How One Man Survived Syria’s Gulag

How One Man Survived Syria’s Gulag

Like thousands of others, Omar Alshogre was repeatedly tortured in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons—but unlike so many, he got out. Now he’s telling the world about the regime’s industrial-scale brutality.

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One morning in early June 2015, Omar Alshogre was taken from a cell in Sednaya, a military prison just north of Damascus, and thrown, shackled and blindfolded, into a van. The van drove down the side of the mountain, stopping at a clearing off the main road. The 20-year-old was thrown on the ground facedown. He could hear the soldiers behind him speaking in low tones. The firing squad came closer. A voice cried out, “Load!” and then “Fire!” “I just heard ‘boom!’—and then a loud humming sound,” recalls Omar. “For a moment, I thought I had died and gone on to the next phase.”

One frigid evening in late January 2019, a youth in a half-zip polo sweater, with pushed-back hazel hair, stood on a street corner in Harlem. “It’s a lot colder in Stockholm,” he said in a Nordic accent. Omar looked around, impressed to hear that the imam of the West African mosque on 135th Street was educated in Damascus. He walks into Shrine, New York’s top Afro-Beat club, his eyes scanning the space as a bare-chested Prince impersonator groans and writhes onstage. We settle down to talk at a nearby bistro. A few hours later Omar will board a train to Washington to meet with members of Congress and National Security Council officials to talk about the 100,000 Syrians who have disappeared into the gulag of their country’s prison system.

A lot has happened since the mock execution and Omar’s release after three years of imprisonment. In July 2015, he left Syria for Turkey and then made his way on a boat across the Aegean Sea; from Greece he followed the human tide as far north as possible, settling in Sweden, where he gained residency. Today this 23-year-old has emerged as the most visible and vocal witness of the Assad regime’s system of torture and industrial-scale brutality.

Omar was born and raised in the village of Bayda, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. He recalls a simple childhood, playing on the shore with his cousins and raising birds (his favorite is the yellow-vented bulbul). The Arab Spring reached Bayda in mid-March 2011, days after protests erupted in the southern city of Daraa. Fifteen youths had been arrested and tortured for scrawling graffiti on a school wall in Daraa in support of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. “It’s your turn now, Doctor,” read the graffiti, referring to Bashar al-Assad, who had been an ophthalmologist before succeeding his father as ruler of Syria in 2000. When the regime fired on the demonstrators, protests spread from Daraa across the country, including to Bayda and the nearby city of Baniyas.

“I first joined the protests for fun,” says Omar, “I was also annoyed by the corruption—I remembered that when I was 12 years old, my father had to pay a bribe of 5,000 lira to build a greenhouse.” On April 12, 2011, as people marched through Bayda, thousands of police descended on the village. “We could see them coming down the mountain, like ants—and they started shooting at us,” recalls Omar. The soldiers ordered everyone to the ground and began beating the protesters with metal pipes. Footage from the protests—uploaded by regime officials—shows the 15-year-old Omar lying face down in a mass of bodies, hands tied behind his back. Omar’s father, Ahmed, who knew local police commanders, negotiated his son’s release.

While visiting American campuses and news organizations in early 2019, Omar was invariably asked if he had seen Capernaum, a Lebanese film then in Oscar contention, about a 12-year-old boy trying to survive in the slums of Beirut, hoping to escape with his sister to Sweden. All kinds of calamities almost befall the young protagonist—but his life is spared, and while he ends up in prison, the film has a happy ending. And in real life, the illiterate boy who plays him—Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee from Daraa—has been resettled in Norway with his family. Omar Alshogre’s story is indeed reminiscent of this film, but unlike Zain in Capernaum, every misfortune seems to have befallen him, before he and surviving members of his family ended up in Sweden. “My story is not a movie,” he says, laughing, “but I’m hoping for a happy ending.”

In Omar’s case, the violence came quickly. Upon his first arrest, he was beaten and tortured with electric shock. “During the first arrests, they know they’re going to release you, so they don’t leave too many marks on your body—which is why they prefer electric shocks.” Omar would be arrested six times. “As soon as I was released, I returned right back to the protests,” he says, smiling. With each arrest, the torture got worse. In early 2012, an officer would tear out Omar’s fingernails one by one with a pair of pliers, asking, “How many officers did you kill? None?” while a second policeman held Omar’s head forcing him to look. “With each torn nail, you start saying yes to what they’re saying,” he notes. If the early abuse was meant to extract confessions, the later rounds of torture were meant to produce expressions of loyalty to the regime. “Who is your God?” the guard would shriek in between whips with a belt and electric shocks. “Bashar is your God!”

