On Torture in Syria
An exclusive interview by Mojca Zabukovec with Belgian teacher Pierre Piccinin who was tortured in Syria during his last visit there this spring to see what is really happening.
They put him in a small room and left. On the floor there were human fingernails, blood, and needles. The first hearing was held in English: “Who are you? What are you doing here?” they asked again and again. For the moment they seemed satisfied with the answers. He was taken to another room, similar to the first one. There was a notebook on the table and his USB key next to it: “In the photos, you are with the terrorists. It is illegal to be with terrorists,” they said firmly. “In order to understand what is going on, I met with the rebels,” he answered. He asked them to call the Ministry of Information which could explain who he was. He told them to check his name on the Internet, but at the heart of the Syrian intelligence services there is no Internet connection. Other men came to take him away. “It was horrible. They beat me using every possible technique. They were no longer asking questions. They were only hitting me. I do not know what they wanted, probably to scare me,” says Pierre Piccinin, a Belgian teacher of history and political science, describing the last days of an eight-day visit to Syria, which he spent in several prisons.
In July 2011, he visited Syria for the first time with a tourist visa; the second time he invited by the Syrian Ministry of Information last December. “I had written articles about the situation in Syria that they found fair, so they invited me,” says the 39-year-old, who teaches at the European School in Brussels and is the author of several analyses on West Asia. For his third trip, he did not get a visa at the embassy, but he decided to travel anyway. A friend who is a humanitarian worker advised him to travel through Lebanon, where entering Syria should not be difficult. “They asked me a few questions, including why I would like to go to Syria despite the current situation. I told them that I have a friend in Damascus and I would like to visit him for a few days. That was all. I got the visa,” says Piccinin. On May 15, 2012, he crossed the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Of Blood and Fire
On his third visit to Syria, just over a year and a half since the revolt against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad began, Piccinin aimed to map the extent of the resistance. Due to the media reporting on the situation in Syria, he was surprised at what he encountered. “Contrary to what the media claimed, Syria is not the country of blood and fire. It is not a country where mass protests are held in all the big cities, and it is not a country where the army is shooting everywhere.” Piccinin believes that the resistance of the opposition is limited and that the army and intelligence services are loyal to the regime.
“A lot has been said about numerous deserters crossing over to the Free Syrian Army. This is not true. It may be several hundred of them, which is very few in regards to the size of the Syrian Army.” According to Piccinin, in the cities that appear to be the center of resistance against the regime, not much happened between last July and December. Resistance is limited to city districts, while the urban centers are still in the hands of the regime. When Piccinin was in Hama, the French News Agency reported that half a million people had gathered in the streets. Piccinin, who was in the crowd, estimates there were not more than 10,000 protesters. “This information is even more absurd, if we consider that Hama only has 370,000 people.” The city – where in 1982 Bashar al-Assad’s father orchestrated the massacre of thousands of Sunni Muslims, and where in the last year clashes between regime forces and insurgents are common – had been completely rebuilt before Piccinin’s third visit. “Everything was clean and scenes reminded me of Disney cartoons. The city was peaceful and prepared for the viewers of the United Nations.”
No Regime Change
The Belgian was determined to visit border cities this time because most of the resistance against the regime takes place there.
At the Turkish border, for instance, the Free Syrian Army can count on support from Ankara. Turkey gives shelter to those who have fled Syria. At the border with Jordan, the rebel army can count on French military assistance, as recently unveiled by the French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné.
Piccinin believes that the “most serious opposition in the country” is the Free Syrian Army, yet one cannot speak of only one opposition:
The media always reports on there being one single opposition, but there are many oppositions. There is a jihadist movement, a Salafist movement, the Free Syrian Army, and various radical groups. In Hama, for instance, there is a very peaceful opposition organized by the locals. In Homs, I met rebels who are not members of the Free Syrian Army. They are just locals in arms.
Pierre Piccinin does not believe that such fragmented opposition can interconnect, as none of the groups is fighting the same fight:
The problem of the Free Syrian Army is that it has neither the resources nor the capacity to confront the regime army, which is strong and well organized, quite different from Saddam Hussein’s army in 2003 or the military of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Since his last trip to Syria, Piccinin has been far from a regime-beloved writer:
I believe my previous analyses are good, but I was wrong in one regard. Previously, I had assumed that the regime wanted to change and that Bashar al-Assad would have taken advantage of the resistance and changed the regime, as he introduced some reforms and called the elections. I was wrong. The regime does not intend to change and will not change. It will continue doing everything it has been doing – terrorising and torturing people.
