I Was a Teenager in a Syrian Prison
S1: Most of this episode is going to be pretty dark. We’re going to be talking about torture. What happened to one man, still a boy, really, in a series of Syrian prisons. But before we talk about what happened to that boy, I want to introduce you to the man he’s become. His name is Omar Al Shagari. Just a few months ago, he got into college, Georgetown University. He found out while driving around with a friend, got an email.
S2: And I was oh, I just I submitted my application nine days ago so that they can be a yes, that should be a no. I open it. And Omar, we are delighted to inform you that you’ve been admitted to Georgetown, but I never received an admission decision before. So I had to Google things. And at that time I was saying to my friend Tom, stop the car, stop the car.
S1: Omar posted a video of what happened next on Twitter. His friend Tom had started filming
S2: and I started jumping and he was afraid, you know, something bad happened. It made it to George St. Louis.
S1: You literally jump on a barrier on the side of the road and it looks like it’s on it looks like on the other side is like a crevasse, like you could fall off.
S2: Yes. Yes. If I fall on the other side, I would have died. They have the video and my bucket for five days before I publish it, because I was like my my social media is very much about about Syria, the tension, trying to bring awareness. So I felt like having laughing, jumping video, like a guy who had never been imprisoned and tortured, may not be, you know, a fit for my platform. But I said, look, I always talk about torture. Let me bring some joy, hope to that, to the people by showing them the real me.
S1: The real Omar has lived so many lives, a decade ago, he was a teenage protester, then he was a political prisoner. After that, a refugee who escaped to Europe on a rubber boat, having lost so much his home, most of his family. Strangely, it’s made him hopeful.
S2: Oh, I’m very hopeful. I enjoy having an interesting life. Weird stuff can happen. That sounds horrible for you, obviously, but I’ve been through something harder, much harder than than dying,
S1: I kind of wondered a little bit. If you ever have any weird moments now that you’re in college where you’re in a class and folks are talking about geopolitics or something and the Middle East comes up and you hear the people around you maybe a little less worldly than you are, weigh in on the Middle East or Syria, and then you weigh in back and say, well, actually, I’ve lived there. Here’s what I went through.
S2: I get surprised, shocked when I I hear people talking about Syria like they actually don’t understand what’s going on. It’s like, yeah, ISIS. How was it when ISIS started killing the people? It’s like it’s like there was no regime killing people for it for three years before ISIS existed.
S1: Do you feel like it’s your job to help them understand?
S2: 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 and I always tell their stories with a smile on my face to give them the strength to hear it.
S1: Today on the show, a Syrian survivor on his brutal truth. This spring marks 10 years since the Syrian war began. Omar is not going to let you forget what that really means. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Omar can clearly picture the Syria of his youth. He grew up on the coast in his memory. He could literally jump into the sea from the windows in his house. He and a cousin scooted around town on a motorcycle they bought together. And then there were the birds. Omar was entranced by them as a kid. He even taught himself how to tame birds.
S2: I love birds. And I wanted more than just loving birds like other kids, I wanted to be able to communicate with birds. I managed to learn to whistle so I can I can actually tell you our whistle. Now, having a friend that can fly back to your shoulder, that will always listen to you, whatever you tell, and they’ll always be happy. And having fun was awesome. My best friends were birds for a long time, but my father was a tough man so he would school was priority. He wanted
S1: you to buckle down and study
S2: ESL. So its finals. My father would say that to me. It’s you or the birds home. Got to choose.
S1: Now, you’ve said before that even when you were young, there were these kind of premonitions of something darker going on, like you talk about how in fifth grade your teachers were told to stop school early and take your class into Damascus to sing songs praising the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. And that you came home and you told your dad in that kind of fifth grader way, it’s so funny, the president has big ears like a monkey. Can you tell me about that?