In November 2012, Omar was detained for the seventh time, this time with his maternal cousins, 17-year-old Noor, 20-year-old Rashad, and 22-year-old Bashir. They were moved to detention centers around the country—in Baniyas, Tartus, and Homs—before being dropped off at Branch 215 in Damascus in December. “As soon as we arrived at Branch 215, we [the boys] were taken downstairs and stripped naked,” says Omar. “It was an unbelievable sight—people barely alive were lying in the corridor. Blue, red, and yellow welts on their bodies. They were starving, they had lost their teeth, you see just black inside their mouths. There was dry blood on the floor, in their hair. People had wounds that weren’t treated, maggots were eating their flesh.”

Omar, Bashir, and Rashad were then taken to a lower level of Branch 215, while Noor, their female cousin, was taken to the sixth floor. “We walked over dead bodies in the hallway, until we arrived at Room No. 8.” As the boys peered into the darkness, a guard shoved Omar in with his foot. “The prisoners stared at us; we were still pretty then,” chuckles Omar. “And they looked like monsters—the biggest person was maybe 35 kilograms. I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll look like them one day.’”

Branch 215 is a prison facility renowned for its notorious torture techniques. Human Rights Watch has documented torture methods such as “The Flying Carpet” (busat al-reeh), in which a detainee is tied on a flat board, sometimes in the shape of a cross, and then beaten; sometime the board is outwardly folded, severely stretching and dislocating the detainee’s limbs. Detainees are suspended for days by their wrists, while being burned, electrocuted, and whipped with steel cables. The guards at this facility are also known for administering a process of slow starvation. It’s not for no reason that detainees nicknamed Branch 215 “slow death.” Upon arrival, Omar was asked specifically about his cousin Noor. “‘Where does she make her bombs?’ they asked. I couldn’t answer. I can give a false confession for myself, but not for my cousin.” Some days later, a guard had Omar strip naked, suspended him from the ceiling by his wrists, and tied a string tightly around his penis. “All day he kept forcing me to drink water and eat handfuls of salt—and in the evening he sent me to pee.” This was how guards could make a detainee urinate blood for weeks.

Omar spent a year and a half at Branch 215. And from what he has recounted to human-rights organizations in Europe and to Arabic news outlets, the level of sadism is astounding. “I witnessed horrible torture. People starving to death, men forced to rape other men, victims dying after sexual assaults.” As infection and disease spread in the prison cells, already filthy and overcrowded, guards reluctant to touch the naked prisoners would force older men to assault younger detainees. Omar recalls the case of Ibrahim Adnan al-Qadah, a 14-year-old boy and the youngest detainee in Branch 215. “One day a guard walked into Room No. 8 and ordered the biggest guy to rape this 14-year-old. ‘If you don’t do it, I’ll rape you and kill you.’ Ibrahim was raped, he stopped eating, and sat in a corner until he died.”

More than any film, Omar’s story is reminiscent of Erika Riemann’s harrowing prison memoir The Bow on Stalin’s Mustache (2003), about how the author spent her teens in an East German prison during the early Cold War. The systematic torture and depravity that Omar and other teenage prisoners in Syria suffer is reminiscent of the Stasi’s practices, as is the Syrian regime’s meticulous and extensive record-keeping.

At Branch 215, Omar would be assigned the task of moving 30 to 40 corpses daily to the “isolation room.” He had to write a number on the victims’ foreheads, and on a piece of paper the number and name of the prison facility where the victim had perished. “The bodies had often been dead for seven or eight days and were decomposing before we had to move them. Sometimes we would take two arms, two legs, the torso, or one piece at a time.”

