"They placed a severed head in the middle of the room, and asked each one of us to pick it up by the ears and estimate the weight." Meanwhile, the "Egyptian executioner" placed his sword on the neck of an Armenian prisoner, noting that it was "soft and won't give me much trouble."
These are some of the atrocities that media activist "Saif al-Idlibi" — who preferred not to use his real name — saw during the 38 days he was held in a prison run by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the town of Dana. The latter had been an ISIS stronghold in northwest Syria, but the group retreated from the city yesterday [Jan. 9]. ISIS resorted to car bombs in an attempt to hold its ground as other groups moved in.
Idlibi, speaking to Al-Hayat over the phone and via Skype messages, recounted the stages of his imprisonment and transfer to different ISIS prisons before he was freed along with 15 others after the outbreak of clashes between ISIS and Islamic brigades assisted by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The clashes resulted in the release of 300 prisoners from the Eye Hospital, an ISIS stronghold in Aleppo, after the group had executed 70 others. Dozens of other detainees were also released from ISIS's headquarters in the northeastern city of Raqqa.
Idlibi, a student at Aleppo University, said, "I participated in demonstrations against the [Syrian] regime in front of the Amina Mosque in the Saif al-Dawla neighborhood of Aleppo. I was later arrested, on Oct. 28, 2011, in front of the Awis al-Qarni Mosque in Salah al-Din. After I was released one month later, I joined the peaceful movement [against the regime]. Along with other youth, I organized protests at the university. At first, we protested in front of the college of sciences, then we began organizing daily protests at all the colleges." He added, "Because I was from Jabal al-Zawiya (in Idlib), I remained a wanted person at the regime checkpoints, so I was expelled from the university. My father, an engineer who works in a cement factory, defected from the regime. I continued my media activities in Aleppo and moved with my father along the fighting fronts." Idlibi was working with the Afhad al-Rasoul Brigade, an anti-regime group that fought under the umbrella of the FSA.
On Nov. 28, 2013, ISIS fighters surrounded 16 people in a factory near Atma on the Turkish border. "They opened fire on us. Two people were killed and four wounded, including myself. I was hit in the head with shrapnel. I was transferred to the Orient Hospital, where a doctor removed the shrapnel. During the operation [ISIS fighters] had a gun pointed at the doctor's head and I was handcuffed,” Idlibi noted.
Idlibi was then transferred to Atma, where "a Tunisian [member of ISIS] put a knife to my neck and said they were going to slaughter me. They then moved me to the prison, where I was introduced to the [ISIS] judge. At times he told me they would release me, while at others he called me an infidel and said I was going to be executed." Idlibi was then taken to the outskirts of the town of Dana, where ISIS had transformed a Baath Party headquarters into a prison. He remained there until he was released last Sunday [Jan. 5].
The prison included two rooms for detainees and was manned by two wardens and two guards. The prisoners included 13 Kurds, 2 Armenians and Idlibi. The latter told of the horrors he had seen during his 38 days in detention, where "Abu al-Bira" was the Tunisian judge, while "Abu al-Liwa" and "Abu Yacoub al-Halabi" were in charge of negotiations concerning ransom payments. "They requested a ransom of $100,000 for each Armenian, otherwise they were to be killed. The warden, Khuttab al-Iraqi, would eat kebab and throw pieces of parsley and onion at us. He told us, 'You're worse than the Americans who entered Iraq.'"
Recounting his experiences, Idlibi said that one day they brought in the severed head of a man in his late thirties. They asked each prisoner to pick up the head and guess its weight. "When we told them that we couldn't pick up the head, which was covered in blood, they told us to lift it by the ears and guess its weight. One of the Armenians said that it weighed about six kilograms, while I guessed that it was about five. ISIS members, who were masked, laughed at us and told us the correct weight. Then one of them told me, 'Tomorrow someone else will be weighing your head.'"
They also spoke about a "tour," as they called it, that they had arranged for the detainees, to visit the "slaughterhouse." They then took the prisoners, who were blindfolded, to the outskirts of the town. "We saw hanging bodies that were missing heads, and others that had been mutilated." Idlibi said that according to one of the Armenians, after the "tour" the executioner pulled out his sword and placed it on his [the Armenian's] head. He said to him, "Your neck is soft and won't give me much trouble."
Following the recent clashes on Thursday [Jan. 2], ISIS members abandoned [the prison], and Idlibi and his fellow prisoners were left without food, water or guards, according to him. He added, "Some of [the incoming brigades] saw the ISIS flag on the building and heard our cries for help. They came and freed us, then moved us to Turkey."