As a new strain of coronavirus spreads quickly around the world, nearly two billion people are on lockdown in their homes. The World Health Organisation’s advice is to remain at least two metres away from others. But for people in overcrowded detention centres in regime-held areas of Syria, that kind of social distancing simply isn’t an option.
I know this all too well. The Assad regime’s brutal security services imprisoned me for three years in ten different detention centres across Syria, after I took part in the 2011 anti-government protest movement.
Along with fellow political prisoners, I was packed shoulder-to-shoulder inside the dank, dirty walls of the underground detention centres, where I stayed until my mother paid $20,000 to secure my release in 2015. We faced electric shocks and beatings, and were forced to look on as fellow detainees were raped. We were starved and kept in overcrowded cells where disease proliferated. We sat on top of one another, packed tightly like sardines. We hung on to life by a fine thread.
It is difficult to know the true extent of coronavirus’s spread in Syria, where different, competing factions control various parts of the country after nine years of conflict; the governing regime in Damascus does not have a reputation for transparency. As of 6 April 2020, the country’s Ministry of Health had confirmed 19 Covid-19 cases, two deaths, and two recoveries – figures far lower than neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Is the Assad regime following its partner and ally Iran, which has been accused of covering up the extent of the outbreak? We may never know.
Worryingly for detainees in Syria, one of the coronavirus deaths was a woman from a town called Mneen, which lies just 10km from Syria’s most notorious prison, Saydnaya. I spent nearly a year there, and was subjected to a mock execution before being released. The proximity makes me fear that it is just a matter of time before the virus enters one of the worst prisons in the world, where mass hangings have already eradicated thousands of people.
Abuses like those I underwent in Syria’s prisons are still ongoing. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group, nearly 130,000 people remain detained or forcibly disappeared at the hands of the Assad regime. An outbreak of coronavirus in prisons would have catastrophic effects on prisoners, many of whom are already in poor health and have been held arbitrarily for years. Their immune systems are compromised from torture and starvation. Of all Syrians, they would likely suffer the most.
At the end of last month, the Assad regime said it would release some prisoners, but crucially, the amnesty doesn’t include political detainees, who remain languishing in dire conditions. Prisoners must be released; there should be no negotiation about that. But I do not think this will happen any time soon, not least because a coronavirus outbreak would kill off many detainees first. Perversely, the regime might almost deem this useful; removing some prisoners while others are kept as political bargaining chips.
In any case, guards in Syrian prisons do not care about detainees’ health or well-being, or preventing the spread of diseases, such as Covid-19. On the contrary, they actively spend their time formulating crueller ways to hurt and torture prisoners, and contain illness using fatal brutality. Upon my arrival at Saydnaya prison in 2014, a regime officer asked us incoming detainees whether anyone was ill. Those who said yes were killed on the spot by beatings. In my three years living as a detainee under the Assad regime, I saw tuberculosis spread and kill thousands of fellow prisoners. I, too, contracted tuberculosis, coughed up blood, and withered away to only 34kg. To me, my survival still feels like a miracle.
More than anything, and beyond its fatal spread among detainees, I fear coronavirus will complete the Assad regime’s mass killing of Syrians.
Syria lacks a functioning healthcare system, a result of more than nine years of continuous conflict. In areas outside the regime’s control, Russia and the Syrian army have deliberately targeted hospitals, leaving millions to suffer without adequate medical care – with or without a pandemic to cope with. The Syrian regime simply does not care about its own people. Over the past nine years it has used weapons of all kinds to slaughter its citizens, including peaceful opposition organisers in 2011. Assad cares only about the survival of his regime and his family, who have ruled with an iron fist since 1970. In other words, he is ready to let hundreds of thousands more Syrians die before he yields to a democratic transition.
In fighting coronavirus, the world has been united against a common enemy. We have made sacrifices – staying at home, letting our businesses take a hit, avoiding friends and family – to keep ourselves and our communities safe. But my memories of prison remain with me, and I know that for the people still enduring detention in Syria, accessing healthcare and applying social distancing rules are impossible.
We all must ask our governments to apply whatever pressure they can to prevent more deaths in Syria. I testified to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in March on the prison conditions I experienced in Syria, as I believe that talking about what happened to me can make a difference and improve conditions for those who are still unfairly incarcerated in my home country.
We must also continue to speak out on the behalf of tens of thousands of people still condemned to Syria’s prisons, and end the Assad regime’s unconscionable and genocidal system of detention. Those detainees – people who are not just numbers, and who are among those least able to fight coronavirus themselves – desperately need us to do so.
Omar al-Shogre spent three years in Assad regime prisons in Syria from the age of 17. He escaped and now lives in Sweden, and travels to advocate for human rights in Syria.
Additional editing by Siobhan Daley-Gibson and Lizzie Porter