Inside the torture chamber of Assad's inquisition squads

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson in Damascus talks to an activist who survived 21 weeks' interrogation by Syria's security forces

It was a single egg that made Jolan, a 28-year-old activist, realise he was going to survive Syria's notorious torture chambers. He was blindfolded and locked in what he describes as a metal coffin, and each morning his tormentors would push a small piece of bread and a hard-boiled egg through a narrow opening by his head. But his cramped box – so short he could not straighten his legs – was tilted and his hands were bound, so for five days the egg would simply roll away and drop to the floor through a hole by his feet.

Days earlier, Jolan had been sitting in a park in Damascus on a sunny morning, waiting for a friend from the burgeoning protest movement aimed at forcing President Bashar al-Assad from power. Instead, about 30 regime security personnel surrounded him. Before he could even think about fleeing, a rifle butt to the back of the head knocked him out cold.

Trussed and forced to relieve himself where he lay, Jolan did not know how long he would be there. He did not know how he could survive. But he knew that somehow he must eat the egg. "So the fifth day," he says, "I put my heel in this hole and I stopped the egg rolling out. I managed to push the egg all the way up my body to my mouth. It was filthy, it still had the shell on it, but I ate it and, when I did, I knew I was going to live."

Jolan, who gave a pseudonym because he remains active in Syria's protest movement, is one of thousands of political prisoners who human rights groups say have been thrown in jail by a regime determined to use its full force to crush the biggest threat to its rule since the Assad family took power 41 years ago.

From a secret location in Damascus, Jolan gave a detailed testimony to The Independent on Sunday of his torture during 21 weeks in detention. Although his full account is impossible to corroborate independently, Human Rights Watch, the international watchdog, confirmed that many of the torture techniques he described are commonplace. Many Syrian rights groups have also documented Jolan's time in detention.

The regime has denied the allegations of torture in its prisons. Its spokesmen say they are fighting an armed uprising sponsored by Islamist groups. But Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than 100 people detained since the protests began in March last year, and the group has collected harrowing testimony of torture against children as young as 13 and of deaths in custody.

For Jolan, his seven days in the metal box was the first of dozens of humiliations and torments. Next, still blindfolded, he was put in a tiny room just one metre high, where he was forced to stand, bent double, for another seven days. Then his captors finally started to interrogate him.

"For eight hours a day they asked me everything about co-ordination, about the people of the revolution. They wanted to know how they worked, how they take the injured from place to place," he says.

Jolan refused to talk, causing the torment to become even more cruel. He was given 50 lashes with a metal cable in the morning and 50 in the evening. He was then subjected to what Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch describes as the "dulab" method. A tyre is forced over the victim's neck and his legs so he is folded forward. He is then tipped on his back, immobile, and beaten. Another day, Jolan says, he was suspended from the ceiling by a cable. On his 45th day in detention, they finally took the blindfold off. But Jolan was not prepared for the sight that greeted him. "When I opened my eyes, I could see two girls who were taken from the demonstrations. They were religious girls – usually they would wear the veil – but they were totally naked: the only item they were wearing was a blindfold," he says. "From this moment, I started crying."

With this image etched on his mind, he was taken back to the interrogation room and told that unless he talked, his mother and sister would be hauled in, also stripped naked and tortured in front of him. The UN report details similar "psychological torture, including sexual threats against them and their families".

But still Jolan refused to talk. Exasperated, his captors transferred him to the Adra civilian prison in Damascus, where he was kept in filthy, cramped surroundings. Over the next few months he was called before a court to answer a litany of charges, including attacking the standing of the state, encouraging problems with minorities, going to a protest without a permit, and setting up an unlicensed field hospital. He was allowed a lawyer, but says his statements were ignored in the court. Jolan says he was saved only by pressure from some international human rights organisations. Eventually, towards the end of December, he was freed with a 1,000 Syrian pound (£11) fine.

Since then, he has continued his work, moving around by night to safe houses to collect supplies, trying to gather more crowds for the weekly demonstrations after Friday prayers. There are physical signs of his time behind bars – he is gaunt, and is missing four front teeth from the beatings. He chain smokes nervously. But he is determined to fight on. Fifteen days ago, the authorities told his uncle that Jolan must stop his activism or face "a bullet in the head". So he switched mobile phone numbers and went underground for 10 days.

Mr Houry says: "Syria's torture chambers belong to the Middle Ages. The security forces believe that by torturing people, including children, they will reinstate the wall of fear in Syria. But these torturers should know that their methods have only served to energise the protesters and that it is only a matter of time until they face accountability."

Syrians flee to Jordan as violence escalates

Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan have described a dramatic escalation in violence and a mounting toll of dead and wounded in the southern city of Daraa and the country's battered central region. Activists said 26 civilians were killed on Friday, many of them in the central city of Homs.

The fighting in Homs, coupled with fresh violence in Daraa, has triggered a new wave of wounded refugees crossing into Jordan. In the past two days, 170 families – around 850 people – have fled to Ramtha, seven miles from the border. Most were from Daraa. At the hospital in Ramtha, newly installed gates protect hospital rooms where wounded Syrians are being treated, guarded by Jordanian security police.

Syria has seen one of the bloodiest crackdowns since the wave of Arab uprisings began more than a year ago. The United Nations says that more than 5,400 people were killed last year, and the number of dead and injured continues to rise daily. In addition, 25,000 people are estimated to have sought refuge in neighbouring countries and more than 70,000 are internally displaced.

David Cameron has said Britain is sending food rations for 20,000 people and medical supplies for those affected by fighting in Homs and elsewhere. AP

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game