In March 2011, demonstrators took to the streets of Daraa in southern Syria to protest the arrest and torture of students who had scribbled anti‑government graffiti on schoolyard walls.
The demonstrations spread quickly to other parts of the country, including the city of Homs, where Mohammed Alsaleh was a fourth‑year medical student at El-Baath University. To quash dissent, President Bashar Hafez al-Assad unleashed his military might upon Homs’s unarmed demonstrators, which only served to drive even more protestors into the streets.
Alsaleh began to document the atrocities, shooting video on his cell phone. Under the nom de guerre The Hawk of Syria, he uploaded the videos to Youtube, where they were picked up and re‑broadcast by the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.
Alsaleh recalls the day police caught him filming and threw him in a cell about two metres by one metre with three other men. Every day, Alsaleh says, he and his fellow prisoners were taken out of the lock-up, blindfolded and battered with chains, batons and sticks. Their feet beaten to a pulp, they were forced to jog in the spot on salt. Although Alsaleh’s tormentors never spoke, he got the message: similar agonies awaited those who dared oppose Assad’s rule. But the torture only strengthened his resolve to record the growing human rights abuses.
His second arrest came months later, in November 2011, when military personnel searched his university dorm for evidence of anti-government activity. Alsaleh says they discovered mocking caricatures of the president belonging to his roommate. Both students were thrown into tiny cells with other prisoners and beaten for 20 days in a row, “with no objective other than humiliation and torture,” says the 28-year-old, who today works in Vancouver with the federal Refugee Sponsorship Training program.
Alsaleh’s third – and worst – experience came nearly two years later, after someone revealed that he was the Hawk of Syria. He was arrested and imprisoned after finishing an exam on minor surgery. Alsaleh describes being handcuffed and hung by a chain from the ceiling, his toes barely touching the ground. This went on for three days. The only source of respite was standing on his toes to relieve his arms. “Near the end, I couldn’t feel anything. I thought I would never be able to use my arms again.”
After guards unchained him, “the real torture started.” Alsaleh describes being routinely beaten, eventually losing three toenails. Afterwards, he was moved to another prison for one and a half months, crammed together with other prisoners in a lice- and rat-infested cell and forbidden to talk. There was no food. “Ten people died every day.”
Alsaleh eventually ended up in Adra Prison on the edge of the Syrian capital of Damascus, where he was allowed to contact his family. His brother sold the family home to raise the money to bribe a judge to secure Alsaleh’s release. After recovering with his family in his childhood town of Al-Hasakeh, Alsaleh fled to Lebanon, living hand-to-mouth by working in restaurants, painting houses and washing cars. He registered with the UN Refugee Agency, which facilitated his resettlement in Canada in late 2014. “It brought hope to my life.”
Intertwined with the hope, however, were “uncontrollable” nightmares, depression and intense fear of anyone in a uniform – a post-traumatic stress response to being tortured. Among the first group of 28 Syrian refugees to come to British Columbia in November 2014, Alsaleh would normally have had access to counselling with the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture (VAST), created in 1986 to help refugees and immigrants from despotic nations deal with the violence they suffered. However, his arrival coincided with 2014 federal funding cuts of nearly $300,000, which pushed VAST to the brink of closure. Help from VAST was not available.
Today, Alsaleh is settled, employed, and looking forward to welcoming his family, whom he is privately sponsoring to join him in Canada. But he admits to feeling fragile. To date, he has relied upon his work with refugees and speaking about his ordeal publicly through TEDx talks as “my way of healing.” He realizes it’s not enough, and is planning to connect soon with VAST to begin counselling. “It’s an ongoing battle I am fighting, and I need all the support and help I can get.”
Still, he is filled with optimism. “Facing death changes people,” he says. “We come out different people, more resilient, more determined, more appreciative of every single thing in life and more hopeful for a better future.”