Kristianstad, Sweden — He waves as I get off the train, red gym bag slung over his shoulder. It’s Jamal, one of the Syrians who inspired this trip through Jordan, Turkey, and Sweden.
We’d met on a former detainees’ support group in 2012. The online forum provided Syrians detained by the government after the social uprising in 2011 with a safe space to talk about violations, legal concerns, and who we’d left behind in the many underground cells managed by the Assad regime. It’s now mostly used to tacitly ask about missing people, for any news that they’re still alive.
Jamal looks different from when I saw him last, over lunch in a small Syrian restaurant in Istanbul’s Fatih district. It was summer 2014, a few months before he decided to get on a raft and try to cross the Aegean Sea for a new life. The dark circles under his eyes are gone, as is all trace of the shrapnel in his left knee when he walks. He leads the way confidently through the small Swedish town.
“This is my home,” he says, pointing up at a second-story flat. “I like it here. It’s quiet.”
Spring in Damascus, 2011
Jamal had recently completed his military conscription when the social uprising in Syria began, spring of 2011. From a well-off Damascene family, he was already a businessman at 22 years old. Jamal’s partners at the retail store asked him to stay out of politics. He signed off the shop to them and took to the streets.
“If you haven’t protested in Syria, against a dictatorship, than you can’t understand what freedom is,” said Jamal, sitting down in his living room. “I used to feel the walls were singing with us.”
Soon he was taking footage of the anti-government protests. Using a nom de guerre, “Freedom Storm,” Jamal would upload the footage to his YouTube channel, and email photos to international news organizations.
Jamal was walking in the old city in Damascus when he was ambushed by armed officers.
“They pushed onlookers away, telling them I was a burglar,” Jamal said.
T-shirt flipped over his head and handcuffed, Jamal was beat and shoved into a van. He was taken to security branch 215, run by military intelligence. Photos smuggled out of branch 215 by “Caesar”, a former forensics photographer for the Military Police, show tens of thousands of maimed, scarred and starved bodies. The legacy of 215 has made it synonymous with death under torture.
An informant had ratted Jamal out. Despite all the measures he’d taken, intelligence had found out even his pseudonym. Jamal couldn’t remember all the accusations he faced.
“Inciting external opposition, media work, what else,” said Jamal. “The investigator told me, even if everyone is released, you won’t. Forget about it.”
When I asked about torture methods, Jamal said he’d rather not talk about it.
“I’ll just tell you that they would destroy me with the electrocutions,” Jamal said.
Two months later, Jamal was released. His name was on an amnesty list issued by the Arab League pressuring the Syrian government to release 530 prisoners. He received a call two days after his release. It was branch 215, asking him to return for some “follow-up questions.”
“I told them I would be there first thing in the morning,” said Jamal. “I hung up, said goodbye to my family, cut off all contacts, and disappeared.”
For a month, Jamal switched addresses and phone numbers, a ghost in a city that was once his. He worked in providing aid to internally displaced people (IDPs) as government airstrikes on other Syrian cities drove them to the capital. Jamal knew he had to leave for good after the government raided a food warehouse he and his cousins used for the aid work.
Smugglers took Jamal and his father to a then-open Jordanian border. They spent a few nights in a shelter in the border city of Mafraq, now home to the bustling Zaatari Camp. But in January 2012, it was empty.
Jamal spent a year in Amman. He signed up for media courses, worked with a radio station, and volunteered with aid groups.
“Media was fun, but I wasn’t convinced I was actually making a serious difference,” Jamal said.
He decided to return to Syria, now a civil war scene after rebels took up arms against the government.
“I wanted to see what was happening,” Jamal said.
New Years in Syria
“I got to spend New Years 2013 in Syria,” said Jamal, smiling as he brews a pot of Turkish coffee. He circles the pot over the stove, stirring in the cardamom. “It took 15 days to get to Ghouta. There were clashes on the way, so much was destroyed.”
Ghouta is the Arabic name for the Damascus suburbs, and translated, it means “fertile green.” Ghouta was the capital’s food basket, but is now the scene of a three-year hunger siege. The popular protests that spread through the countryside were met with bullets and bombs. Soon afterwards, its residents took up arms, seizing control of the countryside, blockaded within their territory. The shelling continued.
Life in Ghouta was strikingly different than his previous life in the capital, yet it took on a routine. Jamal volunteered with aid and support groups and interviewed field doctors, rescue teams, activists, and fighters. Setting our coffee mugs down on the table, Jamal frowns.
“I think most of them are dead now,” he said.
Even the shelling became routine, says Jamal, pouring coffee into the demitasse. He waves away questions about his knee injury from the shelling, saying it’s nothing compared to what other people suffered.
“What is impossible to forget is the chemical attack.”
August 21st, 2013
On Jamal’s 24th birthday, August 21st, 2013, his friend shook him awake and handed him a surgeon mask.
“We need to go.”
Jamal puts down his coffee and looks out the window while he describes the fateful day the Syrian regime crossed Obama’s “red line,” killing more than 1,400 people in opposition-controlled areas by use of sarin gas, an internationally outlawed chemical weapon.
Rockets filled with sarin hit rebel-held neighborhoods in the early hours, while many people were still asleep. Jamal recounts walking into people’s homes only to find entire families dead, many who were still in their beds when they breathed in the lethal gas.