Unbeknownst to the 17-year-old was that on the other side of Damascus, at military Hospital 601, a forensic military photographer was photographing, for the interior ministry’s records, the corpses that Omar had numbered. But the photographer, who would document 50 bodies a day, was also working secretly with an opposition group, the Syrian National Movement. Starting in May 2011, “Caesar,” as this dissident would come to be known, began making duplicates of the photos he took and then sending them on a thumb drive to a relative overseas. In August 2013, fearing for his safety, Caesar fled Syria. His images—more than 50,000 of them—would form the basis of the 31-page “Caesar Report,” released in January 2014, which details the “systematic killing” of some 11,000 detainees by the Syrian government in one region from March 2011 to August 2013. The images of 10,000 dead produced by Caesar would be examined by former prosecutors from the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, and would be declared the “smoking gun” that the Syria regime had committed crimes against humanity. In 2014, Caesar testified before Congress, showing the graphic images and describing a highly bureaucratic system of killing. His statement would inspire the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016, legislation calling for new sanctions on the Syrian government and possibly a no-fly zone as well.

Caesar fled Syria just as the war was entering an even more brutal phase. The darker the war became, the darker Omar’s descent in the prison system. On March 15, 2013, Omar’s older cousin Rashad died in Branch 215. “His ribs were broken from the beatings, he had difficulty breathing—his hair was burned, he had burn marks everywhere,” recalls Omar. “He died in his sleep, sitting in the fetal position.” In June 2013, a detainee arrived from Omar’s region and told him (incorrectly, it turned out) that his entire family had been killed in a government assault. In early May 2013, the Syrian government forces had stormed Bayda and Baniyas, killing, according to the United Nations, an estimated 300 to 450 people. “I suddenly realized that all I had left in the world were my friends at Branch 215 and my cousin Bashir,” says Omar. “But then even my friends began dying—my closest friend, Yaqub Al Hariri from Daraa, was executed, then Baraa, then Mohammed, then Mustafa.”

In early 2014, Bashir fell ill with tuberculosis. “He lost weight, he lost his hair, he was coughing blood,” says Omar. “He wouldn’t eat. I would hit him so he’d eat something; ‘Do it for your mother!’ I’d say.” In Branch 215, inmates were allowed one visit to the washroom per day, and they would rush down the 35-meter hallway to the restroom as guards beat them with pipes. Each inmate got only 10 seconds on the toilet. “Bashir became very weak, very small, he couldn’t walk—I would carry him to the toilet in my arms like a baby. One day I put him down on the toilet. I could hear the guard counting down 10-9-8-7.… I leaned over to pick up Bashir. I was so tired. I started walking with him down the hall. People started shouting, ‘Stop, stop, look down—Bashir has died.’” Omar pauses, eyes welling up. “I had seen thousands of dead bodies already, but Bashir was closer to me than my brother. He was all I had in the world and he died in my arms.” The inmates washed the 23-year-old’s body. They laid him out in the center of the room and prayed the janazah funeral prayer for him. “He had such a beautiful smile on his face. He was finally free,” Omar says. Omar then carried his cousin’s body to the room of corpses and wrote a number on his forehead. “I told him, ‘I’ll never forget your number; one day I’ll tell your mother your son that died was prisoner No. 3,532.’”

Omar was transformed—even unfettered—by his cousin’s death. “I suddenly became stronger, more desperate. I was scared other prisoners would kill me for my food, for my space. I was alone in the world, but I also had no more responsibility. I had to survive, nothing else mattered. I forgot my family and became mentally strong.”

In August 2014, after 19 months in Branch 215, Omar was transferred to Sednaya, an even more infamous military prison located on a mountaintop north of the Syrian capital. By all accounts, this facility represents the peak of the Syrian regime’s degeneracy and violence against political opponents, as many of the detainees are professionals, writers, and prisoners of conscience. According to Amnesty International, thousands of detainees have been executed extrajudicially at the “human slaughterhouse” of Sednaya, at a rate of 50 executions a week, often more. (In the spring of 2017, the US State Department alleged that the prison even had its own crematorium, supplying satellite photographs as evidence, though a spokesman acknowledged that they were not definitive proof.)

