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The Storytellers

Tortured Syrian protester: 'Humanity will win'

The Arab Spring inspired many to take to the streets. But for some opponents of the Syrian government this proved to be deadly, as the regime imprisoned, tortured and killed many citizens. A survivor tells his story.

Khalid Mohammed had never been to a protest before. He had always wanted to call for change in his homeland, but given the pre-revolution clampdown on freedom of expression in Syria, massing on the streets was simply not done.

Then, in December 2010, the "Arab Spring" in Egypt and Tunisia erupted.

"Maybe that was the first reason," said Mohammed, who is using a pseudonym because he still has family inside Syria and worries the regime will go after them in retribution for speaking out. "It pushed us to go ahead. It was a new chance for us, a real chance. Because, before that, everyone was so afraid to [confront] these powers."

The Syrian uprising started on March 15, 2011, in the restive southern city of Daraa. Two days later, Mohammed joined protestors on the streets in his hometown Aleppo. He doesn't know where he found the courage.

"It was maybe feeling the liberty. It was very, very exciting," said Mohammed, 50. "I know it's [a] very, very small sector of society who began in these protests but it's very important. ... Everyone [felt] that it's the right moment to change, right moment to take the first step. Also we wanted to give [notice] for all the world that we [deserve] a better life. We can, all of us, all the people in the world, participate [in] our future."

Anti-government protesters gesture on the streets of Daraa, March 23, 2011. (Photo: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)

Mohammed eventually joined in street protests, which started March 2011 in Daraa

Shortly after the protests, Mohammed was detained by Syria's security services - the Muhabarat - and questioned for about 10 hours.

Yet, he kept participating in demonstrations. The secret police caught him after another protest and imprisoned him for 10 days. They tortured him - for the first time.

"They [make] you lay down on the floor and they begin to beat you with a piece of plastic or a piece of wood, everywhere," he said.

Mohammed was arrested a third time and held for four months. He was tortured again and then released.

'Winds of change'

Shortly after the protests, Mohammed was detained by Syria's security services - the Muhabarat - and questioned for about 10 hours.

Yet, he kept participating in demonstrations. The secret police caught him after another protest and imprisoned him for 10 days. They tortured him - for the first time.

"They [make] you lay down on the floor and they begin to beat you with a piece of plastic or a piece of wood, everywhere," he said.

Mohammed was arrested a third time and held for four months. He was tortured again and then released.

"Complete darkness and breathing [was] so difficult - just a small window," he said. "Suddenly, after two days the system of air conditioning was stopped. I don't know why. But … we couldn't breathe [anymore]. I began to lose control and my concentration. At that point I began to hear the voice of my children."

After a day and a half with limited oxygen, seven of the men in the cell died, Mohammed said, and 20 other people in adjoining cells also died of suffocation.

The guards moved him to another cell about two floors underground with no windows. The room was about eight by eight meters (about 25 feet by 25 feet) and was packed with more than 100 people.

The prisoners had to stay standing most of the time. While he couldn't lie down, Mohammed would squeeze himself into a ball to try to get an hour or two of sleep, next to another prisoner.

"My neighbor, I [felt] that he's very cold and [it was] so strange for me the first time. I [found] him dead," he said, adding that this happened "many times."

Mohammed was tortured three times during this stay in jail. Other younger political prisoners would be tortured more regularly. Some were electrocuted. Others were burned with cigarettes and scalding metals. Mohammed said "many, many people" died while being tortured.

He said the bodies were dumped in the streets of Damascus, some were incinerated, and others were thrown in the river. He also said the guards used mass graves.

Torture all around

Torture by the Syrian regime is "pretty routine," according to Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's senior investigator on crisis response. "Torture in custody of the various government forces has been very widespread," she said.

"Though on a smaller scale, torture and ill-treatment has also been a concern - and has become a more frequent occurrence - by armed opposition groups," including the Free Syrian Army, added Rovera, who has spent extensive time inside Syria during the conflict.

Syrian refugees pass through the Turkish Cilvegozu gate border, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

There are now more than 2 million Syrian refugees - like this family crossing the border to Turkey

"Every day or every other day, one of us lost his life," Mohammed said. He added that some prisoners died from disease and starvation.

When he was first jailed, Mohammed weighed about 95 kilos (about 210 pounds). He lost more than 40 kilos over his eight months of imprisonment. He looked "like a ghost," he joked.

A judge released Mohammed from jail about two months ago. He doesn't know why. A month later, he took his wife and two kids to Turkey, where they live today. He is one of about two million Syrians who are refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Mohammed said he's angry "for the children, for the old men and women who suffer, who live under that regime, who live inside my country. Not for me, not angry for me but, for the people."

While Mohammed is not involved in any political opposition groups, he is working to help his fellow citizens through providing medical equipment.

Ultimately, Mohammed expects there will be a political resolution to the conflict in Syria that will bring about peace. "Humanity will win," he said.

"We hope to turn back as soon as possible to our country to continue to build it, to reconstruct it and to help the people to live a good life because the Syrian people [deserve] to live like all the people in all the world," he said.

Mohammed has hope for Syria and wants to live there in peace again soon.

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