“We entered a home where there were 12 children, a few of them infants,” said Jamal. “I stopped counting after burying 70 people.”
Many of the survivors were in hysterics, foam spilling from their mouths, a symptom of breathing in the lethal gas that has no taste, color or smell.
“I still dream of it,” he said.
It’s easy to make someone disappear there
The climate was changing in the opposition-held Damascus suburbs as winter 2013 approached. Jamal was still working in aid, and his interviews with human rights activists was opening up doors some armed groups preferred to remain closed.
“You shut up, or we kill you,” said Jamal dejectedly. “And they could have gotten away with it. It’s easy to make someone disappear there.”
Corruption was becoming more commonplace as rebel groups splintered with their funding. Activists, especially those documenting human rights violations, were less and less welcome. Four prominent human rights defenders, known as the “Douma Four,” remain missing since December 2013, when they were abducted by armed men in the opposition-held suburb of Douma. They have not been heard from since.
Towards the end of 2013, Jamal again packed his bags to head back to Jordan, arranging the perilous trip with a smuggler through frontlines, dodging checkpoints.
“It’s a completely crushing feeling, to feel you have no space in your own country,” said Jamal. “Neither with the government, nor with the opposition.”
The border patrol shot live ammunition at the group of men, women, and children attempting to cross into Jordan. The “open border policy” remained, but only in name.
“I jumped out of the pickup truck and hid in a nearby river, thinking I could get away,” said Jamal, lamenting the memory cards he lost in the water.
The treatment they received was reminiscent of Syria’s prisons, said Jamal. Beatings, torture, stomping on refugees’ backs. The Jordanian military broke Jamal’s ID, and sent him back to Syria after two days in prison.
It took Jamal a month to reach Turkey, again through smugglers. Zigzagging across the Syrian countryside and desert to avoid checkpoints and airstrikes, he finally reached a then-open Turkish border.
Jamal smiles when he speaks of Istanbul.
“It was beautiful. Many of my friends from the uprising were there,” said Jamal. “It felt a little like Syria.”
He tried to work at a radio again, but was disenchanted with the strings attached to the funding.
“There is no freedom. The donor stays in control,” he said, a sentiment echoed by many Syrians working in aid, civil society and media sectors in Turkey.
For the next nine months, Jamal worked odd jobs, as a hotel receptionist, with tourism companies, making use of his English and learning Turkish. Despite his growing attachment to the vibrant metropolis, Jamal said exploitative working conditions, as well as realizing he’d never have the time or money to continue his education, reopened the idea of leaving, again.
“You have to be a machine to survive there. But the deciding factor was family,” said Jamal, nodding in the direction of his brother in the living room.
Like most Syrian families, Jamal’s is split across multiple borders. His father and younger sister are still in Jordan, and have been refused visas to Qatar. In the small Gulf state, Jamal’s mother is stuck after attending her other daughter’s wedding there, and being denied return to Jordan. His older brother, Hussein, had made his way to Sweden. Despite the risks of crossing the sea in a rubber raft, Europe seemed the most accessible border.
“When I approached the Swedish police, they didn’t arrest me,” said Jamal, laughing at how he thought he would get the same treatment he did on the Jordanian border.
He moved in with his older brother, Hussein, in the small southern town of Kristianstad. When I asked why they had chosen Sweden, Hussein replied from across the room.
“This country does not participate in or fund wars,” said Hussein. “I liked the idea of moving somewhere peaceful.”
29-year-old Hussein was completing his military conscription in the Syrian coastal city of Jableh when the social uprising began. Witnessing unarmed civilians being shot and killed by security forces, Hussein fled the country.
After a 16-month wait, Jamal has finally received his Swedish residency papers. He’s kept busy while waiting though.
In Sweden, Jamal started going to the gym regularly again, and it’s reawakened old dreams. He is currently preparing for the Swedish fitness championship, to be held in Stockholm this autumn.
“Why shouldn’t I win?” asks Jamal. “Yes, as Syrians, we come from a war. But we have skills. And above all, we have will.”
In the mornings, Jamal goes for a run, after spending a couple of hours practicing his Swedish. He also spends at least three hours at the gym everyday. Locals sometimes approach him for work-out tips, and he’s started assisting a few of them as a private trainer.
Now that he has his residency, Jamal is thinking of continuing his education and looking for full-time employment.
For the first time in years, he has space to think. And to remember.
12 of Jamal’s teeth are still broken from his time in regime prison. A piece of shrapnel is still lodged behind his left kneecap, a reminder of the government airstrikes in the countryside.
“I want to do an operation now, get the shrapnel out. It burns like electricity in the cold.” said Jamal, rubbing his knee and laughing. “And it gets cold often up here.”
The memories often resurface as nightmares; of prison, of airstrikes, of the chemical attack. Jamal recounted the story of a young student from Aleppo whom he left behind in security branch 215.
“He’d lost his mind from the torture; his body was all slashed up,” said Jamal. “I wasn’t even able to learn his name.”
Jamal walks me back to the train station, sharing anecdotes from his life here, and how his Swedish friends have started to pick up some Arabic phrases.
“It was good to see you,” he says as we wait for my train. “You know we’re all scattered now.”
Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati