helicopters, buses, cargo planes. Some recalled
riding for hours in trucks normally used for animal carcasses, hanging by one
arm, chained to meat hooks. Mr. Ghabbash’s new cell was typical: 12 feet long,
9 feet wide, usually packed so tightly that prisoners had to sleep in shifts.
Outside the cell, a man was blindfolded and handcuffed in
the corridor. It was Mr. Darwish, the human rights lawyer. He had been singled
out for lecturing a judge on Syrian laws guaranteeing fair trials.
He later ticked off his punishment: “Naked, no water, no
sleep, forced to drink my pee.”
Prison torture grew more brutal and baroque as rebels
outside made advances and government warplanes bombed restive neighborhoods.
Survivors describe sadistic treatment, rape, summary executions or detainees
left to die of untreated wounds and illnesses.
Mr. Ghabbash soon got his own special punishment. He was
interrogated by a man calling himself Suhail Hassan — possibly Suhail Hassan
Zamam, who headed Air Force prisons, according to a
leaked government database — who asked how Mr. Ghabbash would solve
“Real elections,” he recalled replying. “The people
just wanted some reforms, but you used force. The problem is either we have to
be with you or you kill us.”
That won him a month of extra torture, the most bizarre in
A guard who called himself Hitler would organize sadistic
dinner entertainment for his colleagues. He brought arak and water pipes, Mr.
Ghabbash said, “to prepare the ambience.” He made some prisoners kneel,
becoming tables or chairs. Others played animals. “Hitler” reinforced stage
directions with beatings.
“The dog has to bark, the cat meow, the rooster crow,”
Mr. Ghabbash said. “Hitler tries to tame them. When he pets one dog, the other
dog should act jealous.”
The audience also included prisoners, in nearby cells or
hanging blindfolded on nearby chain-link fences, who confirmed the account. Some
guards made those hanging beg, “Master, I’m thirsty,” then sprayed them
with hoses, Mr. Ghabbash said.
After weeks or months, many prisoners got so-called trials
lasting minutes with no defense lawyers. Mr. Ghabbash’s was typical. At a
military “field court” in 2012, he heard a judge rattle off his conviction,
“terrorism that destroyed public property,” and his sentence: death.
“The whole trial was one and a half minutes,” he said.
He expected to go to Saydnaya Prison, which by then was a
mass execution center. Thousands have been hanged there after summary
trials, according to an
Amnesty International report.
“Good, it’s finished,” he recalled thinking. But it
was not. He would endure another year of daily beatings.
His last stint was in a makeshift prison deep underground
near Damascus, a military bunker of the elite Fourth Division, a fief of Mr.
al-Assad’s brother Maher. Survivors recall officers with the unit’s insignia
visiting and seeing the conditions. But Air Force intelligence ran operations
there after Mezze prison overflowed, according to survivors and CIJA’s files.
There were no more interrogations.
“Torture just for torture,” said Mr. Darwish, who was
also transferred there. “For revenge, for killing, for breaking the people.”
Survivors tell these stories with black humor, if only
because others suffered worse.
“O.K., I was beaten, I played a dog,” Mr. Ghabbash
said. “But some people were killed or raped.”
Rape and assault
Women and girls have been raped and sexually assaulted in
at least 20 intelligence branches, and men and boys in 15 of those, a
United Nations human rights commission reported last year.
Sexual assault is a double-barreled weapon in traditional
Muslim communities, where survivors are often stigmatized. Relatives have killed
female ex-detainees in so-called honor killings, sometimes merely on the
assumption they have been raped, rights reports and survivors
Mariam Khleif, a 32-year-old mother of five from Hama, was
repeatedly raped during her detention. Ms. Khleif said she had aided injured
protesters and delivered medical supplies to rebels, acts that the government
In September 2012, she said, security officers dragged her
from her house. At state security’s Branch 320 in Hama, she said, the
investigation chief introduced himself as Colonel Suleiman. CIJA’s archives
show that Ms. Khleif was detained and that a Col. Suleiman Juma headed the Hama
“He was eating pistachios,” she recalled later in her
sparse apartment in Reyhanli, Turkey. “He spat the shells at us. He left no
dirty word unused.”
A three-foot-square basement cell held her and six other
women. Guards hung her from walls and beat her, knocking out teeth. She saw them
drag a prisoner complaining of hunger to a toilet and stuff his mouth with
excrement, a method recalled by other survivors.
“At midnight,” she said, “they would take the
beautiful girls to Colonel Suleiman to rape. I remember Colonel Suleiman and his
Ms. Khleif identified the colonel in photographs
of a security officer’s funeral. Then she broke down.