S2: I came back from that street that day after seeing so many pictures of the president and. I went back home telling my father, you know, what to think, what I saw. So what an exciting, exciting voice. And I said I. I realized that the person got big ears like a monkey. And in no time I was slapped on my face. I, I, you know, I fly and I fall. They’re surprised and. I never saw my father afraid. Never before, and he told me. Never say that again. You see the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the doors, everything here, everything around you, under you, over years, you and when you sleep, they go to the president and to his friends and they tell him. They tell them what you said and they wouldn’t be happy about that and they may take you away, my father telling me that when I was very young, I didn’t take it as serious. I just took the feeling as serious as I could because my father was whispering, afraid there was something wrong there, something weird I did not understand. But I pretended to sleep covering my face with a blanket. And after a few minutes I will very first take the and got off and see if the door is moving to go to the president. Tell him something. You know, nothing was moving. The hand of the door was not.
S1: So you understood it in a very childlike way.
S2: Yeah. Yeah. But then under there years I understood what he meant. So I never mentioned that again. I never talked about that again. I never mentioned any politician or president or anything at all. I kept doing this child things, you know, but then. Then 2011, the war started, or I wouldn’t say the war started, I would say the revolution started in Syria.
S1: Omar was just 15 years old when the people around him started taking to the streets. They were following the lead of protesters in Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt. They protested with flowers in their hands.
S2: 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. And that was fun. That was music and people dancing and jumping, saying freedom. Nothing sounds wrong at all. Until the intelligence services and the army attacks and they start killing people, and that’s starting to look weird and different than what I expected because again, I was a child. And in school, they tell you that police protects you. And in books, in the stories, on TV shows the police to protect the people. My father himself was an officer, retired in 2009 10, but he was an officer my entire life. So I never seen the police killing anyone. They here to protect us. And when they started shooting people, which was people I knew were a good people, I started to get very confused and I I froze and my place could not move. And they came attacked and they arrested me and took me to the club. When they arrest the people, they were recording the entire massacre. They killed some people. They they were recording. That’s what they collected. All the young people, all the men they they found and they tied our hands behind our backs and put us on the ground, assaulting Jolbon, jumping on our hats, forcing us to say God, Syria and Bashar, referring to the president, Bashar al-Assad. And I used to say these words, when the teachers take us to the streets, I never understood anything. I just said them. But this time I’m forced with guns and with their military shoes on my head to say them, say I knew they were wrong because I was I was forced to say them.
S1: Did you know what the protesters were asking for when you began going to protests?
S2: Well, the word that’s stuck in my head was freedom. And I learned and the books about freedom. There was a beautiful thing. And I tame birds. So I would never put a bird in a cage. I will tamed them while they are free. So I knew what freedom meant physically. I never thought about freedom of speech until I was asked by the guard who was jumping on my head. He asked me, Do you want freedom?
S1: What did you say?
S2: And as a 15 year old, I said yes, because who can say no to freedom and how you want freedom? So jumping on me even more and hit me with the back of his gun, that’s freedom. So torture was was what he gave me back when I said I want freedom. So I learned that I should say, no, I don’t want freedom. Huh. Then 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, because the the wall, the door, the ceiling hears you and they will tell the president I understood the danger.
S1: So you never considered not going back to the protests, even though you suffered for going
S2: suffering was the reason or the 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. But what you learn is you learn how to escape when they attack, because the first time when they attacked, I wasn’t I wasn’t aware. I froze in my place next time when I was released and I wanted demonstration. When they come close, I was drawn. And you better kill me. I won’t let you arrest me.
S1: Over the next year and a half, Omar was detained six more times in between the arrests, he’d have to find ways to evade authorities. Sometimes his father would bribe guards to look the other way at checkpoints leading into Omar’s school. Your dad also started driving you to protests, though, didn’t he, so he could see this was important to you, maybe he could see this was important to the country.
