My cell door was suddenly opened. It was almost 3 am. The police guard ordered me to come out and follow him. After about fifty paces, he opened another cell door, led me in, took my hand and dragged me behind him. He lifted the blindfold from my eyes and whispered to me: “I will come back in an hour to take you back to your cell.” Then, he pointed his finger at an empty corner and said, “Sit over there and tell a story to this child.”
In the narrow space (two by two meters) was a woman of about thirty years old. The guard turned to leave and closed the door behind him but not before ordering me to speak softly so that none of his colleagues would hear me, in which case a disaster would take place as we would both end up in Palmyra Prison.
I greeted the woman, but she did not respond. She looked terrified and curled up as one fearing imminent danger. I told her reassuringly: “Do not be afraid, sister, for I am a prisoner like you.” After a short silence, I asked her how long she had been here. “Six years,” she said and looked at the four-year-old child. I understood that she conceived and gave birth to him in prison. I asked her why she was detained. She said as tears began to fall from her eyes: “Hostage.”
I sat in front of the child and asked him his name. He did not reply. She said she hadn’t given him a name yet, as his birth had not been recorded in any register, but added that she called him Anees.
I said while holding his little hand: “Now I will tell you a story, Anees. There was a little sparrow with many colors and good singing.” He asked: “What is a sparrow?” I was silent for a while, then decided to change the story and said: “The sun was shining on the mountain.” Signs of astonishment and lack of understanding appeared on his face.
“He has never been out of this cell so he doesn’t know what you’re talking about,” said the mother, and then erupted in wailing she could no longer control.
I sat bewildered, not knowing what to do. Telling a story to a child who has known nothing but the inside of a jail cell since birth is an impossibility that cannot be achieved. Neither is it possible to comfort a woman whose dignity was violated while wasting her life without reason in this suffocating place and is now accompanied by a child whose father she does not even know. Even if she were to someday be released with him, she was ignorant about what would happen to him in a world that would not have mercy on either of them.
I was paralyzed by the horror of it all in the far corner of her small cell. My tongue could no longer say a word, so I stayed there, curled up by myself.
After a while, the guard came to take me back to my cell. When he opened the door and was assured that none of his colleagues had seen us, he asked me if I had told a story to the child. When he saw the tears on my cheeks, he closed the door and went away.
Michel Kilo (born in Latakia, Syria in 1940 and died in Paris, France in 2021) was a Syrian thinker, writer and human rights activist. Kilo narrated this short story based on a personal encounter with the child in an Assad jail. Translated from Arabic by SYRIAWISE.