New arrivals to Sednaya were greeted with a “welcome party.” Omar chuckles as he recalls his welcoming hafla. Branch 215, he has said, was heaven compared to Sednaya. Upon arrival, prisoners were stripped naked, and the torture started immediately. Omar was struck across the face with a metal bar. “Why are you bleeding?” the guard screamed into his bloodied face. “I had been in prison for two years and knew the game,” says Omar. “I said, ‘I fell on the stairs on my way up here.’ The guard said, ‘OK then, you can go.’” After a quick, five-second trial, Omar says, he was declared guilty of terrorism. “I realized in Sednaya torture was not to make you talk, but to make you go silent—permanently.” He was then taken to the third floor, where the guard explained the golden rule of Sednaya: “You don’t mention God here; he won’t hear you. God is locked up in cell No. 27. Here you don’t pray, you don’t fast, you don’t say God’s name.”

Sednaya’s attempt to ban faith and the very mention of God may seem like an obvious policy for a secular dictatorship that has long battled an Islamist opposition, but it’s actually a fairly recent measure. In the Middle East, regimes pondering how to deal with Islamist detainees have banned extremist literature, but they have generally seen access to the Quran as key to deradicalization; in some cases (Saudi Arabia and Dubai, for instance), inmates can receive reduced sentences, even amnesty, for memorizing the Holy Book. (In Guantánamo, American prison officials would also as a matter of policy ban prayer, desecrate the Quran, and force-feed prisoners during the daylight hours of Ramadan as part of an “omnipotence” or “debilitation” tactic meant “to reduce the detainee’s ego.”) Sednaya banned Qurans only after prison rebellions broke out in 2008, leaving dozens dead (including 45 military police). The first rebellion, in March 2008, grew in strength when detainees began shouting “Allahu Akbar!” and banging on metal doors. During another riot, in July 2008, security guards would trample copies of the Quran, causing inmates to rush to rescue the books. The guards would open fire, killing nine prisoners. God would thereafter be banned from Sednaya.

In this mountain prison, death is meted out for the tiniest infraction, for any and no reason; inmates are put to death for talking, for making eye contact, for not holding on to the inmate in front when lining up, or for sitting too close to the door of the cell. Inmates are confined to a space of 40 square centimeters (roughly 16 square inches). Guards dole out daily whippings with a belt made from a tire. Guards would deprive inmates of food and/or water for days. “One day they took 12 of us down to a small underground cell,” recalls Omar. “We spent 10 days there with no food but were given water—three glasses a day. On day six, they suddenly cut off the water. By day seven, everyone is tired. By day eight”—he widens his eyes freakishly—“everyone is going crazy.” He continues, “They then had us all pee in the same bucket—and we just drank our collective pee.”

Inmates were reduced to bones, kept barely alive, and regularly terrorized psychologically. Guards would deliberately execute a prisoner right before serving inmates their only meal of the day, often placing the corpse’s head over the platter of food, so that it would bleed into the daily mound of bread and potatoes. Prisoners were liquidated in myriad ways—shot, beaten to death, strangled with an iron cable. Omar recounts how one day a guard brought a large pot of soup to serve the inmates. He then grabbed one detainee and shoved his head into the pot. When the man gasped his last breath, the guard had the naked prisoners drink the soup.

At Sednaya, the authorities seemed to have one goal: the psychological destruction—what the East German Stasi called the “decomposition”—of inmates before execution. The jailers would use all kinds of psychological warfare, planting enforcers (sukhra) and informants (jawasis) in each cell to sow paranoia and moral chaos, and to prevent any bonds or trust from emerging among the prisoners. Thus, it’s particularly moving when Omar recounts how inmates tried to build trust and some semblance of moral order in the face of such nihilistic barbarism. Here belief in God—whispering the Quran to one another—was essential, helping inmates to survive and maintain a sense of sanity and selfhood. In a prison where God’s name was unutterable, inmates learned quickly to pray without moving their lips, in case an informant was watching. “You focus your eyes somewhere and imagine the verses passing inside your head,” says Omar.

Faith shaped daily life in myriad ways. “I soon came to realize that there are two kinds of people in prison,” says Omar, “those who lose their faith—asking where is God?—and those who have faith. Those who have faith stick together; they are like a body. Those who don’t have faith will think of their families and lose hope. You see them crying in the corner; they would die psychologically and physically. So we set a rule at Sednaya. No one was allowed to speak of their family or of freedom. That was the rule. But the engineers kept talking about engineering, and how they would one day rebuild the prisons of Syria. So we moved them to a corner.”

