KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A new report says the Syrian government is committing mass murder in a prison near Damascus. It's a military prison called Saydnaya, and in the report, Amnesty International claims some 13,000 people were killed there, typically in mass hangings, from March 2011 until December 2015. The Syrian government calls Amnesty's report untrue.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Omar al-Shogre says he spent 10 months in Saydnaya prison. He says he was arrested at age 17 and was in various Syrian prisons for more than two years before he came to Saydnaya. We cannot independently verify his story, but he is featured in Amnesty's report. It is very gruesome reading, and it's gruesome listening. Speaking via Skype from Stockholm where he's been granted asylum, al-Shogre says his arrest was political.
OMAR AL-SHOGRE: (Through interpreter) I only participated in peaceful demonstrations that included carrying roses and chanting. I was arrested the first time in 2011, and I was released. After that, I was arrested seven times, and my seventh time, I was kept in prison for three years. But I have never participated in any violent resistance.
SIEGEL: I have read that two of your cousins died in Syrian government custody before you got to Saydnaya. How much worse was Saydnaya than the other prisons that you had been in?
AL-SHOGRE: (Through interpreter) That prison, called 215, was a nightmare beyond anyone's imagination. There were wardens eating human flesh. There were people eating each other in the prison. Diseases were unbelievable. People were thirsty and hungry at all times. But now in retrospect, 215 was heaven compared to Saydnaya.
SIEGEL: In what way was Saydnaya worse than prison 215?
AL-SHOGRE: (Through interpreter) In the first prison, 215, at least we knew what was going on. We could hear things. We could see things, and we could know what our fate would be. In Saydnaya, we didn't know anything. We're just sitting there, waiting for punishment, always living as if this is the last five seconds of your life. You don't know anything because you're kept in a room, and you don't know when you're going to be killed because the prison wardens were telling us that we will be hung anytime soon.
In Saydnaya, we were faced with the reality of either dying or killing one other prisoner. And sometimes these prisoners are your family, your cousins, your parents. You get to a point where you know that you will either have to kill someone else, or you have to die yourself.
SIEGEL: Do you mean to say the guards told you you must now kill that person, or you will be executed?
AL-SHOGRE: (Through interpreter) Yes, we were requested by jailers to kill each other. Sometimes the wardens came with a knife or a rope, and they asked prisoners whether they had relatives or friends in prison. And once they identified their friends and relatives, they gave them one of two options - either killing their relatives or being killed themselves. And in many cases, being killed themselves was - included also being tortured before being killed.
SIEGEL: Were you ever posed with that choice?
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He said, "no one in their right mind would answer that question."
SIEGEL: Can't answer that question - since all of you in Saydnaya were already in prison, was the object of all of this torture to get information from you? Was it to make you work for them? What was the point of the torture, pure sadism?
AL-SHOGRE: (Through interpreter) No, the goal was not to gather information. I was in prison for two years before I was sent to Saydnaya, and I would say the first month was for real interrogation. I was tortured on the first month, and I was asked questions. And like everyone else, I lied just to make torture stop because everyone lies under torture just to let them stop. I told them that I was a terrorist. I told them that I had tanks and RPGs and weapons. I said anything that would let torture stop.
When I was in 215, that was a place where they asked us for questions, and that is the pace where interrogations happen. But when you're moved to Saydnaya, that's the place where you moved in to die.
SIEGEL: I have read that you have a photo of one of your torturers and that you keep it where you can see it. Why?
AL-SHOGRE: (Through interpreter) I have multiple pictures of my torturers in my room, and I look at them. They're ugly. They are ugly people, and these are ugly pictures. And I don't keep them there for a negative reason because I am a positive person. I keep it there because I think it's a shame on me if I forgot about my brothers in prison.
SIEGEL: Where did you get the photos of the torturers from Saydnaya prison, the guards?
AL-SHOGRE: (Through interpreter) Torturers in Saydnaya are Syrians. They didn't come from another country. They're not from China. And every Syrian has a family, so I got their pictures from their families.
SIEGEL: You described yourself as a positive person. Given the human behavior that you witnessed in Saydnaya, one could excuse you for taking a very dim view of human nature. How do you explain your positive attitude?
AL-SHOGRE: (Through interpreter) I will tell you I'm a positive person. That prison had amazing scholars and scientists in it. We had people who invented medicines for us when we were in prison. We had people who taught me everything about life. In my one foot of space in that prison, I had an attorney in front of me, a doctor next to me and an engineer next to me and a teacher behind me. And these people and others taught me a lot about life. And I came from hell, and now I live in Sweden in a very easy place to live in. Of course I will be positive.
SIEGEL: And just on a brighter note, what are your plans in Sweden now?
AL-SHOGRE: (Through interpreter) Oh, I have big plans. I have learned the language here in Sweden, and I am starting my school tomorrow. I'm going to the university to get a degree in engineering. Of course that will not distract me from my original goal of working to advocate for prisoners. These are people who gave their lives to protect mine, and I think the better I become, the easier it will get for me to help them.
SIEGEL: That is Omar al-Shogre, who spent 10 months in Syria's Saydnaya prison, where Amnesty International says 13,000 people died at the hands of the government between 2011 and 2015. Omar al-Shogre, thank you very much for talking with us today.
AL-SHOGRE: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: By the way, Mr. al-Shogre says he got out of Saydnaya emaciated but alive thanks to a $15,000 bribe. There's a picture of him at npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAMPHA SONG, "TOO MUCH")
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