‘As long as Assad is in power there is no returning to Syria’: A Survivor of Assad’s Regime on Hope
Author: Lucy Adkin Published: 25/08/2021 Interview of Omar Alshogre
The Syrian civil war began as a series of protests against a brutal police state, and ten years on that same regime that massacred its own people and detained thousands without trial has begun to talk about rebuilding the country. On 17th July 2021 president Bashar Al-Assad was sworn in for a fourth term after winning 95% of the vote in a sham election that has been internationally panned as neither free nor fair. In his inauguration speech he called on “those who bet on…the collapse of the state” to leave their host countries for “the homeland’s embrace”. Needless to say these calls to return home should not be heeded and indeed Syrians are speaking out against his calls for reconstruction. Washington based activist Omar Alshogre is emblematic of the myriad reasons why Assad’s continued rule is incompatible with reconstruction. In 2011, aged only fifteen, he was one of thousands of Syrians who took to the streets to demand freedom during the Arab Spring. As tensions in the country escalated, Omar was arrested for his pro-democracy activities and tortured for years inside Syria’s notorious prisons, prisons which to this day Assad denies even exist. While he was detained Syrian forces attacked his village, killing 200 people, including his father and his brothers. Without any recognisable organized opposition movement, activists like him are instrumental in undermining the Syrian government. He has given evidence to European war crimes investigators building cases against the Syrian regime, and spoken before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee alongside numerous appearances in American media. A decade after his first arrest, I spoke to him over the phone about how his life has changed irreversibly. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
"I experienced the torture myself at an early age." - Omar Alshogre -
What was life like for you and your family before the Arab Spring?
I come from a village called Al-Bayda, near Baniyas, it’s in the hills overlooking the coast. My father used to be an officer in the army and my mother sold furniture, clothes and such things. A normal life- nothing special about it. Just when I started high school the war started in Syria. Before that I was that kid who would be complaining about how they don’t like to eat salad, you know, typical kid, trying to get friends, parents worrying that you can’t have good grades and good friends at the same time, so nothing special about it, it was just normal. It doesn’t matter if you’re living in the UK or Syria, it’s kind of the same, you grow up the same way, you have your parents taking care of you but you complain about things. Life in general was really good- we had what we needed, there were good schools for free, and hospitals also for free, so we had the infrastructure that we needed to live.
"The only challenge was that you were not allowed to speak political words. As soon as you say a [political] word, you would disappear, be taken to political prisons, and nobody would know where you were or who you are anymore." - Omar Alshogre -
So let's say you have a son, they arrest your son, you’re not even allowed to go and ask about your son in prison because they can detain you as well. So that fear that people lived with, as a child you didn't experience it because that’s not what you cared the most about- you probably care about the girl you love in the school more than whatever else when you’re fifteen years old. I wasn’t aware of the oppression. I just knew that my uncles had been detained for twelve years from 1980 to 1992, but I never learned why, I just knew they were in prison for a long time. They were the most successful uncles I had, they were engineers, well educated and had their own good business, so I wondered how could a person who is very good today have been a criminal before. But then I realized they were not criminals, they were in political prisons and I didn’t yet know what that meant. Then in 2011 war started. I was a risk to the administration and I learned what a political prison was. I experienced the torture myself at an early age.
Omar aged 15 in Al-Bayda
When you started going out to these protests did it ever cross your mind how dangerous it was?
My father drove me to the first demonstration, and I had no thoughts about the danger- the only thing my father told me was ‘cover your face, be careful, don’t be in the front line, they can kill a million people.’ When he said a million people, I thought I’d never seen a million people. It didn’t mean anything. I wondered if I should take that seriously, I thought he was just kidding. I joined the demonstration and it was the most joyful thing I’d done in my life, when I was jumping there, shouting words of freedom and liberty. I didn’t actually understand freedom, but I knew it was the right word to say. I didn’t understand dictatorship, I was a child. All I knew is what we were doing was right and that was enough for me to be there demonstrating. All my friends were there too, all my cousins. If you missed the demonstration you were not a cool guy anymore.
So going out to protest was the thing to do with your friends?
Yes, so the adults knew [about the danger], the kids joined because we thought it was cool, and because the adults were doing it we thought we should probably be doing it as well. Until we started to see the army and the intelligence services attacking and killing people, seeing them kill people in front of me, including my friend, women and children. I was tortured, my fingernails pulled out. I realized it should not be a demonstration for fun, it should be a revolution, everyone needed to be involved, this was a country that needed to be changed and held accountable for their crimes against humanity.
It sounds like the violence was indiscriminate, all kinds of people were there, and all kinds of people were being detained, not just adult men.
Yeah, they detained everyone and anyone who they thought said the word freedom. You know, at the checkpoints, if they don’t like how you brush your hair, they can detain you for that. A soldier has so much power, if he’s annoyed he can just do things to distract himself. If I was a soldier and my wife was too busy to make me dinner the night before, the next day I could hit people or take them to prison. They had this unlimited power that the regime gave to them.