The colonel and friends — men in tracksuits — assaulted
the women on a bed in a room adjoining his office, decorated with Mr.
al-Assad’s photograph, she said. They splashed arak on the victims, a further
insult to Muslims who abstained from alcohol.
The women’s cell had no toilet. Blood from violent rapes
stained the floor. One cellmate miscarried. By the time Ms. Khleif’s cousin
made a deal to release her a month later, Ms. Khleif said, she had lost a third
of her weight. She later fled to rebel territory as a medic.
Another female survivor separately told CIJA’s
investigators that she had been raped by Colonel Juma the same month in the same
prison. The details closely tracked Ms. Khleif’s account.
Even women who were not raped reported
groping, sexual insults, threats of rape to extract confessions, and cavity
In one Damascus facility, several survivors said
separately, the chief investigator reserved for himself the job of digitally
penetrating them. They called him Sharshabeel, the Arabic name for the evil
wizard in “The Smurfs.” One, who covers her head, said he stroked her hair
and naked body during interrogation, details she kept from her family.
Ms. Khleif’s family rejected her over what they
considered her loss of honor and her politics, she said. Her pro-government
brother texted death threats; her husband divorced her.
For some conservative men, the conflict changed attitudes.
Several survivors and male relatives say their families now honor sexual assault
survivors as war wounded. Ms. Khleif hid nothing from her new husband, a former
“You are a medal on my chest, you are the crown on my
head,” she recalled him telling her. “He cooked for me, massaged my face
with oil. He made me my old self.”
Rampant infection, rotten food
Torture aside, unhealthy detention conditions are so
extreme and systemic that a
United Nations report said they amounted to extermination, a crime
Many cells lack toilets, former prisoners said. Prisoners
get seconds per day in latrines, they said; with rampant diarrhea and urinary
infections, they relieve themselves in crowded cells. Most meals are a few bites
of rotten, dirty food. Some prisoners die from sheer psychological collapse.
Most medicine is withheld, injuries left untreated.
Mounir Fakir is 39, but after his ordeal in Mezze, Saydnaya
and elsewhere, he looks at least a decade older. A veteran dissident, he said he
was arrested on his way to a meeting of the nonviolent opposition.
Before-and-after photos show the toll: A hefty man, he was released so emaciated
that his wife did not recognize him.
In Saydnaya, cold was the punishment for talking or
“sleeping without permission,” Mr. Fakir recalled over steaming herbal tea
in an Istanbul cafe. Once for more than a month, all of his cellmates’
blankets and clothes were confiscated; they slept naked in freezing
temperatures. Sometimes, he said, they were denied water. They tried to wash
themselves by scrubbing their skin with sand that ants unearthed from floor
The day we met, Mr. Fakir was marking the anniversary of
the death of a cellmate felled by an untreated tooth infection, his jaw swollen
almost to the size of “another head.”
Yet “treatment” can also be deadly. Torture and murder
take place in hospitals where, on other wings, dignitaries visit wounded
officers, said Mr. Fakir, other survivors and defectors.
Mr. Fakir was taken twice to Military Hospital 601, a
colonial-era building with high ceilings and views of Damascus. Up to six
prisoners were chained naked to each bed.
“Sometimes one dies and it becomes less,” he said.
“Sometimes we want him to die, to take his clothes.”
Once, he said, he watched staff withhold insulin from a
diabetic — a 20-year-old waiter — until he died.
Many nights, a man who doubled as a nurse and a guard and
called himself Azrael — the angel of death — would take a patient behind a
“We’d see the shadow of someone hitting, we’d hear
the scream, then silence — suffocating silence,” Mr. Fakir said. “In the
morning we’d see the body in the hallway to the bathroom. You would see bodies
piled. We stepped on our comrades’ bodies, barefoot.”
Mr. Ghabbash remembers “Azrael,” too. He was taken to
the same hospital with an infection that left a deep scar on his leg. In the
night, he heard an amputee groan for painkillers, and a man answer, “I’ll
make you comfortable.”
Pretending to sleep, Mr. Ghabbash squinted as the man
raised a metal-tipped baton, declared, “I am Azrael,” and smashed the
patient’s face to a bloody pulp. Mr. Ghabbash said he was forced to carry the
corpse to a hallway bathroom. Two bodies were already inside.
Mr. Fakir said fellow prisoners had told him of carrying
bodies first to the toilet, then to a hospital parking area, a site where Caesar
“People didn’t believe me,” he said. “Then
Caesar’s photos came out.”
A survivor of another prison, Omar Alshogre, said he had
been ordered to write numbers on corpses’ foreheads, as seen in Caesar’s
photos. But as corpses piled up and decomposed, he said, he had to write on
paper and shovel out bodies in pieces.
