First Published: 2017-03-10

Pained writings on the wall of former IS prison
Since Syria's conflict erupted in 2011, tens of thousands of people have been detained by warring forces, many of their fates unknown to this day.
Middle East Online

Grafitti reading 'all doors have been shut but yours, O God', in IS prison in Syrian town of al-Bab

AL-BAB - On the walls of a former Islamic State group jail, Syrian detainees whiled away endless months by scrawling phrases and poems, praying for freedom or bidding farewell to loved ones.

One former prisoner of the jihadists, Khalifah al-Khidr, returned to his cell in Al-Bab's jail two weeks after the northern town was wrested from IS by Turkish-backed rebels.

Dressed in a black fleece and cap, Khidr, 23, looked at ease while outside in the courtyard but was gripped by fear as soon as he stepped inside the three-storey building.

For the first time since his six-month imprisonment in 2014, Khodr descended into a dark hallway, its walls tagged with names, dates and religious verses in multi-coloured script.

"Most prisoners wrote on the walls to leave a trace, to show that they're still alive," the tanned young man said.

Since Syria's conflict erupted in 2011, tens of thousands of people have been detained by government forces, rebels, and jihadists -- in many cases their fate unknown to this day.

"Prison is an honour. Shackles are my anklets, and the balango, the swing of heroes," reads one phrase.

The "balango" is a torture method notorious across Syria, by which a victim is hoisted up into the air by the hands and left there for many hours.

Another prisoner, perhaps afraid of being forgotten after days holed up in the prison's abyss, wrote: "If the days pass and you don't see me anymore, here is my signature. Remember me."

- Write to 'pass the time' -

For others, a single, pained word was enough: "Injustice."

Before it was a prison, the building was a local administration centre, complete with a temporary detention centre.

When the Islamic State (IS) group took it over from Syrian rebels, it turned the building into a jail and used a nearby complex -- reachable by tunnel -- as a religious tribunal.

As many as 100 prisoners would be crammed into the tiny cells, said Khidr, who had worked as a citizen journalist opposed to both IS and Syria's regime before he was detained.

"When I was in prison, I would dream of nothing," he said, speaking slowly and deliberately as he scanned the walls.

Instead, detainees sketched their dreams on cell walls: a dove taking flight with the caption, "She wants to fly," or the phrase "Freedom of the press."

Suddenly, Khidr's eyes locked onto something he himself had scrawled onto the wall on June 3, 2014 -- the first week of his imprisonment.

He pointed to the line, a verse by celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: "On this earth is what makes life worth living."

"The phrases on these walls can give hope to relatives" worried that prisoners had disappeared, said Khidr.

For Alaa, another former detainee in Al-Bab, "every prisoner spends his first two weeks telling his whole life story."

"But then he has nothing left to say, and he begins to feel deadly boredom. Everyone finds a way to pass the time," the 25-year-old said via the internet.

- 'Some hope to die' -

Over the course of months, "each prisoner loses his sense of time and starts to mark the number of days that have passed" on the wall.

Alaa, who scrawled his own name on the prison wall in late 2013, recounted how detainees furtively got their hands on some writing tools.

"One day, IS guys asked for volunteers to clean a huge room full of Syrian government documents and property deeds," he said.

"As we cleaned, we found a box of coloured pencils and snuck them out."

But it was not just during IS's rule that prisoners scribbled on the walls: some of the dates marked are more than a decade old.

"These walls knew several generations," Alaa said with a wry smile.

But the detention and torture methods have remained the same.

Some individual locker-sized cells were known as "coffins": rectangular cabinets where a single inmate could barely fit in vertically.

But the worst were the "doghouses," square cupboards where prisoners could only fit if they knelt into contorted shapes.

"They stayed like that for 40 days, and they even put diapers on so they could do their business since they were not allowed to go out... Some would hope to die," said Khidr.

But two years after his own lucky escape from prison, Khidr said: "Today, I am here of my own free will, in this place where I could have died at any moment."

Behind him, a message in red ink signed by prisoner Abu Adib reads: "All doors are shut, except yours, God."

 

Turkey, US agree to ‘work together’ in Syria

Fears of expanding Syrian war could trigger peace deal

Netanyahu warns Iran, brandishes piece of metal

66 feared dead as plane crashes in Iranian mountains

Students in Damascus brave shelling to attend school

Israeli, US officials meet over gas row with Lebanon

Iran's supreme leader says progress needed on justice

Syria Kurds claim striking positions in Turkey

Saudi women to open businesses without male permission

Netanyahu slams 'outrageous' Holocaust remark by Polish PM

Israeli air strikes kill 2 in Gaza

Six suffer breathing difficulties after Turkish shelling in Afrin

Russian mercenaries - a discrete weapon in Syria

Iran protests ban on wrestler who threw bout to avoid Israel

Battle to free Mosul of IS 'intellectual terrorism'

Turkey frees Garman-Turk journalist after one year without charge

Turkey hands life sentences to 3 journalists for Gulen links

Thousands protest corruption in Tel Aviv amid PM indictment call

Prominent jihadist commander killed by rival Syria rebels

300 Russians killed in Syria battle last week

Tillerson, Erdogan have ‘productive, open’ talk

Iran raises rates, freezes accounts in bid to shore up rial

Kremlin says five Russians killed in US Syria strikes

Oman FM in rare visit by Arab official to Jerusalem

Senior IS leader extradited to Iraq from Turkey

Strikes hit another hospital in Syria's Idlib

Churches snub Jerusalem reception over tax dispute with Israeli authorities

Tillerson says US never gave 'heavy arms' to Kurdish YPG

Captured foreign IS suspects claim innocence

Yemeni mother awaits death penalty for spying for UAE

Fuel shortage shuts down Gaza's only power plant

Morocco arrests three suspected IS terrorists

Family of dead environmentalist in Iran threatened

Israel hands life sentence to Palestinian for triple murder

US appeals to Turkey to concentrate on fighting IS

Turkey sets up new 'observation point' in Syria's Idlib

Malaysia rejects criticism over Israeli visit

Tillerson in Ankara to ease Turkey tensions

Egypt arrests ex-presidential candidate

Tillerson: Hezbollah is part of Lebanon's 'political process'

Netanyahu says government ‘stable’ despite police recommending indictment

Corruption accusations facing Netanyahu

Syria denies ‘unacceptable’ chemical weapons use

Nations pledge nearly $25 billion toward Iraq's reconstruction

Egypt remands in custody former anti-corruption chief