Well over 100,000 Syrians have cycled through the Assad regime’s dungeons since the beginning of the revolution for a variety of crimes: speaking to foreign journalists, participating or filming a protest, or looking guilty at a checkpoint. These detainees, and their families who suffer with them, are but the latest victims of a brutal police state that has shattered countless lives over four decades of totalitarian rule.
Abd al-Majid Abushala, a prominent electrical engineer from Aleppo, is just one example. In 1970 he was instructed to inspect a construction site for a mansion in Mediterranean city of Latakia. He must have felt nervous, for this was not just any standard inspection for just any mansion, this was the future Latakia palace of Syria’s new president, Hafez al-Assad, who had just taken over the country in a military coup. But Abd al-Majid was not one to shirk responsibility; he was a man of principle, known for his integrity and honesty. He would pay dearly for the crime of upholding these principles and demanding them from everyone around him, from his children to his president.
During the inspection, he discovered a plan to supply the excessive electricity needed for the palace by diverting power from a nearby, government-owned cement factory (one of two in Latakia). As Technical Director, Abd al-Majid’s signature was needed to approve this illegal rerouting, but he refused. He asked, “Is it even conceivable to close down an entire cement factory so Hafez al-Assad’s wife has her electricity? I cannot approve this inspection.” After returning home to Aleppo, he joked, “She used to ride a donkey and now she wants an electric car to ride around in her house?”
After aggravating the fresh, self-appointed tyrant, Abd al-Majid was relieved from his nine-year post and would spend the next decade being juggled across the bureaucracy. At each new job, he would discover evidence of corruption and would responsibly write up detailed reports. Finally, in 1980, he was put in jail.
Abd al-Majid was born in Aleppo, in the distinguished Jalloum neighborhood within the walls of the old city. An extremely bright student, he achieved the highest marks in the country in the Baccalaureate exams in 1946, and was granted a scholarship to study at the École Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland. He returned in 1952 and married his best friend’s sister, daughter of a prominent Aleppian merchant. During his influential Switzerland years, he embraced being a modern intellectual and distanced himself from religious traditions.
He was a handsome man. His speech was polite, he never swore or used improper expressions. He treated everyone with respect and was not won over by wealth or social status. But when he witnessed intentional deception or purposeful mistakes, his hot temper flared.
From 1961-1970 he set a positive example at the directorate for all his employees, arriving to work at 7:45 every morning before the employees and leaving after everyone else had left. He expected high standards of performance from all his employees, even the janitors. Under his watchful eyes, the Industrial Directorate became known for its cleanliness and organization.
His modest government salary guaranteed Abd al-Majid would never be a wealthy man. Yet, he provided the best life possible for his family; living in a rented apartment in the respectable Muhafaza neighborhood, taking his family on summer vacations every year, and making sure his children received an excellent education. In those days, such a true middle class life was still possible in Syria. At home, he was a loving and generous, but strict father. His only unbreakable rule: lying was forbidden.
Abd al-Majid’s everyday life was rigidly structured: every morning he would exercise for ten minutes, make his breakfast, make coffee for himself and his wife, and go to work. Taking care of his wife was his first priority. While in prison, he would ask about her and become elated knowing that she was fine. The guilt he felt for his wife was a heavy burden; he worried about her being alone, mistreated, or judged by a harsh society which doesn’t look kindly upon wives of prisoners.
Politically, Abd al-Majid was not a member of a specific party. He did not trust political organizations, but he believed in the rights and freedom of the people. He disliked Abd al-Nasser and viewed the short-lived union with Egypt as an Egyptian occupation of Syria. The Ba`th Party takeover of Syria in 1963, however, left him, like many others, disappointed and disillusioned. They were struck by the viciousness of the military coup after the peaceful separation with Egypt. His daughter says, “People were dumbfounded, like now, how we are dumfounded by the crimes we are witnessing.”
Then came the war with Israel in 1967 when Syria lost the Golan Heights, what is known as the nekseh, or defeat. “Every person felt a stab to their hearts, because in the morning they told us we destroyed Israel, and by the evening we found out that we were the ones who were destroyed,” his daughter remembers. Abd al-Majid’s classification of the Ba’th Party shifted from oppressor to traitor. Political analysis began to weave itself into every conversation he had, consuming all other interests. “My whole life I never knew any conversation in our house except politics. No talk about singers or dancers, no social gossip, only politics, she said. He kept a journal from his university days to his prison years, unemotional, detailed accounts of everyday events. His daughter calls his notebooks a “documentation of history.” The next 13 years would prove to be a personal nekseh to Abd al-Majid, marking the slow decline of both his country and his career.
On Wednesday, March 26, 1980, Abd al-Majid Abushala was arrested. He was 53 years old.