Government memos obtained by CIJA show that the head of
military intelligence, a member of the National Security Bureau that reports to
Mr. al-Assad, knew of rising prison deaths.
One memo, from December 2012, noted increases in
detainees’ deaths and corpses piling up and decomposing in hospitals. It
ordered officials to inform the agency’s head of how they had died and what
they had confessed — preferably phrased to protect officials from liability
under “any judicial authority in the future.”
Another memo a year later showed that deaths were still
rising. “It is imperative to attend to cleanliness and hygiene and
detainees’ health,” it says, to “preserve lives and reduce deaths which
have considerably risen lately.”
The memo complained of a shortage of interrogators. Near
the end of a long list of “errors,” including late paperwork, it added
“beating and torture of detainees.”
“It sounds like they are telling people to behave
nicely,” said Nerma
Jelajic, CIJA’s spokeswoman, “but we know the context.”
CIJA’s documents show that officers were punished for
offenses like “not following orders,” she said. Not one mentions anyone
disciplined for torture.
Names written in blood
Detainees and defectors have risked their lives to tell
their families, and the world, of their plight.
In the Fourth Division dungeon, several detainees decided
out the names of every prisoner they could identify.
“Even though we are three stories underground, still we
can continue our work,” recalled one, Mansour
Omari, who was arrested while working for a local human rights organization.
Another detainee, Nabil
Shurbaji — a journalist who, by coincidence, was the first to inspire
Mr. Ghabbash to activism in 2011 and later shared his cell in Mezze — tried to
write on cloth scraps with tomato paste. Too faint. Mr. Shurbaji finally used
the detainees’ own blood, from their malnourished gums, mixed with rust. A
detained tailor sewed the scraps into Mr. Omari’s shirt. He smuggled them out.
The message in blood reached Western capitals; the shirt
scraps were displayed at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. But Mr. Shurbaji
was still inside.
“Fatigue spread on the pores of my face,” he wrote his
fiancée during a brief respite in a prison that allowed letters. “I try to
laugh but mixed with heartbreak, so I hold on to patience and to you.”
Two years later, a released detainee reported that Mr.
Shurbaji had been beaten to death.
‘Don’t forget us’
In Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Germany, France, Sweden
and beyond, families and survivors push on.
After he was freed in 2013, Mr. Ghabbash landed in
Gaziantep, Turkey, where he runs women’s rights and aid programs for refugees
in the last patch of rebel-held Syria.
Ms. Khleif works
at a refugee school and to empower other female survivors. Mr. Fakir, whose
wife’s cooking has replenished his chubby cheeks, has joined a kind of alumni
association for Saydnaya Prison survivors who help one another document their
experiences, navigate trauma and find work.
Mr. Darwish struggles with insomnia and claustrophobia, but
continues his work for accountability. He recently testified about Mezze prison
in a French court hearing in the case of a Syrian-French father and son who died
there — a university student and a teacher at a French school in Damascus.
That helped French prosecutors secure arrest warrants for Mr. Mamlouk, the top
security official, Mr. Hassan, the air force intelligence chief, and the head of
Mezze prison. Now, Mr. Mamlouk could be arrested if he travels to Europe.
The threat of prosecution, Mr. Darwish said, is the only
tool left to save detainees.
“It gives you energy, but it’s a heavy
responsibility,” he said. “This could save a soul. Some are my friends. When
I was released they said, ‘Please don’t forget us.’”
Last year, the United Nations General Assembly voted to
create and finance a new body, the International
Independent and Impartial Mechanism, to centralize preparation of war-crimes
cases. But the body doesn’t have the muscle to enforce, charge or arrest.
Syria’s war remains without a political solution. With
peace talks stalled, Russia is urging the West to normalize and finance
reconstruction anyway, deferring reforms.
A Syrian briefed at high levels on the government’s war
effort, not identified for his safety, said recently that there was no chance of
reforms to make security agencies respect human rights. At most, he said, Russia
might make the detention apparatus more efficient.
The millions of relatives of missing detainees float in a
social and psychological limbo. Without death certificates, presumed widows
cannot remarry. Children cannot inherit.
Fadwa Mahmoud, who now lives in Berlin, has
no idea whether her husband, Abdelaziz al-Khair, is alive.
Six years ago, Mr. al-Khair, a prominent dissident, flew to
Damascus from abroad, with security guarantees, for talks between the government
and the nonviolent opposition. Ms. Mahmoud’s son went to pick him up. They
never made it out of the airport, which is controlled by air force intelligence.
They have not been heard from since.
“We don’t have the right to get depressed,” Ms.
Mahmoud said, crocheting a blanket in her living room. “We have to keep
In the corner stood a pile of blankets: lavender, yellow,
baby blue. It is still growing. She imagines her husband cold in prison. She is
making them for him.