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This spring marks 10 years since the Syrian war began. Omar Alshogre, director of detainee affairs at the Syrian Emergency Task Force and a new student at Georgetown University, will not let you forget what that war actually means. Since the 2011, it’s estimated that more than 500,000 people have been killed or gone missing, millions have been internally displaced, and millions more have escaped to neighboring countries as refugees. Alshogre himself has lived many lives. A decade ago, he was a teenage protester in Syria during the Arab Spring. Then, he was a political prisoner. After that, a refugee, who escaped to Europe on a rubber boat. He’s lost so much—his home, most of his family—and has testified in front of European war crimes investigators and briefed members of Congress on the crisis in his home country. Still, he remains hopeful. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Alshogre about his time in Syria and what we need to remember about Syria as it enters its 10th year of war. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: I wondered if you ever have any weird moments, now that you’re in college, where you’re in a class and the Middle East comes up and you hear the people around you weigh in, and then you weigh in and say, actually, I’ve lived there, here’s what I went through.
Omar Alshogre: I get surprised, shocked when I hear people talking about Syria, like they actually don’t understand what’s going on: “How was it when ISIS started killing the people?” It’s like there was no regime killing people for years before ISIS existed.
Do you feel like it’s your job to help them understand?
Yes. I want them to understand the brutality. So I will tell them brutal stories. But I always end it in a very hopeful way.
In 2011, the war started—or I wouldn’t say the war started, I would say the revolution started in Syria.
You were 15 years old when the people around you started taking to the streets, following the lead of protesters in Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt. They protested with flowers in their hands.
I didn’t understand when I was there. I just joined the demonstration because my favorite cousin, the person I love the most, my cousin Bashir called me and said, “Omar, come to the demonstration.” I went there and there was thousands of people. I enjoyed being there. There was music and people dancing and jumping, saying “freedom.” Nothing sounds wrong at all until the intelligence services and the army attack and start killing people. In school they tell you that police protects you My father himself was an officer, retired in 2009–10. I’d never seen the police killing anyone. But they started shooting people, people I knew were good. I started to get very confused and I froze in place, could not move. They arrested me and took me to prison.
When they arrested the people, they were recording the entire massacre. They killed some people. They collected all the young people, all the men they found, tied our hands behind our backs and put us on the ground, jumping on our heads, forcing us to say God, Syria, and Bashar. And I used to say these words when the teachers would take us to streets. This time, enforced with guns and the military—I knew they were wrong because I was forced to say them.
Did you know what the protesters were asking for when you began going?
The word that stuck in my head was freedom. I knew what freedom meant physically, never thought about freedom of speech until I was asked by the guard who was jumping on my head, “Do you want freedom?”
And what did you say?
At 15 years old, I said yes, because who can say no to freedom? But the freedom to torture was what he gave me back when I said I want freedom. I learned that I should say, no, I don’t want freedom. I was taken to prison and tortured for four days and I realized the value of freedom, physical freedom, but also the freedom of speech, which we had nothing of. And I started to understand my father’s words about the importance of not talking about it.
So you never considered not going back to the protests, even though you suffered for going?
Suffering was way I understood freedom, I understood the need we have for change in Syria. So that’s what empowered me the most. The first two days of torture I had was the thing that empowered me the most to continue fighting. And you learn how to escape when they attack because the first when they attack.
Over the next year and a half, you were detained six more times. You’d find ways to evade authorities. Sometimes, your father would bribe guards to look the other way at the checkpoints that led to school. Your dad also started driving you to protests, since he could see this was important to you.
My father believed in the Syrian revolution. He drove me to the first demonstration, but he told me, hide your face, they may kill 1 million people there. When I saw people dying all the time around me, I realized he meant what he said. I learned how to cover my face, to not be in the first line.
You’ve talked a couple of times about a girl you loved. Do you know what happened to her?
I do. During my time in prison, in May of 2013, they attacked my village and the hometown and killed almost everybody they met. A bomb came on her house and she died.
I’m so sorry.
You were arrested for the final time in November 2012. By then, you were 17. You were detained for nearly three years and spent time in one of the most notorious prisons in Syria, along with two of your cousins. One of those facilities was called Branch 215, run by military intelligence and known as the “Branch of Death” by many Syrians; another was called Saydnya, which Amnesty International calls the human slaughterhouse.
