“Do you love your husband?” the interrogator asked.
During her first interrogation session, Bayan*, a Syrian activist, had resisted physical abuse and refused to answer questions.
So the Assad regime’s jailers tried a different tactic.
For her second interrogation, they dragged her husband into the room—naked, wet, blindfolded. He looked like he had been tortured, she said, with lacerations and the marks of abuse all over his body.
Then they began beating him with a thick green hose. She was helpless to intervene.
“I can still hear his voice,” she told The Daily Beast.
After that session, she stopped resisting.
For female detainees of the Assad regime, three of whom spoke to The Daily Beast, it was the psychological trauma, not the physical abuse, which scars the most.
Their worst memories behind bars, the painful reverberations of which resound to this day, are when their jailors played off their affection for family and close friends.
Some Syrian torture victims have had trouble obtaining U.S. visitor visas to come testify about their personal experiences and instead had to speak to The Daily Beast from abroad.
On the other hand, one female former detainee came to the United States to receive an award from the State Department in mid-March, only to leave prematurely and in disgust after meeting with first lady Michelle Obama and other government officials, having come to the conclusion that policymakers were not interested in intervening to stop the violence in Syria.
Bayan, 41, had been a teacher with a degree in literature before she began organizing demonstrations during the early days of the Syrian revolution in 2011.
She was detained in October 2013 and taken first to the notorious Military Intelligence Branch 215 in Damascus, where tales of sexual violence were rampant among the women held there.
In subsequent interrogations, her jailers threatened to bring her children to join her if she did not cooperate. She confessed under pressure that she knew a prominent Syrian activist—even though she didn’t.
She admitted to a lot of things she hadn’t done.
She was eventually released in March 2014 through a prisoner swap and fled to Lebanon with her three children. Her husband remains behind bars—if he’s alive—as do three of her siblings.
Noura Al-Jizawi, another Syrian human rights activist, was shocked with an electric rod more times than she could count during detention.
But it is the sounds that haunt her most.
Her friends’ voices as they were being tortured have melded with the sound of slowly dripping water—a sinister, looping soundtrack that she endured for 30 straight days.
“I still cannot listen to the sound of water dripping,” she said.
The Assad regime had kidnapped Al-Jizawi on the way to a transit depot and regularly threatened to harm her family in an effort to get her to inform on her activist friends.
There were many women in detention, she said. Very old women and children. Sick women and pregnant women. Many women give birth deep in the confines of the Assad regime’s intelligence branches, where they interrogate prisoners, Al-Jizawi said.
Bayan and Al-Jizawi both spent time in Military Intelligence Branch 215. And they are the lucky ones. They survived to tell the tales of their abuse.
Not all the women imprisoned in Syria’s prisons were so lucky. When a Syrian military photographer codenamed “Caesar” snuck out of the country with thousands of photos depicting the dead, many of them came from came from that same military intelligence branch, including this photo of a woman who died in detention.
Syrian opposition representative to the U.N. Najib Ghadbian estimates the number of Syrians behind held in the country’s prisons at between 150,000 and 230,000.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented cases of torture and sexual abuse by Syrian military and pro-government forces on female detainees, describing electric shocks, stress positions, beatings, and rape.
Even the women who are not in prison are subjected to suffering.
Sami*, 44, a mechanical engineer before the Syrian uprising, told The Daily Beast that when he was in detention his jailers forced him to call his wife under duress—as a way to humiliate him and inflict an emotional toll. Without elaborating, he said simply that they forced him to say things that were untrue.
He listed that phone call as one of the worst experiences of his detention in 2013, along with prolonged hanging from the ceiling in a stress position and waking up chained to a bed next to a naked dead body in three separate incidents.
Some Syrian detainees and torture victims blamed the State Department for their trouble obtaining visas to testify about their experiences in the United States, accusing the agency of not doing enough to make exceptions for torture victims. Problems with visas have scuttled events ranging from a play by Syrian women refugees that had been scheduled at Georgetown University to cross-country talks about the killing and torture in Syria.
Bayan said she was “shocked” when her request for a visitor visa to the United States was denied. She had not even entertained that possibility of a rejection and had been organizing a series of events where she would bear witness to what happened to her.
“Every visa case and application is evaluated on an individual basis…several victims of Assad regime’s crimes against civilians have been admitted to the United States,” a State Department spokesman told The Daily Beast. “All visa applications are reviewed and accepted the same way.”
From a legal perspective, victims of the Syrian regime’s torture and detention face difficult obstacles to gaining temporary access to the United States, said Muna Jondy, a Michigan lawyer who has consulted with numerous Syrian victims on the immigration process.
“Proof [of] a residence to return to is difficult for displaced people,” Jondy said.
Suhaila*, a humanitarian worker who lives in Damascus, was also denied a visa to come to the United States to discuss the ongoing conflict.
“I’m sitting here in Damascus and I don’t know where to help…I’m here and I feel shackled, and there are others who feel like we can’t do anything where we’re at,” she said through a translator.
But access to the United States is no panacea.
In mid-March, Majd Chourbaji came to the United States to receive the International Women of Courage Award from the State Department. Despite being honored for her work with Syrian refugees, she left the United States ahead of schedule—abruptly and in disgust.
Chourbaji had been detained by Syrian military intelligence, and her husband had been tortured and killed. But meetings with first lady Michelle Obama and State Department officials left her acutely aware that the United States was quite well informed about the violence in Syria—and had done, in her eyes, not nearly enough to stop it.
“I have never hated myself before as I hated myself when I was in America,” Chourbaji wrote in a letter, translated from Arabic. “I was nauseated when I was telling people…about our struggles and our pain, when the response was ‘sorry’!! People are dying in my country and your country can help them, but all you can say to me is ‘sorry’??! Because of the silence of your nation, every minute there is a child or woman who is being killed, and you say to me ‘sorry’??!”
While Chourbaji was in the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would eventually need to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in order to remove him from power.
The State Department tried to walk back those remarks soon after.
“There always has been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of that process. It would not be and would never be, and it wasn’t what Secretary Kerry was intending to imply, that that would be Assad himself,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
The secretary of state’s apparent openness to negotiation with Assad or his representative was, Chourbaji argued, a shameful stance from a government she saw as indifferent to the killing in Syria:
“I broke down. I cried uncontrollably and asked myself, ‘…How can you trust a government that has been silent on the killing of your people for four years, and you come to them to accept an award and share your silly story?’”
More than 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Syria, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The conflict entered its fifth year on March 16.
“I want to talk to the average American and tell them about Syria and the revolution, and the great and high ideals which the Syrian people came out to demand,” Al-Jizawi told The Daily Beast.
“And,” she continued, “how the Syrians were completely abandoned.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the former detainees, many of whom still have relatives in prison or elsewhere in Syria.
The Daily Beast corroborated the testimony of the Syrian detainees mentioned in this story by obtaining documentation as evidence that they had been jailed by the Assad regime. Al-Jizawi’s detention was publicized as a means of pressuring the Syrian government for her release. Bayan was part of a publicized prisoner swap. The State Department has acknowledged Chourbaji’s detention.