This prison narrative does not compare to the nightmarish accounts of physical torture and abuse we usually hear about. Instead, it is a much more common story of the breaking of a man who endures a grossly unjust punishment for standing for what he believed. Abd al-Majid’s story exposes the pettiness, stubbornness, and calculating brutality of Hafez al-Assad. This is the story of how the best and brightest are treated in Syria. Abd al-Majid was a natural born leader, honest and incorruptible, and he, like many before him and after him, was punished for his threatening attributes: his unwavering principles.
During the turbulent political climate of 1980, Hafez al-Assad was fighting the threatening internal resistance of the Muslim Brotherhood. In an attempt to expose any other potential opposition or secular voices of dissent, he allowed rumors to spread about holding “free elections” in the naqabat, professional unions in Syria. Abd al-Majid was excited to participate in an effort to balance the Ba`th-infested union boards, where corruption, cronyism, and rigged elections reigned.
People warned him, asked him to stay silent, begged his wife to convince him that it was a trap. But he, along with other engineers, lawyers, and doctors, was convinced that the intention was sincere, that this was an olive branch from the regime to the people who were clearly not part of the Muslim Brotherhood. He disregarded all warnings and told his wife, “I am not doing anything, I am only talking.”
Abd al-Ra’uf al-Kasem, the Prime Minister, encouraged them to proceed with discussions and planning, which they did openly, for four months within the walls of the union. Al-Kasem, a close friend of Abd al-Majid, assured them that if “the president does not grant these elections, I will go out on the streets and protest with you.” Of course, he never protested. Abd al-Majid’s daughter sent him a letter, years later, accusing him of betraying the men, and asking for his resignation from his newly acquired position as Prime Minister.
The trusting Abd al-Majid never doubted his friend’s sincerity. One day, al-Kasem brought in the group to discuss the “free elections.” He recorded the meeting, handed the tape cassette to the mukhabarat, Syria’s feared intelligence agents, and prepared a report that incriminated the entire group as traitors. That day, Abd al-Majid must have felt something amiss during the meeting; he went home, packed a small suitcase and hid it in his bedroom.
The next day, the mukhabarat arrived at the union with orders to arrest Abd al-Majid. He promised to cooperate, asking to leave the building and enter the car unassisted. He also told his young relative to go home and bring his suitcase. In a strange act of politeness, the mukhabarat waited until the suitcase arrived. Then they took him away.
His family was lost, like most families who face these circumstances. When a family member vanishes, they do not know where they were taken, who has taken them, who to talk to, or even where to start looking. There is always a fear of exposing yourself to the wrong people and exacerbate an already dire situation. An uncle asked a neighbor who was a part of the intelligence’s political branch (often times the mukhabarat you know turn out to be the most helpful). He heard that he would be released in a few days and delivered extra clothes to him.
He spent the next nine years in prison.
It took two extremely connected men, his brother, an army officer and his cousin Zuheir `Aqiq, a personal secretary to Hafez al-Assad, a month to find out that Abd al-Majid, along with five other members of the union board, was in al-Sheikh Hassan prison in Damascus. In 1980, al-Sheikh Hassan had a reputation for being a mini-Tadmor, in other words, “terrifying.”
What was he accused of? “Nothing. It is exactly like what is going on today, any person who opposes the regime, they will find an accusation for him,” his daughter said. His cellmates were professionals, prisoners of conscience, but they were often mixed with alleged Muslim Brotherhood members. They were not charged, they had no trial, they had no sentence. They were just placed in a cage, “tirbayeh,” to serve as an example to everyone outside.
Two months after his arrest, his family was allowed to visit every two weeks. In the beginning, when his brother was still an officer, they were allowed to visit him in the guard’s room. But soon after they were separated by a wired barrier, and then by a double barrier of two wired partitions with one meter of space in between.
The family began their almost decade-long cyclical journey back and forth from Aleppo to Damascus, a five-hour trip by bus, scorching hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Twice a month they carried food, fresh clothes, and hope, and returned with a heavy load of laundry and sadness.
The first couple of years the union prisoners slept on the floor in the overcrowded cells. Later in ‘83, after the “events” of Hama, they were upgraded to bunk beds with thin coiled mattresses. He met many of the accused young men in prison, and he sent messages and letters to their families with his family. Often, these messages were delivered to families who had no idea where their sons were or if they were even still alive.
He existed in limbo, between hope and despair, within the perpetual promises of release, promises that were never fulfilled. Because of the visitation privileges, the union men were not subjected to physical torture, but they suffered torture that did not mark their bodies, such as malnutrition (sometimes living on one egg a day or a can of sardines) and psychological abuse. They were also constantly transferred between prisons, from al-Sheikh Hassan to al-Qal’ah, to ‘Adra, revisiting al-Sheikh Hassan every time there was internal (hunger strikes) or external (political unrest) turbulence to the system.