Religious mores were followed as closely as possible. “We were kind to each other; the strong would give their food to the weak, the young would give their space to the old. We’re all on the edge of death; you could be killed off at any moment, and the last thing you do matters a lot for the afterlife.” Sitting in a windowless, dark cell for months on end, the Islamic calendar allowed inmates to tell what time of day or month of the year it was. The older prisoners could tell the time of day by listening out for the faint sound of an adhan from a distant mosque. “When eid came around, people would get very excited, hoping for a change, an amnesty maybe—but then eid would pass, and no one was released and people would die of agony,” says Omar.

“After my third eid, I realized that the engineers were surviving the eids better—unlike the others—because their faith in science and imagination gave them hope. So we changed the rules; we allowed people to talk about freedom and family.” The inmates then created small groups whereby the professionals would move around: The doctors would speak to the other inmates about health, the lawyers about Syria’s legal system, the teachers about the educational system, and, perhaps most important, the elders who had memorized the Quran would transmit the verses to the young. “I literally learned hundreds of passages of Quran from the elders,” Omar said. “Syria’s most brilliant people are in prison, and the poor of Syria, or a village boy like me, would never get a chance to sit with lawyers and educators—but in prison we made it happen. I call it the university of whispers.”

When he felt optimistic, Omar would engage in small acts of resistance. He would stand up and “exercise” (i.e., stretch his limbs) in his space—an act that could get an inmate tortured. He was still tagging bodies daily at Sednaya, and sometimes after an inmate died, he would write down in the report the name and number of a living inmate who had been forced to sign a confession and could be executed next, in the hope of sparing or deferring the latter’s execution. But perhaps Omar’s greatest act of resistance was that he began “writing”—that is, composing poetry and reciting the verses to himself and his friends. “For the first six months at Branch 215, I wrote about my family, but then after Bashir died, I began writing about imprisonment.” The writing was an act of political resistance, as he often wrote about the revolution in allegorical terms, where the revolution is an attractive woman, an object of love.

Since his release, Omar has reflected often on why he survived. He’ll describe how his faith gave him strength and hope—and then he’ll mention Yasser. “The reason I survived is because there were elders in prison who protected me and wanted me to survive. And my greatest protector was Yasser al-Baridi; he saved my life so many times. When I was being tortured, he would throw his body on mine and receive the belts. And he taught me Quran, he was a hafiz.” Every prison cell had a leader of sorts, someone who would become the spokesman for the inmates, and the imposing, pious Yasser, who had been in prison “since before the Quran was banned in 2008,” was the leader of cell No. 10. One morning a guard came in and told Yasser that when he returned, he wanted him to have picked five men for execution. Yasser slowly selected four inmates, suspected “bad guys” (i.e., informants), and ordered them to the center of the room. When the guard came back, he peeked in through the door’s window and shouted, “I said five people!” Yasser answered in a mocking voice, “I know you said five. These four were praying together out loud.” Then, stepping forward, he added, “And I was their imam.” A silence descended on the third floor of Sednaya. The guards were aghast at this act of defiance and open devotion. They took Yasser and “tortured him to death, they destroyed his body, we recognized him only by his fingers,” says Omar, eyes tearing up for the second time.

How to make sense of this carceral system, which combines bewildering depravity with obsessive record-keeping? Why endlessly torture and psychologically destroy individuals, including minors, who are already in a dungeon? Why keep them barely alive for months on end? Eliminating the hafiz, the learned Islamic figure, is actually reminiscent of colonial-era practices. In his exceptional book The Walking Qur’an (2014), historian Rudolph Ware notes that in 18th-century Senegambia, religious leaders who had memorized the Quran—who embodied God’s word, so to speak—were often the most vocal critics of the local rulers’ slaving practices and collaboration with European powers, so African monarchs would single them out for punishment. The enslavement of the hufaz would in turn trigger anti-colonial rebellions. (When Yasser died, Omar recalls, “We washed his body, and prayed for him out loud. When a good man dies, the guards don’t dare intervene in the prayer—they know we’ll do something crazy.”)

Yet for all its proscribing of God, the Syrian regime in Sednaya and other prisons seems to have created a narrow space between life and death, eerily reminiscent of the Islamic concept of barzakh, that surreal place between the physical and spiritual worlds similar to the Christian idea of limbo. The Assad regime seems to have deliberately recreated that narrow “isthmus” between life and death that believers speak of. It’s worth adding that not all the memorizers of the Quran were executed. Many of those who fit the profile were released to replenish the ranks of jihadis, because the regime wanted to shift the struggle to the battlefield, where it had a clear military upper hand. Since mid-2011, Assad had begun periodically releasing hardened jihadis from prison to give the impression that the uprising was the work of violent extremists.