Before you were arrested, was there any way of knowing that the same was happening across the country and the region?
No, I never heard what was going on. I was surprised. I had cousins arrested in 2009, 2003 but when that happened it was a secret because when you tell your risk your life and the lives of the people you tell. The regime is tracking everything.
"Silence is so important to survive." - Omar Alshogre -
Pro-democracy demonstrations in Baniyas, Syria April 2011
You went back to high school before you were arrested again, what happened there?
I was detained, then I was released, then I was detained again, then released, seven different times. After a long time of going to demonstrations, about a year, we went back to school again. One day they might arrest your friend, so you’d go out again at break time to say some words of freedom for your friend because you were angry. My father was a retired officer which meant he had a network, so he always went to pay someone off to get me out of prison. When I went back to school, it was a danger zone. Being at school was the easiest place for the intelligence services to arrest you, they can enter your maths room and take you from there. The last time I went to school was November 16th 2012, I was taken to prison for the last time and spent three years locked up and I was transferred to ten different prisons, before I was smuggled out of Sednaya.
As you were going between these prisons, did you have any idea where you were, or could you communicate with anyone?
At times I knew where I was, mainly at the beginning and at the end. I spent most of the time in two specific prisons: prison 215, which is very famously called “the prison of slow death”, and Sednaya prison which is called the slaughterhouse- not very beautiful names for prisons. I knew where I was because the prisons are in cities so there are people who live there who were detained and would tell us ‘we are on this street, we are in this prison and this and this’.
"And even time- people don’t think about how we know the time. We didn’t have watches, we’re naked prisoners, we have nothing, so when they detained a new person we’d ask them when did they arrest you, two hours ago, what was the time, twelve, okay so it must be 2 o’clock." - Omar Alshogre -
You ask what date, that’s how we managed to keep the date because we wanted to know especially when it was holidays. We spent so long in prison we didn’t know if three years or seven years had passed because we were not sure if the counting was right. The last year I was there, the longest year a human being can experience, we met no new prisoners so we were on our own. At this point we could only tell what time it was by when we got our food but we didn’t always get food. I actually thought when I was in Sednaya that I had been there for around two and a half years but then I realized I was only there for one year.
Would the guards ever give you any idea what was going on?
No. There is the first period when they arrest you and you have the interrogation- that’s when they talk to you. The rest of the time, it doesn’t matter if it’s three years or fifty years, they don’t talk to you. They torture you, they make fun of you, but you’re not allowed to speak, so there is no communication. This is designed by the regime. In 2008 the prisoners could communicate with the guards, and what happened was the prisoners ended up getting a lot of tools they could use to run out of prison. In Sednaya prison in 2008, the prisoners managed to escape and attacked the guards. Sednaya is on top of a mountain so even if you kill all the guards you can’t run away. The army ended up attacking the prison and killing most of the prisoners. The prison was white, they colored the prison with the blood of the prisoners so now it’s known as the red building. It’s brutal but it’s what’s happening.
Do you think there was a definite escalation between how they treated prisoners before and after the civil war?
Yeah, they treated prisoners differently because in 1980 they had control over the country entirely so they did not need to kill as many people but during this revolution they lost most of the country. In 2013-24 the regime was very close to collapsing, they lost 70% of the country, so when they torture now, they torture to kill. It was different, totally different to the 80s. In the 80s a lot of people were detained but they didn’t know why they were detained and the guard who was detaining people didn’t know why they were detaining people, so there was a level of confusion that doesn’t really exist in the revolution. From 2011 onwards everybody knew why they were being arrested and the guards knew too. We could spread information whereas in 1980 there was no information coming out. The regime would tell the soldiers that they were torturing terrorists so they would be eager to do it, but now they know that’s not the case. I talked to my uncles who had been detained for twelve years and they shared their stories with me. The brutality is not the same, in 2011 and after it’s much, much worse.
Aerial shot of Sednaya prison:
You’ve said before that you were made to turn on your cousins who were also in prison. Did they make you give false confessions and implicate other people close to you?
They would bring me inside a room where my cousin was standing, and before I came into the room they would force me to say that my cousin gave me weapons and that we used the weapons to kill soldiers. This was done just to break my cousin and break our relationship as well. If I didn’t do as they said they would kill my cousin. So I would go in and say ‘yes, you gave me weapons and we fought and we killed officers together, do you remember?’ I was forced to say that many times. We knew that my cousin was forced to say that to me and me to them. We knew it was going to happen so we were aware and kind of prepared somehow but still it’s tough, it’s really tough.
So, there wasn’t even any purpose to it, it was purely for the sake of psychological torture.
Yes, it’s just psychological torture.
Did you have any idea at the time why they were making you do that or did you try not to think about it?