When asked why he changed his opinion after the third trip, Piccinin, who was labelled a “war tourist”, an “adventurer without imagination”, and a “researcher without references” by the French daily Le Monde, answered:
Previously, I had different information than I have now. I have talked with many people and I have experienced a lot. Previously, I also thought that most Syrians would continue to support the regime. I have seen mass pro-regime protests in Damascus. Now such protests do not happen.
He recognizes that the situation in Syria has changed in recent months. One of the people he met in Syria works for the government, and told him that the regime is losing support. “Most Syrians I met were fed up with the situation. They have hardly any food to put on the table. Unemployment in the country is said to range between 50 and 60 percent.’
After his return to Brussels, he had no contact with the Syrian Ministry of Information:
You know what is weird? Prior to their invitation, I published articles that were liked by the regime, although I used words such as ‘dictatorship’ and ‘violations of human rights’. Nevertheless, I did not receive a visa for the third visit. One of the doctors in the prison in Damascus admitted that they called the Ministry of Information as I had requested, but they said they were not aware of my last arrival in Syria and did not say anything in my favor.
A month ago, he did not imagine that he would experience the brutality of the Syrian Secret Service. His route to Syria was planned to perfection while he was still in Brussels. From there, he made an online reservation for a room in a Damascus hotel and rented a car. On May 16 he arrived in Homs, the center of the year-long rebellion against the regime. Unlike his previous two visits, he found that a part of the city was in ruins. In Talbiseh, he met the members of the Free Syrian Army. When he came to Talkalakh, only a few kilometers from the Lebanese border, the town was besieged by the regime army. They took Piccinin’s passport, saying that they needed to check it. While waiting, the Belgian was interviewed by the Voice of America and the Swiss radio RSR; he announced that he was going to meet the rebels. Then he was surrounded by a few cars and invited to get into one of them. “For your safety”, they said. When he got into the car, he was handcuffed.
After the first hearing, which was, as he said, “correct’, he was transferred to Homs, where the center of the intelligence services is situated. “There the hell began.” Again and again he begged to call the Ministry of Information, showing his interrogators a business card that he had gotten from the government on the previous trip, but all was in vain. He had to continuously explain why he was in Syria. “I knew why they arrested me. They wondered who the European was who was walking around Talkalakh where the Free Syrian Army is stationed,” says Piccinin. After several hours of torture and electric shocks, he was tied up and left lying on the floor listening to screams from other cells. He thought this was the end.
The next morning he was put on a bus to the infamous prison of the intelligence services of the Palestine Branch in Damascus. Throughout the afternoon he was interrogated, but not tortured. Here again he heard the cries of other prisoners. Piccinin ended up in the civil prison of Bab al-Musala. Two days later he was freed, after the Belgian Ambassador to Jordan Thomas Baekelandt had negotiated his release. On May 23, Piccinin was back in Brussels with all of his belongings except his USB key. “The Secret Service returned my laptop. I could not believe that they bothered so much with the USB key, as I had all the photos also saved on the computer.”
The Belgian political scientist, who not so long ago believed that the Syrian regime was going to change, now believes that foreign military intervention is the only possible solution for the Syrian conflict. “All the Syrians I talked to are waiting for intervention.” But according to Piccinin, this will never happen. “The international community has no interest in intervening. Nobody wants to get rid of Assad’s regime and thus open the door to the unknown.”
A few days after his return to Brussels, paramilitary forces loyal to the Syrian regime killed over a hundred people, mostly women and children, in the village of Houla. The media described the massacre as the largest single felony in the first fifteen months of rebellion against the regime. “Unfortunately, we are going to witness such scenes more often,” Piccinin says. “The Syrian Army and the Secret Service will crush the Free Syrian Army. The same will eventually happen with the civil resistance – perhaps in the next few months.”
Piccinin does not know why the Syrian Secret Service spared him. Above all, he witnessed horrific torture. He thought that he was going to be killed and that the rebels would be blamed for his death. “For the Swiss radio, I said that I intended to meet the Syrian opposition. Nobody knew that only a few hours later I would be in Homs, in the hands of the Syrian Secret Service.” A month after his release, he acknowledges that he was lucky: “People who have been tortured in Homs may have been asked only one question. They tortured them just to scare them. They have been sent to their homes and do not dare to lift a finger.”
Mojca Zabukovec is foreign desk journalist at the Slovenian newspaper DELO.