S2: My father believed in the Syrian revolution. He drove me to the first demonstration, but he told me, hide your face. They may kill one million people there. And he said, one million people. I never seen one million things. I didn’t know how how one million people would look like, you know, so I didn’t really understand or take it seriously. But when I saw people dying all the time around me, I realized he meant what he said. But then later I learned how to take over my face, to do not be to not be, you know, in the first line, because in my age, it was important to be in the first line because you want it to be the cool kid. I want it to be cool. And I want to go back to school and tell them I wanted to be the star of the administration in my and my school. So I wasn’t thinking as much of a revolutionary young man as I was thinking of high school kid. That is time for him to be cool for many reasons for the girl you loved and you want to impress her, show her that you’re brave. You would start a demonstration.
S1: So honest, because I was going to say, when you describe going back to the demonstrations, sounds a little bit to me like chasing a high, like your your you want to get back to that thing that makes you feel good again, which is also a very teenage feeling.
S2: Yeah. Because remember when you were in high school or you just started college, they invite you to they invite you to the party and you say, oh, sorry, I can’t join tonight. They invite you next time. It’s Oh, sorry, I didn’t invite you anymore. The same thing applies to demonstrations. You don’t join. They invite you once, twice, you don’t join. They wouldn’t do it. They want to invite anymore. They won’t talk with you about that and
S1: that they don’t want to take the risk
S2: you want to take. One won’t take the risk and they recognize you as uncool. I want it to be cool. So I learned always learned cool stuff like have my hair looking very good all the time, dressed very well. I wanted to be that cool guy. I didn’t have that brain of an adult person at all. I was trying to impress my father and Bristol, the girl I loved, and be part of something big.
S1: You’ve talked a couple of times about a girl you loved. Do you know what happened to her?
S2: I know I am. So I spent three years in prison, and during my time in prison in May of 2013, they attacked my village and the hometown and they killed almost everybody they met and a bomb came on her house and she died.
S1: I’m so sorry.
S2: I can change a lot about it, and when that happened, I was in prison, I had no reaction because I’ve already been living with the death for a long time, seeing people dying of torture and pain after long time illnesses, all of that. So I was so used to it.
S3: When we come back,
S1: how Omar escaped prison becoming one of the few living witnesses to Syria’s atrocities. Stick with us. Omar was arrested for the final time, November 2012. By then, he was 17, he was detained for nearly three years, spending time at some of the most notorious prisons in Syria, along with two of his cousins. One of those facilities was called Branch 215. It was run by military intelligence known as the branch of death. Another was called Saidnaya. Amnesty International calls it the human slaughter house. Omar describes his final imprisonment with one word.
S2: Unbelievable. I could not even imagine it when I went through the torture and I go back to my cell, I would think about what I went through. I could not believe I went through that. I could not believe that I’m still alive after that kind of torture. After that kind of fear, I would. I don’t care about physical torture. Like I don’t care about it today. I didn’t care about it after a year in prison because my my buddy used to pain. My buddy used to the belts. My buddy my buddy used to electricity shocks to everything but my brain. 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 when the guard forced me to torture my cousin, who I loved the most, and they forced my cousin to torture me, you know, one day they they gave my cousin the gun and they said to him, you got to shoot him, shoot me. And at the same time, they gave me a screwdriver and said, you going to open a car? And your cousin’s buddy and my cousin is crying in front of me. I didn’t I could not cry, I didn’t manage to cry, I wasn’t crying person, and that made me feel so horrible because that showed me that it looked like I didn’t have any empathy, sympathy. I don’t know what the word for that. But I. I tried to cry. It didn’t work. I was standing there, have a screwdriver and my hands shaking. My my legs were shaking so I could not stand like a stable person and my hands were shaking. I could not really carry that screwdriver will fall from my arm and my cousin Bashir, who I loved the most, who loved me the most. So I who I, I could leave my dream care about being in prison as long as he was with me, but he would be holding the gun, say, I want I want to shoot and you better kill me. And they will say to him, it’s not like that. If you don’t shoot him, we will kill him. So you will suffer because of you. He will die the same thing. If I want to open his car and his body, they will do it in his body and he will be suffering. I was looking at him. Maybe it’s better if I do it. So I make it as small as I can as as, you know, little pain as possible. But we took the decision they are to do not do it. So they they shot me and they opened his car and his body. We return. We return back to our cell. You know, with my with with with a bullet in my hip and a scar that you can’t believe, how big and how scary it looks, the problem wasn’t there. The problem was that we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
S1: Eventually, your cousins were killed in prison. How did you manage to escape?
