The corridor in one of Syria's feared state security buildings was about 15m long and just a few metres wide. In the middle, seated at a desk, was a general in his sixties in green military fatigues. All around him, people huddled on the floor, most of them young men with the same anxious look. There were about 50, some of them from Deraa, the southern city where protests against the government erupted in March and which now finds itself under a merciless army siege.
At the far end of the corridor there was a grubby yellow curtain, turning black with dirt, but there was something else – the unmistakable splashes of crimson-red blood. According to Mohammad, one of the thousands of activists arrested by Syria's notorious secret police since the uprising began, the entire corridor reeked of fear. "If any normal person went into that room and smelled it, he would need seven days to recover," he said.
The biggest group of prisoners was crouched in a heap next to the curtain. One looked as though part of his right eye had been gouged out; another missing a section of his nose. Both were probably no more than 16 years old, Mohammad said. Soon, an enormous man in a white T-shirt and pyjama bottoms emerged from behind the curtain. He seized a young teenager and took him behind the barrier. "He was there for around three minutes," said Mohammad. "All I could hear was his screams. When he was brought back out his head was covered in blood. They had tried to slice half of his face off."
The general, who sat at his table drinking herbal tea and listening to a Lebanese singer on a stereo, said nothing. He barely looked up from his desk.
Mohammad, who was arrested after taking pictures of a demonstration in Damascus last month, said: "When people get arrested in Syria, nobody knows where they are taken and nobody knows when they will be released."
He is by no means the only person to have witnessed the modus operandi of Syria's secret police. Since demonstrations broke out on 15 March in Deraa and other areas, huge numbers of people have been arrested. Nobody knows how many. "It is difficult to know whether someone is detained or missing, as it is impossible to know where detainees are kept and if they are alive," said one human rights activist, who has been keeping detailed tallies of the dead and missing.
Radwan Ziadeh, a Washington-based Syrian human rights activist, said that he had tracked the names of 1,700 people who had been detained since the trouble flared. Some had since been released; others were still in custody.
"This is more about terrifying people participating in the demonstrations than targeting genuine opposition activists," he said. "I know a case in the Damascus suburb of Duma where they arrested a father and all of his five sons. They are using detention as a weapon of fear."
Human Rights Watch says that hundreds of people detained since March have been tortured and mistreated. It has documented scores of cases in which men, women and children have been beaten, electrocuted and subjected to other forms of barbaric punishment. Detainees have been held in overcrowded cells and deprived of food and water, the group says, often handcuffed and blindfolded the entire time. One told researchers his feet had been so badly beaten that his toenails fell out.
"The security services try to make them confess that they were armed and received money to protest. Sometimes they force them to claim that they killed civilians," said a Damascus-based human rights researcher. "Everyone is being tortured."
Unsurprisingly the Syrian government's tactics are having an effect. Duma – which saw sweeping arrests following demonstrations two weeks ago – has become a ghost town, where the streets are shuttered and empty save for hundreds of Kalashnikov- wielding security men. As one young man said recently: "Sometimes I feel like a sick pigeon – all the time I'm just turning my neck to check nobody is listening to me."
Speak to any Syrian adult about the Hama massacre in 1982, and the sideways glances and hushed tones will reveal all you need to know about the bloodbath which ended a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city. Estimates for the total body count vary, but anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people died when Hafez al-Assad, the former president and father of the current Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, pummelled the ancient Syrian city into submission.
Some analysts are suggesting that the younger al-Assad is trying to implement a "Hama solution" in Deraa, where scores of people have been shot dead and residents are practically cut off from the outside world. But in spite of the violent response, the turnout for rallies last weekend was possibly even higher and certainly more organised than before. There were still a frightening number of deaths – at least 62 in addition to more than 500 since mid-March, according to rights groups. Yet the fear which once pinned back the masses under Hafez al-Assad seems to be losing its hold.
"The government is trying to use the same tactics as in the 1980s," said Radwan Ziadeh. "But they don't know that the situation is different now. The protests are not in one or two cities, but in more than 80 towns and cities around the country."Reuse content