SHAH ALAM — It is hard for peace-loving Malaysians to imagine ceaseless war. But for a doughty bunch of Syrian migrants, it was all there for many years.
Thanks to the efforts of the Coalition of Humanitarian NGOs for Syria, 68 people are now settled in the country after being moved from one refugee camp to another since fleeing their conflict-ridden homeland.
The migrants were vetted by Home Ministry officials, who ensured they had no ties with the government of Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, or any other political faction in the civil war. Any connections, even the most remote, merited automatic disqualification.
Yet the adults of these 17 families will never forget the horrors they witnessed first-hand during the early years of the Syrian Civil War, which erupted in 2011.
Abdullah, 26, was a former military officer under the government of Syria’s strongman, who once worked in a four-storey prison where dissidents were subjected to torture. Sickened by what he saw, he eventually turned against al-Assad and fled with his wife Nur S., also 26.
“The most common method of breaking you was to tie your arms above your head and leave you in that position for 10 days. Either that or arms pulled and tied behind your back, or one arm and leg pulled back for that period,” he said, as some of his compatriots gestured in illustration.
Such a technique would mean blood supply being cut off from the limbs, leading to oxygen loss, broken bones followed by death. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.
It soon becomes clear that although Abdullah is a strong person, the weight of what he witnessed took a toll on him. His passive expression could not hide the sorrow in his eyes.
“If they (the Syrian government) wanted to coerce you for something, and you would not yield, they would bring in your spouse and rape her in your presence,” he said in a report by Malay Mail Afternoon E-Paper.
The use of foul language and hurling obscenities at captives is part of the exercise. So is electrically tasering their genitals repeatedly, according to Abdullah’s fellow migrant Ali, 36.
The former entrepreneur/businessman fled Syria with his wife and two sons several years prior. His three older brothers were captured by the government, and their whereabouts are still unknown. Ali is one of the more fortunate ones, as he was captured and held for a year, before being released.
“Death would come crawling towards you. It reached a point where hunger and loss of sleep of some prisoners left them senseless. Seeing what they did to prisoners and how they died with agonising slowness, every second I was in there I prayed for the mercy of a swift death,” he said.
Another immigrant, former English teacher Zohair, 32, relates how close he came to death some three years before.
“I fell foul of Bashar’s government, and it reached a point where a general and several soldiers came to my house with the express purpose of executing me and my family,” he said.
Just as the door opened to the heavily armed soldiers, Zohair’s eldest daughter Farah, then 18 months old, crawled to the entrance.
“Being an infant, she did not know who these men were but must have thought they were family friends. So she began tugging at the general’s leg, cooing happily,” he said.
Sheer terror struck the household as the general peered down at his feet and picked little Farah up, holding her in his hands while pondering for several frightening minutes.
“At last he gently put her down and looked me in the eye with pointed finger, saying that for the sake of my little daughter he will spare my entire household,” Zohair said.
The soldiers were displeased by this turn of events, with some urging their superior officer to simply permit them to kill everyone. But the general would not allow this, sternly telling his men off before they departed.
“But my neighbours were not so lucky. When those monsters were done, we were the only ones left alive on our apartment floor,” he said, his voice holding the burden of unshed tears.
“I have lost at least 200 friends and acquaintances to this accursed war. Nowadays if I think about it I feel neither sadness nor anger, but sometimes I can only just weep,” he said.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.