S2: They pulled me out from my room saying I will be taken to execution. They put me in the room for two days and every single hour the guards will come. There was day and night shift that would come and ask me a question. Omar. How do you want me to kill you, be creative. Imagine hearing this question 48 times and you are forced to give creative answers, creative answers does not include shoot me or slaughter me. That’s not creative. They want a new way where they actually can enjoy killing you. I never been as creative because I wanted to die. Because when I was isolated from all prisoners, when I was on my own, when I was lonely. I had nothing to live for. I want to die. Four days. 48 hours later, they will take me, put me in the street and the officer was walking slowly behind me, I didn’t know there was so many soldiers. But when he said lowed a.m. and time just does not go as fast as you wish it to go. And he’s just after a long time, said, shoot. And finally. I died. No more pain, no more starvation, no more painful memories or questions to answer. No more control over me. I’m dead. The God can do anything anymore. And I I was the first one to die, so I didn’t know how it feels to die. It was gut feeling. I was surprised how not painful it is. So they shot me and I died and I felt no pain. And after a long time, I was looking. But then I wanted to touch something different. So I went down to the ground to have some dirt in my hands because I only touched blood, you know, and the bloody bodies all the time. So when I went down, I saw my my feet and the torture marks and the blood and I was told that there will be no blood and afterlife. So I realized I was still alive. And that was one of the scariest moments of those three years.
S1: What do you do then when you realize you’re alive but you must not know where you are?
S2: I was in the middle of nowhere. As soon as I realized I was alive, I looked around me and I just a car stuck behind me and said, jump in the car, drive for some time. Then they say, oh, it’s the last station, jump off. I jump off. And 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. I didn’t know what to do and. And then I was like a few minutes later, I was directed to go and sit different from the mosque in the church, which is sit next to each other in Damascus. And three guys came and said, call your family. And I realized that I don’t remember family. You know, the last time I I mentioned I heard the word family was when my cousin told me that they died. So I said, like, I don’t remember anything, what’s your what’s your your you know, your village, your town, I don’t remember a lot. And, um, they tried to help me, and one of them noticed my arm and said, what is this number? And I said, that’s a number I always had with me in prison. One time a small bird, um, 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 is a potato. I took that feather and used this feather to ride the phone number on my arm every day to that bird was my only hope, my only chance to survive. So they called this phone number and I was I was answered. By a young girl who said to me, stay where you are, I took me a long, many days before I knew who it was, actually.
S1: Hmm. Who was it?
S2: It was my sister.
S1: Your sister
S2: does? My sister.
S1: These people who picked him up, they weren’t some rescue team or humanitarian task force, they were just random passers by who noticed Omar on the side of the road, starving, looking bewildered, lost. He learned his mother and sisters had managed to escape to Turkey. They paid for his release when Omar reunited with them. He weighed just 75 pounds. He also had tuberculosis. His mother urged him to go to Europe, seek treatment, get a chance at a better life. So he and his 10 year old brother took this perilous journey partly by boat and ended up in Sweden. It’s there that he learned to tell people about what had happened to him.