One day in June 2015 (“I remember it was 10 days before Ramadan”), Omar was pulled from cell No. 10 and taken to another room. “I thought they were going to kill me,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s kind of a nice feeling, actually—you think you won’t have to worry anymore.” But instead, every hour a guard would come in and lean over the blindfolded inmate and ask, “‘Hey, how would you like to be killed?’ And I would say, ‘You can shoot me?’ The guard would say, ‘That’s boring—next option.’ I would say, ‘You can hang me? You can drown me?’” This continued hourly for two days, until the 20-year-old was driven out to the side of the road for a final humiliation—the mock execution. “I thought I was dead, but then I heard them drive off—and I realized they had fired onto the ground,” says Omar. “I turned my head, I looked up—and for the first time in three years, I saw the sky, the trees, the birds.”

Barefoot, disheveled, and sick with tuberculosis, Omar made his way to Damascus. He spent the night at a bus station. The following morning, he stumbled around the city center; at one point he stood in front of a shop window, startled to see his emaciated face in the reflection. “I hadn’t seen my face in years,” he says. Some hours later he was approached by a stranger who asked, “Are you Omar Alshogre? I know your mother.” “I knew what ‘mother’ meant,” says Omar, “but I could not remember what my mother looked like. I had completely forgotten my family.” Omar would learn that in May 2013, his father, Ahmed, and his brothers Mohammed and Osman were killed by the regime’s forces, but his mother had narrowly escaped to Turkey with his other siblings. His mother had gotten wind that her son was in Sednaya and paid a $20,000 bribe for his release. The “stranger” was a middleman, who was to help get Omar across the border to Turkey. The next day, Omar Skyped with his mother. He couldn’t remember her, and she didn’t recognize her cadaverous-looking son. Before leaving for Turkey, Omar was taken to Damascus’s renowned Ibn al-Nafees hospital for treatment. As Omar lay in the examination chair, the doctor, aware that Omar was a former prisoner, backed up and smashed the heel of his shoe into the patient’s face.

On June 21, after a 10-day journey through mountainous country, Omar arrived at the Turkish border. One final indignity awaited him on Syrian soil: Hearing his identifiably Sunni first name, the Alawi border guard began to beat the 20-year-old’s head with a rock. “He wanted to kill me,” says Omar. “The only thing that saved me was that I started coughing. I coughed blood on my hand and blew it in his direction, and then told him I was sick with TB.” The furious guard yelled, “Take that filth to Turkey” and shoved him across the checkpoint. “From then on, anytime I had trouble at a border I would cough and blow the guards a bloody kiss,” laughs Omar.

He was soon reunited with his family in Turkey, but he couldn’t get medical treatment, and his mother feared for his safety. Syrian agents were eliminating political opponents, even in Turkey. “So my mother decided that my 10-year-old brother Ali and I would head for Europe,” says Omar, “but she kept Ali’s twin brother, Hamza, with her. In case we drowned, she didn’t want to be alone.”

And so in early November 2015, Omar found himself facing another life-risking situation, boarding a dinghy with his little brother and 40 other refugees to cross the perilous, barzakh-like waters of the Aegean Sea, which has swallowed the lives of so many. The boat left from Izmir and sprang a leak, but after seven and a half hours, they arrived exhausted and shivering on the Greek island of Nira. Omar couldn’t get medical assistance in Athens, so he and his brother followed the human mass northward to Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and finally to Malmö, Sweden, where he was able to get treatment. He soon moved in with a Swedish family, and as he regained his health, the memory holes began to disappear and the recollections came flooding back.

In the three years since his release from prison, Omar has learned Swedish and English, graduated from high school, and seems keen to annex any language and identity that will allow him to disseminate his story. He has entered public-speaking competitions, where he has described his Dantean descent into Syria’s gulag. “It’s not fun,” he’ll grin. He’ll move audiences to tears talking about how he found footage of his father being shot and mutilated by the regime’s forces and why he needs to periodically watch the video. His TED Talk is more like a one-man show, where he crouches in slow motion to show the space inmates are confined to in Sednaya. His outspokenness and charm have made him a public figure in the Nordic countries; journalists will follow him with cameras as he strolls around a lake, birdwatching or reciting his poetry. He’s affectionately described as “Superguy” or “Arab Viking.”