They don’t tell you anything except ‘do this and this’ and you have to understand that the guards, most of them, enjoy what they do. They did not enjoy it when they started, they begin to enjoy it when they do it for a long time because like the prisoners they have survival mechanisms in their brain. When you are in this position you’ve got to do it, you’re forced to do it as a guard. You can’t live with the shame and the guilt so what you do is you find ways to justify your actions until you feel your actions are right and you start to enjoy them.
How did it feel when you got out of prison? Because on the one hand you have your freedom but at the same time you can’t go back to how your life was before.
Freedom is good. You don’t think about how tough freedom can be, how painful it can be to come out and be disappointed by everything around you. When I was in prison I thought everybody was working so hard to get us out of prison. I was surprised people didn’t even care. I felt I had to work for so many years to get people’s attention to care about this cause. I realized that I have to take personal responsibility. I cannot rely on the world. I need to rely on myself to get the world to support this cause because they won’t do it from their own consciousness.
When you say people weren’t interested are you referring to those immediately around you in Syria or the world in general?
The world in general, yeah.
What happened to you once you were out of prison?
I was sick with tuberculosis and I needed treatment. I had to go in a rubber boat to Greece, from Greece through Europe and I made it to Sweden where I got treatment for my illness. I then started doing public speaking and started to go to the US to speak and around Europe. I applied to Georgetown University so now I live in Georgetown and I’m working at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, the most powerful organization, I would say, and a meaningful organization to join.
Did you find that people were willing to listen to what you had to say?
Yes, but I had to find a way to tell the story. It wasn’t just what I used to tell, I had to find a narrative, I had to find a way that people can listen to my story because I can share very heartbreaking stories but people won’t listen to that because they would be heartbroken. I needed to share more stories of hope that can actually inspire people to show that Syrians are not broken and we need to help them.
Omar speaking before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2020
You seem overall very positive about the future, would the Omar back in 2011 not have had that same mindset?
Definitely not, I’m glad I went through what I went through because it shaped who I am today. It gave me all the opportunities that I’m enjoying today, which matters for me. If no revolution had happened, no war had happened, no prison had happened, I would be that boring person that is not actually doing anything of value in his life. So I am glad I went through that. I don’t wish that on anyone. Nobody should be exposed to such experiences but it’s too late. I can’t change it, I can just learn from it, I can use it to change what’s going on in Syria.
Right now you’re in university doing a double major in Business and International Relations- how do you feel that you fit into the future of Syria in terms of rebuilding the country?
I worked in business earlier at Boston Consulting Group and I work in international affairs today, so my plan was to work in both. I want to have experience, I want to have a degree in both as well because then I would be a better candidate for rebuilding Syria. There are those who have left Syria who are now getting education in the best schools in the world- they matter the most for Syria because they firstly are experiencing the democracy they wished for, so they have experience they can take with them when they move back to Syria. We’re talking about millions of people who can actually contribute to rebuilding Syria and I am one of those people. I just want to take my personal responsibility to educate myself so I can be ready when Syria needs me.
Although you’ve had a good life in Sweden and America, do you still consider Syria to be your home?
Syria is my home! There is no consideration, it’s just my home and I love it. I still love it. All of what is destroyed doesn’t matter because it can be rebuilt. The only issue is that as long as the Assad regime is still in power there is no returning to Syria.
Do you think there is anything people should know about Syria or the work that is being done to help?
I want to send a message to those people who want to help, it doesn’t matter if they are Syrians who want to help Syria or Europeans or Americans or whatever. The best way to be helpful is by doing the thing you love the most. We usually try to help by doing things we don’t enjoy doing which makes our help unsustainable. We always give up too quickly because we don’t do the things we enjoy. What I did is I found what I enjoyed the most, public speaking, and I used that to bring awareness and help to Syria.
What do you like the most?
If you like art you can use that to bring awareness. Do you do social media, do you like video creation, you can make resources. If you’ve got money you can donate it. If you like soccer, football or basketball, arrange a match where people who come and watch can do a campaign or have discussions about the specific cause. Do the thing you love the most to help those who are in the most need.
It is important we don’t see Omar’s story as a one off tragedy. With 6.6 million forced to flee the country, 6.7 million internally displaced and a death toll of half a million people, surely every Syrian will have been separated from loved ones, not to mention the loss of their homes, jobs and cultures. If this psychological damage wasn’t damning enough, the war is estimated to have cost $1.2 trillion and more than 80% currently live in poverty in Syria. Someone like Omar who speaks openly about the regime’s abuses is incredibly threatening to the current regime, as are the millions like him who have been exposed to democratic norms. A delusional dictator, a ruined infrastructure and a traumatized population pose monumental challenges for Syria yet as Omar shows us, Syrian refugees still have it in them to dream of their home and stand up for it.
Lucy Adkin is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. She is majoring in French and Russian studies. She is from the United Kingdom, has a passion for writing and a special interest in women’s rights and in South Africa.