His wife spent the years preparing his favorite Aleppian dishes for days in advance, knowing he would probably not even taste them. The guards would inspect the food to check for contrabands and weapons, slashing open the mihshi, destroying the kibbe, gleefully humiliating her as they smashed the tightly rolled grape leaves into unappetizing mush. When he would finally get what was left, it would be a fraction of what she sent, but many times, he would get nothing at all.
Shahir Arslan, a prominent Aleppian attorney, once asked Hafez al-Assad: “Our generous Leader, won’t you grant them a trial?” hoping the union men could at least receive definite sentences to serve. Hafez al-Assad responded, with his cold-blooded stare: “Would you like me to put them on trial?” The attorney understood the implied threat. If there was a trial, the punishment would be worse, executions or life sentences, so he held his tongue. “No, we don’t want a trial, we just ask for your infinite mercy.”
In March 1989, after suffering from a cold that had lingered for six months, the prison doctor discovered Abd al-Majid was already at the end stages of stomach cancer. He was moved to the prison hospital, in extreme pain, suffering from internal bleeding. His daughter remembers the next twenty days feeling “like twenty years.”
She was told her father’s only chance to survive was for her to submit a “letter of mercy” to the president, delivered by hand to the presidential palace. The first draft of her letter was harsh, and she was told to “soften” the tone and add, “We wait for your mercy because you are al-ab al-rahim, the merciful father, the father of Syria.” After days of following the letter through connections and mukhabarat channels, they heard that it was rejected. Desperate, she decided to write another one. She did not have a pen or paper at the hospital, so she went to the store and bought some stationary and stood there writing the letter, starting “Your Excellency, the President of the Syrian Arab Republic” while the shop owner looked at her as if she were mad or playing a bad practical joke. She took it to the presidential guards and said: “I am not leaving until I know that this letter is in the hand of the president. And I want the answer today!” They stared at her in shock, and decided she must be very connected to be speaking with such force and confidence. So they took it in to Hafez’s office. The next day, Abd al-Majid Abushala received a presidential pardon.
Although he was pardoned, he was still considered a “flight risk” and was heavily guarded as he was transferred from the prison hospital to a private hospital for his operation. When his son, an accomplished doctor, arrived from the U.S., he was taken immediately to the political intelligence branch and interrogated for three torturous hours, during which the mother and daughter were paralyzed with fear, thinking they had taken the son to replace his father in prison.
The operation was of no use, the cancer had metastasized. Abd al-Majid was released and the guards were finally removed. He was sent home to Aleppo to live his last days. He died on the 21st of August, 1989. Before dying, his last wish was granted: tosee his son married. At his wedding, Abd al-Majid said in his speech to the guests, “I wish for this country; a better future.”
The aftermath of Abd al-Majid’s fate still affects his family until this day. His daughter says they speak of him daily, especially now. She remembers being honored that her father was in prison for his beliefs. She emphasizes that they only felt sadness, but never despair. It is a sadness that must linger with his son, a celebrated doctor in Saudi Arabia, who saves lives every day, but could not save his father.
Most of his cellmates — the union prisoners — were released after eleven years in 1991.
In Years of Fear: The Forcibly Disappeared in Syria, Syrian human rights activist Radwan Ziadeh writes: “The story of those missing in Syrian prisons is the story of a country that has devoured its own sons.” What makes Abd al-Majid Abushala’s story remarkable, is precisely how unremarkable it really is. It represents thousands of stories of people we will never know because their stories disappeared with them. It also reveals how tolerant we became toward the regime’s blatant abuse of our people. If we feel less compassionate towards the fate of this man and his family because it is not as gruesome, not as horrifying, as other prison stories, it is because Abd al-Majid’s story became the norm, the level of cruelty we, as a people, were willing to tolerate, trading our principles for security, devouring our sons for stability.
Abd al-Majid could never forgive Hafez al-Assad because in his unflinching eyes he was a traitor to Syria. And to him, betrayal of country was unforgivable. The war between the dictator, Hafez, and the engineer, Abd al-Majid, was a war of principle. What would he think of the Syrian youth chanting and fighting on the streets for freedom today? The death and destruction in Syria would definitely sadden a man who dedicated his life to building his country, yet the pain inflicted on Assad’s army and militias must have satisfied some visceral desire for retribution.
His daughter wishes he could have been here to witness a real protest in Syria against Bashar al-Assad. She imagines him sitting in heaven, perched in the clouds, “his heart fluttering with happiness,” watching them with pride, as they fight the war of principles that he had died for.
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