Omar Alshogre, Syrian dissident: ‘Under torture they forced me to say I had killed policemen... I was 15 years old’

The human rights activist, now based in the U.S. and Sweden, survived the prisons of Al-Assad and today urges people not to forget the crimes of the regime in Syria

Omar Alshogre
Syrian activist Omar Alshogre, at the Sciences Po institute in Paris, on March 30.SAMUEL ARANDA
Marc Bassets

“I have lost my father, my brothers, and I spent three years in these prison cells, but even so, this revolution is worth making: we have monsters in power,” says Omar Alshogre, 27. He is inside a room in Sciences Po, the prestigious political science institute in Paris, commenting on an exhibition of photographs by César, the pseudonym of a former Syrian military police photographer who left the country in 2013 with 55,000 images documenting the crimes against humanity of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Alshogre knows what he is talking about: he was arrested during the protests at the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring revolts against Al-Assad and was inside those prisons between 2011 and 2015. He was still a teenager, and he survived. Alshogre now splits his time between the United States and Sweden and is in charge of detainee affairs at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American non-profit group. “When they arrest you and take you to prison, they interrogate you and ask you questions that are impossible to answer,” the conversation begins. “For example, how many police officers have you killed in your life, Marc?”

Question. Me? None.

Answer. And that’s what I answered, too. Not just because I didn’t kill any, but because none had died. But under torture they forced me to say that I had killed policemen, in order to designate me as a criminal and a terrorist. I was 15 years old. And while you are being tortured, you hear other prisoners begging to be killed due to the pain they are suffering.

Q. You were very young.

A. I was in prison 215, in Damascus. My assignment was to move the corpses of the dead prisoners to the room where their deaths were certified. You are in shock. You don’t understand what’s going on. How is it possible for a guard who looks like a father to treat you like this? But, being so young, you are more likely to adapt to the situation. There is a routine.

Q. What kind of routine?

A. You got up at 4 a.m. Then they forced you to remove the corpses. They fed you, once a day. You went to the bathroom. Then they tortured you. And then you had 14 more hours in the cell with other prisoners. They weren’t criminals, they were good people. On the right, you might have a doctor who helps you heal the wounds. On the left, a psychologist who helps you too. Opposite from you, a lawyer and a professor. If you spend three days in prison, you don’t worry about learning anything. But if you spend years in prison, you have to adapt, you have to learn.

Q. How did you survive?

A. I had tuberculosis, I weighed 34 kilos. My mother bribed the guards and judges with a lot of money to get me out of prison. They took me to Turkey and from there I went to Greece by boat and then to Sweden, where I got medical treatment.

Q. How old were you when you came out?

A. I was arrested for the first time at 15, released shortly afterwards, arrested again at 17 and released at 20.

The Syrian activist Omar Alshogre, in Idlib in 2015 after getting out of prison, in a photograph provided by himself.
The Syrian activist Omar Alshogre, in Idlib in 2015 after getting out of prison, in a photograph provided by himself.

Q. How did those years change you?

A. Instead of having the normal experience of a high school student, I had to become an adult quickly. I learned to survive. I had to fight for a cause that I was too young to understand. That being said, prison made me who I am today. It gave me the strength to fight against the dictatorship and injustice.

Q. Aren’t you afraid that Syria and its torture are being forgotten? Some people even think that Al-Assad is the lesser evil: he has won the war, the Islamic State has lost, and we must adapt.

A. The idea that the Syrian regime fought against ISIS is false, because ISIS emerged in 2014 and the regime killed people from 2011 until now.

Q. Do you feel forgotten?

A. The world becomes desensitized to bad news: this has been going on for 12 years, but it is allowed to continue. We shouldn’t get used to it. Behind these photographs and these corpses there are emotions, feelings, families. Grief affects not only incarcerated people, but also their families and friends. The Syrian regime has imprisoned and tortured more than 1.5 million people over the years, and right now there are more than 100,000 people in these prisons. In other words, there is not a single family in Syria that does not have someone imprisoned or tortured. It is a regime that has killed more than half a million people, displaced 14 million and continues to torture. This regime should not stay in power, Assad must fall: he is the worst war criminal we have ever had. Did ISIS commit worse crimes than Assad? No. It didn’t kill that many people. Both are terrible, but the Syrian regime is the reason we had ISIS in Syria.

Q. What should the West do?

A. Help the opposition! Do you know what the West is doing today? Hoping that the opposition alone will change everything, but we can’t do it without support. The regime has survived because it has allies: without Iran, Russia and China, it would fall in two weeks.

Q. The regime and many outsiders believe that Al-Assad has already won the war.

A. It’s not like that: they don’t control the whole country, more than seven million people are out of their control. But he is trying to sell the story that he has won the war to force the world to accept it.

Q. And now, Al-Assad will participate in the Arab League summit.

A. The most disappointing thing is that the Arab population does not take to the streets to protest the return of a dictator who killed not only Syrians, but also Iraqis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians... These leaders despise human rights violations. Bringing Assad back will not make things better: a political solution cannot be negotiated with a government that continues to use violence and kill. This regime takes advantage of the weakness of the international community and the lack of pressure from governments such as the United States on countries that normalize relations with Al-Assad.

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