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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Mohamed Berro: An Assad genocide survivor

Mohamed Berro

Charged with being a member of the military vanguard of the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian writer and activist Mohamed Berro was arrested by the regime of Hafez Assad in May 1980 at the age of 17.  Being a minor at the time of his arrest, young Mohamed escaped the death penalty that was imposed upon the majority of his fellow detainees and was sentenced instead to 10 years in prison which was ultimately extended to 13 years. The majority of his time in prison was spent in the notorious Tadmor (Palmyra) and Sednaya prisons where he witnessed some of the most horrifically brutal violations committed by Hafez Assad’s regime.

Originally from Aleppo, Berro currently lives in Istanbul and manages the Sada Opinion Polling Center. He has written a book titled Survivor of the Gallows that documents his experience and is working on a second book that focuses on what happens to Assad regime prisoners who are released after long absences from society and their families. Berro has also authored numerous articles, studies, and research papers that were published in a variety of newspapers, journals, and online platforms.

Syriawise recently spoke to Berro about what issues he believes should be prioritized and what he envisions for Syria’s future.

Syriawise: At present, Syria has been under the Assad family’s rule for 53 years. Based on your experience, what do you think will happen if the current Assad remains in power for another 10 years?

Assad has become a disgrace to anyone who shakes hands with him and neither he nor anyone else can rehabilitate him for the future. He will be unable to reduce the overriding scope of his criminality and tyranny as even a half-step back would cause his regime to collapse like dominoes

Mohamed Berro: It is highly unlikely that Bashar Assad could return to rule Syria again as he did before. The reality on the ground (division, and the control of international and regional powers) is a difficult obstacle to overcome in the foreseeable future.

Even if we hypothetically assume his continued rule for a longer period, he does not possess the resources to manage a country that is devastated in its infrastructure and human fabric. He would become a puppet ruling over a torn country, controlled by internal and external forces, militias, and mafias. He would be unable to free himself from their control.

Moreover, it is highly unlikely that he possesses the qualifications to sustain his rule in the coming stage. Due to his indulgence in all forms of crime, corruption, murder, drug manufacturing, and trafficking, Assad has become a burden on his supporters, and they will eventually have to replace him. Assad has become a disgrace to anyone who shakes hands with him and neither he nor anyone else can rehabilitate him for the future. He will be unable to reduce the overriding scope of his criminality and tyranny as even a half-step back would cause his regime to collapse like dominoes.

Despite the fact that the issue of detainees and the continuation of daily arrests in Syrian cities are organically linked to the existence or demise of the Assad regime, the opposition failed to consider the issue of detainees as one of its priorities

Syriawise: The issue of forcibly disappeared and detained individuals should be a priority for everyone. As a former detainee do you believe that this issue has been given its due? What are your suggestions for prioritizing the rights of forcibly disappeared individuals and detainees?

Mohamed Berro: Although the issue of detainees represents the greatest wound in Syrian society as a whole, it has not received the attention it deserves. The Syrian opposition as a whole did not prioritize the issue of detainees. Despite the fact that the issue of detainees and the continuation of daily arrests in Syrian cities are organically linked to the existence or demise of the Assad regime, the opposition failed to consider the issue of detainees as one of its priorities. Any imagined solution to the detainees’ crisis, separate from the removal of the regime, is merely an illusion and wishful thinking.

With family and friends the night he was released from prison

Syriawise: If you could go back to the time before your arrest in 1980 do you think you could have imagined what ultimately happened to you? If so, would you have stayed in Syria at that time or chosen to leave?

Mohamed Berro: This question carries a logical dilemma. If I were to go back in time while retaining the same awareness I had at that time, I would undoubtedly repeat what I did. However, if I were to go back in time with the experience of the past decades that I have acquired today, I am certain that the choice to leave and escape the massacre would be the optimal choice. And many people did just that.

Syriawise: You previously talked about the daily execution convoys and torture sessions in Tadmor Prison. How do you remember them today?

Mohamed Berro: As soon as I remember the execution ceremonies that took place weekly with the first rays of dawn, and how the detainees would run to reach the gallows, conflicting feelings overwhelm me. Alongside the profound grief that grips the soul for the senseless killing of these innocent young men, there is also envy and a wish that I had been with them to escape the daily torture that never ceased. Remembering the daily torture chambers that were incessant fills me with immense astonishment at how I escaped this torment and how I endured it in the first place. This question remains unanswered until now, except for the fact that divine providence willed our survival, perhaps so that we could narrate the story of thousands of victims who were unjustly killed.

