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Hani Hazaimeh Headshot

Translating Human Suffering

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SYRIA MARCH
CP

For me, May 20 started out much like any other morning. I was heading to Ramtha for a new job with the non-profit organization Human Rights Watch and all I could think about was making it there on time.

Little did I know that over the next five days, as I translated the harrowing stories of Syrian nationals who have fled their country's brutal regime, that I would find myself in a personal conflict between passively listening and wanting to reach out to comfort those who have endured some of the worst human suffering I have ever heard. I did not think too deeply about the depths of human suffering and the graphically gruesome stories that I was about to hear, and as I drove North towards Jordan's border with Syria, I failed to prepare myself mentally for the stories I was about to hear and translate word for word.

The goal of the HRW mission was to uncover the truth about what is happening in Syria. Over the last two months, the authorities there -- in an attempt to prevent the international community from learning about the crimes being committed against their own people -- have succeeded in implementing an almost total media lockdown. This blockage has allowed security forces, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, as well as hundreds of snipers deployed on the rooftops of government buildings to take, run rampage and attack peaceful demonstrators calling for change in their country after 40 years of Baath Party monopolization and corruption.

Listening to their personal stories became a traumatic experience for me as I was forced to sit and listen to their stories without being able to comment, engage or show them any feeling. As a translator, a mere computer decoding other people's words, I found myself in a constant turmoil between maintaining a professional distance by keeping my personal feelings hidden and wanting to be human and show the crying, weeping victims that I had great empathy for them.

Their testimonies ranged from shocking and appalling to simply sickening. They described extreme torture at the hands of the Syrian intelligence agents and at points it was hard to believe that today, in the 21st century, there are human beings who are willing to go to such lengths in order to find new ways to inflict pain on others.

According to a swath of reports from the region, since the first spark that ignited the Syrian public's anger against their rulers on March 18, more than 1,200 people have died and tens of thousands have been arrested across the country. Those who've been detained described mass lock-ups in sporting venues where torture and mass executions have taken place. Aside from the mass detention centers, many of those arrested have been taken by intelligence to underground jails in Damascus, where they have undergone some of the most heinous forms of torture known to humanity.

As part of the HRW mission, I heard first-hand about these systematic killings, beatings, torture with electroshock devices, and the continued detention of people in bad need for medical care. They told us of how security troops commandeered medical facilities in order to prevent doctors from providing treatment to those wounded during the demonstrations and described how mosques and private houses have been turned into make-shift first aid centers to assist those hurt.

One man told us how he was humiliated and degraded in front of his family as he was dragged away by the Syrian troops who broke into his house at dawn. "It was very humiliating," he told us. "I could tolerate the physical torture to some extent because one way or the other you forget about it in the future, but insults and swearing at us was far more painful. They stabbed me in my honor, they called my mother a whore, my father a bastard and my daughters' sluts. It is something I will not forget for the rest of my life."

As the man spoke, tears streaming down his cheeks, I could not help but notice that he kept changing his positions and looked extremely uncomfortable. At that point I had no choice but to break my role as a passive translator and ask him if he needed help; he looked at me with wild eyes full of anger and pain and I knew he wanted to say something but that he didn't want me to translate.

"They raped me with a stick," he said and then he broke down crying and screaming. At that moment I nearly broke down too, I wanted to sooth him but I forced myself back into my role as a translator and told him plainly: "the world must know what the Syrian government is doing to its own people." He nodded and we continued.

Others we interviewed described being detained for a few days and all emphasized the personal humiliation they were subjected to at the hands of Syrian security forces. None of those in authority showed respect for the sanctity of religion or belief, they told us. One of the more outrageous accounts came from a young man who arrived in Daraa from the United Arab Emirates on April 25, the same day the Syrian forces imposed a security cordon on that city. On that date, Syrian security forces raided people's homes and arrested men in an attempt to suppress demonstrations.

The UAE man had been visiting a friend and was swept up by security services, who did not distinguish between locals and guests. His luck took a turn for the worst when they found phone numbers of news agencies Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the BBC in his cellphone, which led them to accusing him of being a reporter there to reveal the atrocities to the foreign media.

The young man spent nearly 17 days in an underground jail, where he was subjected to sustained torture, such as interrogation by being suspended upside down and beatings with bats and twisted cables. Others who were with him described interrogation chambers where they were taken with their hands tied behind their backs and their eyes blindfolded. The pain was so extreme, they said, that they all confessed to bogus charges just to spare themselves from the torture.

Another case came from a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, who told us how for once in his life he was happy to have a Palestinian identity because the interrogators went easier on him in the questioning process. However, it took a while before his captors asked him about his identity and at first they treated him as a Jordanian.

"The Syrians claimed that armed groups had crossed the borders from Jordan into Daraa and that is why they were being especially harsh on me when they found my Jordanian passport," he explained, adding that their tone became calmer when it was revealed that he was of Palestinian origin. "But they still kept me in prison for 17 days of misery. I was locked up in a tiny room, just six meters by six meters, with 63 other detainees. We were forced to sleep in two shifts due to the lack of space."

These are just a handful of the accounts we heard during our five days of interviews. Most of the meetings took place in secret in the home of Jordanian citizens who are hosting the refugees that have now fled their Syrian regime and are seeking a safe haven elsewhere.

Some of the stories we heard are simply too dreadful to repeat in this article and out of respect and dignity for the victims I have kept these descriptions brief, but I find myself obliged to mention them in the hope that the world will stop turning a blind eye and deaf ear to what is happening in Syria in 2011.

At the end of my five days hearing these accounts, I feel so frustrated at the international community's silence over the deteriorating humanitarian situations in Syria. And I feel disgraced by the position of the Arab League, which so far has made not one statement about the brutality of the Syrian regime against Arab citizens, who continue to defy live ammunition with their naked chests just for the taste of freedom.

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