But Omar’s growing profile has also brought death threats. In January 2018, his cell phone rang. “I’m here in Stockholm. I miss my country, I love my people, I was so excited to see the Syrian number,” says Omar. “As soon as the caller said marhaba [hello], I knew who it was.” It was one of his torturers from Branch 215. “The voice had inhabited me for a year and nine months,” Omar recalls. “Suddenly I felt the lash of the whip on my back, I recalled Bashir being sick—and this guard pouring his medicine down the toilet.” The guard growled, “Why are you talking about me? Why don’t you keep quiet?” Omar chatted with his torturer for 90 minutes. The guard offered him money to keep quiet. “Don’t pay me money, just tell me what you get out of torturing people?” responded Omar. “He couldn’t answer. I could hear him breathing heavily. That’s when I realized I had won the confrontation—they had silenced me for years, and now I had rendered him silent.”

As world leaders discuss how to reform and rebuild the Syrian state, and whether the Assad regime should be readmitted into the Arab League, efforts are growing to bring legal action against Syrian officials for crimes against humanity. Russia and China, both allies of the Assad regime, blocked a request by the United States to bring Syria before the International Criminal Court in 2014, but in March of this year, lawyers in The Hague filed the first-ever case against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his government, on behalf of 28 Syrian refugees in Jordan who were forcibly displaced, some of them after being tortured. Omar, along with other Syrian ex-detainees in Sweden, is preparing a lawsuit, backed by Sweden’s War Crimes Unit, against 25 Syrian intelligence officers. As one of the few to survive the slaughterhouse of Sednaya, and as someone who has personally tagged over 8,000 bodies, who appears in various media and can rattle off the names and locations of multiple military prisons, including the brigadier general in charge of each facility and the names of deceased inmates and their hometowns, Omar is a formidable and feared witness. Hence the ongoing death threats.

In the United States, Omar has been making the media rounds, meeting human-rights activists, lawmakers, and members of the National Security Council. Those who meet him are struck by his powers of recall and zingy answers. (Asked what he thought of New York, Omar quipped, “I came to America for the conversations, not the tall buildings.”) American officials suspect that the Syrian regime is holding more US nationals than any other state or non-state actor, so national-security experts were keen to hear Omar describe the sixth floor of Branch 215, where English-speaking prisoners were kept. “Omar Alshogre is in Washington to raise awareness of the Americans captured and of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016,” says Mouaz Moustafa of the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force. But Omar has no policy prescription per se. When US officials ask him what they should do, the 23-year-old rather cryptically responds, “Just liberate one military prison like 215; in it you’ll find Syrians, Europeans, and Americans.”

In Sweden, Omar had begun searching through Caesar’s online database and found photos of his cousin Rashad and his friends Baraa Mania and Mohammed Suleiman. Thus, one of the more emotional moments during his February visit to Washington was when he got to speak by telephone to Caesar. “If Caesar is the nameless, faceless symbol of the Syrian nation, Omar is today the very eloquent voice and face of the Syrian people,” says Moustafa, who connected the two. “They spoke casually, informally, for 20 minutes, like a nephew speaking to his uncle. Omar only appeared emotional after they hung up.”

Omar has since been speaking to student groups on Ivy League campuses. Undergraduates will listen raptly (and then they will take him on a campus tour and urge him to apply, as he’s considering attending a US college). On stage he will stress how he survived prison because of the elders who invested in him, his positive attitude, and his faith. “I believe in God. There’s a reason for everything—everything. If I didn’t have TB, I wouldn’t have been able to cross to Turkey, or get to Europe.” Over the years, it’ll be interesting to see how this young man makes sense of why the other good people imprisoned with him—the believers, the scientists, the youngsters—did not survive. But his composure and mental strength are indeed awe-inspiring. Asked by one student how he felt, Omar replied, “I feel great, I have a great future,” and then, spreading his arms, added, “and all those people who died—Yaqub, Yasser, Baraa, everyone—I have them here within me.”

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