Mohamed Berro shortly before he was arrested in 1980

Perhaps the most miserable moment in Tadmor Prison was when I heard my brother Ahmed’s name being called to the field court. Prior to that moment, I had no knowledge of his arrest. My heart ached for my mother as I imagined her having lost both her sons successively, as if a wound that was on the verge of healing had been reopened

Syriawise: As you passed through the narrow iron gate of Tadmor Prison next to a dirty white sign with the poorly written words “Those who enter are lost, those who exit are born,” what went through your mind?

Mohamed Berro: At that precise moment it can be said that both I and those with me had reached the peak of despair that left no glimmer of hope. Our sole focus was to run as fast as possible to avoid the torture cables and whips that would tear at us as we rushed to pass through that gate leading to hell. The executioners lined up on both sides of the gate, wielding their whips, presenting us with the prospect of death.

Syriawise: What was the most painful moment you experienced throughout your life, whether in prison, after prison, or in the events of the past 12 years in Syria?

Mohamed Berro: It is difficult to imagine a single moment without its accompanying numerous painful memories. Perhaps the most miserable moment in Tadmor Prison was when I heard my brother Ahmed’s name being called to the field court. Prior to that moment, I had no knowledge of his arrest. My heart ached for my mother as I imagined her having lost both her sons successively, as if a wound that was on the verge of healing had been reopened. Another moment was when the city of Aleppo fell back into the hands of the regime in 2016. On that day, it became evident that we had been betrayed, and the Syrians were abandoned altogether, left to their fate. These experiences were deeply painful and left lasting scars.

Syriawise: Do you have any future personal projects for further documenting your experiences, in addition to your book Survivor of the Gallows?

Mohamed Berro: I am currently working on continuing this documentation and I hope to finish it soon. The next book will be titled The Second Person and it is about the consequences of return as well as absence. The first part will discuss the five years I spent in Sednaya Military Prison (1988-1993), while the second part will address what happened to the detainees after their release. This is a subject that has not been adequately addressed thus far.

Even though a prisoner exits the physical confines of the prison, the majority of their spirit remains captive in that hell they emerged from, with its horrifying images, figures, and victims.

Syriawise: How did you reintegrate into your social environment after being released from prison?

Mohamed Berro: The experience of returning to normal life after 13 years of absence and change is a difficult one and I believe it was the same for all survivors. Even though a prisoner exits the physical confines of the prison, the majority of their spirit remains captive in that hell they emerged from, with its horrifying images, figures, and victims. Furthermore, the security apparatus continues to maintain control over their soul. Not a month passes without a summons to the security branch, a constant reminder that the same person who arrested them the first time, can do so again. My only solace was finding my mother, father, and siblings alive as I did not lose any of them.

The destruction that befell Syrian families, their fragmentation, division, and dispersal in exile, along with millions of displaced children who have fallen victim to the depths of corruption, involving drugs, human trafficking, arms carrying, and much more that is difficult to encompass, makes the Syrian society’s healing process a complex task

Syriawise: How does Mohammad Berro envision Syria’s future?

Mohamed Berro: Considering the current circumstances we are living in, there is no glimpse of hope for a near resolution. Even if it were to happen, there will still be lingering obstacles that are difficult to overcome in the foreseeable future. Rebuilding may be achievable in the relatively near future as it presents an investment opportunity for foreign capital.

However, the human devastation requires decades to heal. The destruction that befell Syrian families, their fragmentation, division, and dispersal in exile, along with millions of displaced children who have fallen victim to the depths of corruption, involving drugs, human trafficking, arms carrying, and much more that is difficult to encompass, makes the Syrian society’s healing process a complex task that requires long periods and international efforts. Unfortunately, we do not see sufficient attention being given to this.

Nevertheless, the river of life continues to flow, and we must witness a day when Syria moves towards its salvation. I hope our wait will not be prolonged and that our continuous pursuit of freedom remains in itself a form of freedom.

I believe it is the duty of every capable Syrian to preserve and document their experience and testimony because by constructing a strong narrative about what happened, we may contribute greatly to preventing its recurrence

Syriawise:  In conclusion, is there anything that you, as a survivor of the gallows, want to say to your fellow Syrians?

Mohamed Berro: It can be said that all Syrians are currently living in a difficult time of neglect, marginalization, and the continuation of their killings. But we have examples from peoples who have witnessed similar forms of war and persecution, approaching what we are experiencing today.

It is not true to repeat that “there is no nation that has suffered like us.” Yes, such situations have occurred repeatedly in various forms in Namibia, South Africa, Rwanda, Cambodia, and many others, and they have all overcome what they went through.

If peace cannot be achieved without justice, then justice needs documentation to rely on. I believe it is the duty of every capable Syrian to preserve and document their experience and testimony because by constructing a strong narrative about what happened, we may contribute greatly to preventing its recurrence.

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