It was unbelievable. I could not believe that I’m still alive after that kind of torture, after that fear. My heart did not easily get used to the joy the guard was having while he was torturing me, while he was aware of me being innocent, minor, a kid in prison. The guard forced me to torture my cousin, who I loved the most, and they forced my cousin to torture me—they gave him the gun and said, “You’ve got to shoot him.” shoot me. At the same time they gave me a screwdriver and said, “You can open a car on your cousin’s body.” My cousin was crying in front of me. My legs were shaking so I could not stand, and my hands were shaking. I could not really carry that screwdriver. They would say to my cousin, “If you don’t shoot him we will kill him.” I then decided, maybe it’s better if I do it. I make it as small as I can, as little pain as possible. But we took the decision they are to do not do it. Then they shot me and they “opened his car” in his body. We returned to our cell, I have a bullet in my hip and a scar that you can’t believe. And we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Eventually, your cousins were killed in prison. How did you manage to escape?
They pulled me out from my room, saying I will be taken to execution. Every single hour the guards would come and ask me, “How do you want me to kill you? Be creative.” Imagine hearing this question 48 times and you are forced to “give creative answers,” which do not include “shoot me” or “slaughter me.” They want a new way where they can enjoy killing you. They shot me and I felt like I died and felt no pain. When I went down, I saw my feet and the torture marks and the blood, and I was told that there will be no blood in the afterlife. So I realized I was still alive. That was one of the scariest moments of those three years.
I was in the middle of nowhere. As soon as I realized I was alive, I looked around me and saw a car stuck behind me. The driver said, jump in. At the last station I jumped off. There was a lot of people around me. I was in central Damascus and people were looking at me in a very, very weird way. Three guys came and said, “Call your family.” I said, “Look, I don’t remember anything.” They tried to help me and one of them noticed my arm and said, “What is this?” I said, “That’s a number. I always had it with me in prison.” One time a small bird actually got to the torture chambers. A prisoner captured that bird, and I asked the prisoner who captured that bird, if you give me a feather, I will give you my food for two days, which was a potato. I took that feather and used it to write the phone number on my arm every day. That bird was my only hope and only chance to survive.
So they called this phone number and were answered by a young girl who said to me, stay where you are. It took me many days before I knew who it was: my sister.
Those people who picked him up weren’t some rescue team or humanitarian task force. They were random passersby who noticed you on the side of the road, starving, looking bewildered and lost. Then you learned your mother and sisters had managed to escape to Turkey and paid for your release. When you reunited with them, you weighed just 75 pounds and had tuberculosis. Your mother urged you to go to Europe to seek treatment and a chance at a better life. So you and your 10-year-old brother took the perilous journey, partly by boat, and ended up in Sweden. It’s there you learned to tell people about what happened to you in Syria.
I had no emotions. I had no feeling. I was entirely empty. A mother of a detainee would call me and say: “I heard you were just released, I had my kid who was maybe with you in the same prison. Can I send you a picture of him? Maybe you recognize him.” I lost no memories from my time in prison. I remember still every single small detail. With some medication, I say, “Yes, I saw your son. They slaughtered him. They took his eyes off his face and burned his body.” Her kid called me the other day and said, “Omar, my mom talked to you yesterday or two days ago, and she’s in the emergency room in the hospital since then. What did you tell her?” I felt like I was in a coma and I just woke up. What am I doing? Killing people by—
By telling the truth.
By telling the truth but actually destroying lives, families, connections. So I get a turnaround, I take a different path. I started to to talk to others the way that makes them feel best. So: “Have you seen my son?” “Yes, I saw him and he died with a smile on his face. He felt no pain. He slept and never woke up.” That’s what I had to tell. But the reality was different. We were slaughtered. It was torture.
I wonder whom you blame for what you’ve been through, or whether you even think about it in terms of blame.
My father used to be very angry most of the time. What I remember most is that that was never useful or helpful, that never made me stop doing what I was doing. What I do is my part. I use what I count as my talent, public speaking. I know there is so many parts involved: the reason behind the war, the regime, Russia, the Iranian support. When I talk to people living their normal lives and not working on a daily basis on the Syrian case, those people need to hear something different. I’m talking to young people, to university students, to businessmen—they feel hopeless when they hear about Syria. When I talk about it, I talk about it from a very personal level so people feel connected and feel they can act. I tell them about kids in Syria. I tell them about a woman who’s being resilient in Syria, who created this and this, how to support this and this. The narrative that the Syrian regime is trying to build is that it’s too complex., that you can’t involved, that you can’t understand it, that you can’t help. That’s what I’m trying to break down.
Do you want to go back to Syria?
I would love to. It’s beautiful, it’s green, and the places that have been destroyed can be rebuilt. The only thing we need to do to get rid of the regime and the corruption that exists. When the regime falls, I’ll be taking the first flight.