Survivor Of Torture In Syria's Prisons Is Telling His Story
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
After eight years of civil war, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is solidifying its hold. But in Europe, a network of lawyers and survivors is pushing for justice for regime officials accused of war crimes in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have come to Europe, and many have shocking stories of the torture they have survived. NPR's Deborah Amos visited one survivor in Sweden.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When Omar Alshogre unlocks his apartment door in Stockholm, he calls out in the empty space.
OMAR ALSHOGRE: Hello. There is no one.
AMOS: He rarely invites guests. He's even a little nervous about this visit.
Where are we?
ALSHOGRE: Secret place.
AMOS: Alshogre is 24 years old. He speaks English with a light Swedish accent. He learned both languages quickly when he arrived in 2015. He's tall, delicately thin. He was repeatedly tortured in Bashar al-Assad's prisons, arrested when he was just 17.
Do you feel safe here?
ALSHOGRE: Nope. I don't feel safe. But I'm used to that. They killed my dad, my brothers, my cousins. They're still killing.
AMOS: He's the most visible and vocal witness to Syria's secret system of sweeping arrests and torture, a documented policy to crush an uprising that began in 2011.
ALSHOGRE: And something in your heart, like - I should do something, even if it's just talking.
AMOS: He is talking - on college campuses, even at the White House. He's also briefed members of Congress. He advocates for the missing, about a hundred thousand Syrians, according to the U.N. He's the go-to guy for Syrian families who still have relatives detained.
ALSHOGRE: I'm talking about 20,000 families who send me message in Facebook and in Instagram. The phone is like 24 hours (imitating phone ringing). And Facebook, I had like 2,000 message every day.
AMOS: One day, one call came from Syria. It was a chilling voice that carried him back to a dark cell and daily beatings.
ALSHOGRE: I recognize this voice. I know exactly who was this guy. He just said, why you don't shut up? Do you want money, or do you want me to kill you?
AMOS: Shut up or we will kill you was the essence of the policy to crush dissent.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).
AMOS: Alshogre was jailed because he joined these protests in the spring of 2011. It was the Arab Spring. In Tunisia and Egypt, dictators were already out. He wanted change in Syria, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).
AMOS: The regime posted videos as a warning to protesters. This one is Alshogre's arrest. Face down, hands cuffed - heavily armed men kicked the captives, beat them with metal pipes. There was much worse to come.
As the uprising spread, so did the regime's war against civilians. Hundreds of thousands were jailed, packed into filthy cells where thousands were tortured and killed. Most prisoners died within days or months. Remarkably, Alshogre endured for three years. So when that call came from Syria, he could finally demand answers from his tormentor.
ALSHOGRE: What makes you enjoy hurting people and torturing me when you know I never did anything wrong? And in silence, I could hear him, like, breathing very heavily. (Imitating sound of heavy breathing). And I think he was crying. He know he is guilty.
AMOS: Alshogre actually has two framed photographs of men who tortured him in prison. He bought those pictures from their Syrian relatives. One of the men called him.
You saw him every day.
ALSHOGRE: Every day.
AMOS: Why do you have them upside down?
ALSHOGRE: They're upside down in my head. They are going the wrong way.
AMOS: So you want to see this guy in jail?
ALSHOGRE: This guy, he killed many hundred of people. As long as I still alive, they're going to stand in front of the judge.
AMOS: His faith in justice keeps him going. He still sees the battered corpses, and he hears the voices of the dead.
ALSHOGRE: If you get out, do something. Like, talk. Talk about us. People felt that no one care. Everyone who was with me, everyone I remember died.
AMOS: He's joined activists, lawyers and other survivors to wage an unprecedented legal battle against the Assad regime.
ALSHOGRE: So by telling what I'm telling you right now, I win the war against them.
AMOS: He's won by giving testimony to a Swedish war crimes unit and German prosecutors, won again - at least, symbolically - when courts in France and Germany issued the first international arrest warrants for high-level Syrian officials. And in February, a former Syrian intelligence officer was arrested in Berlin. That trial is expected in the spring.
SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SINGING)
AMOS: In Stockholm, the sky is a bright summer blue, far from the Syrian village where Alshogre raised birds as a kid. We sat on a bench in a public park.
ALSHOGRE: I learned to do that in prison - you know? - in silence. (Whistling).
AMOS: He was released in 2015, after his mother paid an intermediary $20,000 to get him out and save his life. Barefoot and coughing up blood, he weighed just 75 pounds; his mother didn't recognize him. Now he's filled with purpose. He stops in front of a police station a few blocks from the park. He gave his eyewitness account here.
ALSHOGRE: As long as I still alive, I'm going to do that. So I hope I survive long time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FATE CALLS")
AMOS: He tells his story again and again, he says, until there is justice for him and for those who died.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Stockholm.
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