S2: I had no emotions. I had no feelings. I, I could not feel anything for people. I could not feel love or hate. I could not feel I had I was empty, entirely empty and anything. So when a mother of a detainee will call me and say, oh, I heard that you were just released, I had my kid who was maybe with you in the same prison. Can I send you a picture of you? Maybe you recognize him. And I lost no memories from my time in prison. I remember still every single small detail from my time in prison. So my father was somewhere between and say, yes, I saw your son. He was with me in prison and they slaughtered him. They took his eyes off his face and Bilbao burned his body. And I was telling that because I didn’t know what that meant for the Möller. I didn’t understand how she would feel, no, and at that mother, specifically, one mother, her 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? And there was a time where I woke up like it felt like I was in a coma and I just woke up alone. What are you doing? You’re killing people by
S1: by telling the truth,
S2: by telling the truth. But you actually destroying lives, families, connections, hope. So I get a turn around. I get to take a different path. And I started to switch to change who I was told to do to talk to mothers the way that make them the best. So have you seen my son? Yes, I seen him. And he died with a smile on his face. He felt no pain. He slept and he never woke up.
S2: That’s what I had to tell. But the reality was different. We were slaughtered. It was torture.
S1: When you tell your story, you are so. Passionate. But I wonder a little bit. Who you’re angry at, too, because. Bashar al Assad is for sure, the person who has made many of the choices that his. But people like you in danger, but plenty of folks have also looked to the United States and Europe who refused to intervene militarily and now. Our. Looking to, in some cases, intervene less when it comes to refugees, people look at Russia and say you’re aiding Bashar al-Assad. It just makes me wonder who you blame for what you’ve been through or whether you even think about it in terms of blame.
S2: My father used to be very angry most of the time, what I remember the most is that that was never useful or helpful, that never made me stop doing what I was doing, you know, so blaming blaming it on somebody else won’t help solve the problem. So what I do is I do my part. I do what I believe I can do. I used what is I I count as my talent, let’s say public speaking. I use it to to do my part regarding the Syrian case. I know there is so many parts involved that are the reason behind the war, the regime, Russia, the Iranian support and all of that. And that’s when I talk politics. Then I will go mentioning that when I talk to normal people, people who are living their normal life, they’re not working with that on a daily basis. On the Syrian case, those people need to hear something different. You cannot just blame it on this and this and this, because if I blame it on Russia, people will feel hopeless because what can you do against Russia? They blame it on Iran. Then we can’t help you, Omar, because we can’t do anything against Iran. I’m talking to young people, to university students, to businessmen. You know, all of those people, they they feel hopeless when they hear the name of these big countries. So when I talk about it, I talk about it from a very personal level. So people feel connected so they feel they can act. I tell them about kids in Syria. I tell them about a woman who’s been resilient in Syria who created this and this, how to support this and this. You know, the bigger you make it, the more, you know, let’s say political and academic you make it, the less connected people would be to the story, the more hopeless that would feel. And that’s the narrative that the Syrian regime is trying to to build, is that it’s too complex. You actually can get get involved. You can’t understand it. You can’t help. It’s too complex for you. That’s what I’m trying to break down.
S1: Do you want to go back to Syria?
S2: I would love it’s awesome, it’s beautiful, it’s green and their house is that being burned? They can be colored again. And places that had been destroyed, they can be rebuilt. I don’t think we need to get rid of is the regime and the corruption that exists. So when the regime fall, I’ll be taking the first flight. But if it wasn’t 10 years by then, I may have found the first lady and we may have kids by then, and that will be the decision of the first lady and the kids.
S1: You are so hopeful. I don’t know that I’ve met anyone more hopeful than you.
S2: I’m glad I’m glad to be. I hope you will remember me.
S1: That’s for sure. Omar, thank you so much for joining me.
S2: It was my honor.
S1: Omar Al Shagari is a student at Georgetown University. He’s also the director of detainee affairs at the Syrian Emergency Task Force since the Syrian revolution began. It’s estimated that more than half a million people have been killed or gone missing. Millions have been displaced internally. Millions more have escaped to neighboring countries as refugees since fleeing Syria. Omar has testified in front of European war crimes investigators. He’s also briefed members of Congress. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Kamel Dilshad, Mary Wilson, Davis Land. Daniel Hewitt and Ilana Schwartz were led by Alison Benedikte, Alicia Montgomery. And I am Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back in this field tomorrow.