My First Flight
Omar, a carpenter from Tal Rifaat in Aleppo province, was arrested near his town and transported to the feared Air Force Intelligence headquarters in Aleppo by a military helicopter.
My father was alerted by a friend early one morning in April 2012 that a military convoy was heading north from Aleppo. We knew that meant trouble, so we sent the women and children to Turkey. My father went to a farm near the border, and I decided to hide out in a friend’s villa outside of town, along with my brother and five cousins.
It was an unfortunate decision.
The Syrian army seized the house next door, turning it into a temporary base, and soldiers fanned out to surrounding homes to question residents. We were observing them from the roof, and when it was clear they would enter the property, we decided to flee. There was no way to explain our presence there, and we knew we would be arrested.
We split up. I scaled the wall behind the house and ran into the fields, and three of my cousins joined me. But there was nowhere to hide, and we were quickly spotted.
The soldiers, who had jeeps and pickup trucks, cornered us. They asked if we had weapons, we said we didn’t, and then they started hitting us. One soldier brought out a rope and said we would be dragged back to the base, and I pleaded with him to let us walk because the rocky terrain would have certainly killed us.
After a quick debate, the soldiers agreed that we could walk, and we were taken to the makeshift base. The commanding officer greeted us with insults and demanded to know where our weapons were, and who we were fighting with. We repeatedly denied being members of the armed gangs, but that seemed to increase the beatings.
A few hours later we were taken to the Minnigh air base nearby, and a new round of questioning and beatings began. The soldiers seemed to take pleasure in humiliating us, and most spoke with Raqqa and Jazeera accents [indicating that they were Sunnis, not Alawites].
Our group of detainees grew larger there, but I didn’t see my brother, who I later learned was able to slip away. We were forced to chant for Bashar al-Assad (with our souls and blood we sacrifice for you Bashar; and Allah, Syria, Bashar, that’s all). They made us repeat an insult to Sheik Adnan Arour [the firebrand Salafi cleric and host of a show on Saudi TV], which I found a little odd because I didn’t realize he was that important.
[The Arour chant roughly translates to: Arour stop barking, your mother is a whore and your father is a donkey – يا عرعور حاجة عر أمك قحبة وبيك كر].
After hours of chanting and beatings, an officer who seemed to be in charge told us to stop and offered us tea. He said that we would be taken away for a hearing. It was getting dark, and for a few hours we weren’t harmed.
That evening, we were herded into a helicopter and handcuffed, with our shirts pulled over our heads. I don’t know how many prisoners were with me, perhaps 20. We were piled on top of each other on the floor, and soldiers whipped us and commanded us to stay down. The rotors started, and even though I was terrified, I thought to myself that I couldn’t believe that this was my first flight.
Months later, when videos of prisoners in helicopters were leaked, I called my cousin and asked if he recognized himself. He didn’t, and neither did I. I’m not sure if there’s video of our trip.
Amid the noise, pain and fear, I lost track of time. When the helicopter landed I figured we were probably in Damascus, but it turned out that we were in Aleppo. We were taken to the Air Force Intelligence headquarters and were held in a crowded cell. The beatings stopped.
The next day I was taken in for questioning. I insisted that I had nothing to do with the armed gangs, that I was just a carpenter. The interrogator agreed, and said I could leave once they confirmed my story. I was released six days later.
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This post first appeared on Syria Deeply.
(Omar was interviewed by Syria Deeply senior editor Mohammed Sergie in Aleppo.)