RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A historic trial in Germany has brought two Syrian officials to court on charges of crimes against humanity. The key witness is a renowned Syrian filmmaker who survived torture in a Syrian prison. During the trial, he came face-to-face with the man he says tortured him. He's been talking to NPR's Deborah Amos. And we want to note this story does include a graphic description of torture.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The star witness, Feras Fayyad, a 35-year-old filmmaker, his hair prematurely gray, nominated twice for Academy Awards for his documentaries on the Syrian war.
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AMOS: In 2018, the "Last Men In Aleppo" documented a city under siege. This February, he was in Los Angeles again for the Academy Awards after "The Cave" was nominated, a portrait of a courageous Syrian doctor offering lifesaving care in an underground hospital.
FERAS FAYYAD: All the time, my team asked me, why are you not happy? But I didn't know how I can experience my happiness. There is a pain, and I really didn't understand it.
AMOS: Fayyad's work was honored, but he couldn't celebrate.
FAYYAD: I was, like, so much angry because the idea of stigma and shame 'cause what's happened with me.
AMOS: It's the pain of a torture survivor. Fayyad was arrested in 2011 for filming Syrian protests. He endured beatings, lashings, a filthy communal cell where it was hard to tell who was still alive. He was accused of spying and anti-regime activity. Even fellow inmates told him he was doomed.
FAYYAD: Oh, you are director and making films against Assad, so then they will kill you. You will be hanged.
AMOS: Then, he was released after just a few months without any explanation.
FAYYAD: Skinny, with no hair - my body still was bleeding. And I get scared to look myself in the mirror for long time.
AMOS: He still wonders why he did survive when thousands swept up in arbitrary arrests died within days or weeks.
FAYYAD: The karma helped me to get out in this way, like, because I have a mission to do in this life.
AMOS: His mission, he says, is to make films about the Syrian war. He fled to Turkey, sneaking back into Syria to document civilians under bombardment. But he never spoke about the torture he suffered, not even to his family. He gave his first public account in the court in Germany last month. He sat just a few feet away from the former Syrian officer Anwar Raslan, charged with 58 counts of murder, at least 4,000 cases of torture in the prison were Raslan was in command. Fayyad's testimony is critical to establish a charge of one particularly shocking brutality, which the German judges had him recount, that he was sexually assaulted with a wooden baton.
FAYYAD: And my case was - it's about sexual violence, experienced sexual violence.
AMOS: They questioned you a lot about rape in jail. Was that difficult to talk about?
FAYYAD: Yeah, it was difficult. I don't feel it in the moment when I was speaking. I feel it after.
AMOS: The phantom pains came back, the psychological wounds triggered by his testimony.
FAYYAD: Day by day, the feeling of the pain, it's turned to be physical. And I feel like all my body, like, broken.
AMOS: But he says the German trial is a first step in his own recovery.
FAYYAD: When I went to the court, I start to feel there is something completely changed after that. Of course, there is a physical pain. But I'll start to feel like justice is a real fix. It's not a fake.
AMOS: More than two dozen Syrian victims are expected to tell their stories in court. Feras Fayyad was the first to testify against a Syrian intelligence officer he alleges nearly killed him in a Syrian prison in 2011. When the two met again - one a witness, the other a defendant - Fayyad stunned the court with an offer to forgive Raslan if he would acknowledge his role in a policy of torture.
FAYYAD: Because he denied all the crimes that was happening there and denied that even there is a torture in that place.
AMOS: Fayyad urges more Syrian witnesses to come forward with their names. He's documenting the trial and his time in prison.
FAYYAD: I'm filming my personal story right now in this. I'm trying to make it, like, as a message for my family because I didn't tell them before, and I want to tell them through this.
AMOS: He will finally tell his family what happened to him, why he decided to testify for justice, for history and to send a message to those imprisoned in Syria - you are not forgotten.
Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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