Illustration by Eleanor Doughty

After Surviving Torture, Noura Al-Jizawi Is Fighting for Other Syrian Prisoners

After working as a prominent activist against the Assad regime, Noura Al-Jizawi was "kidnapped" on a bus and sent to prison without charges for seven months. Upon her release, she became a key figure in the battle to make space for Syrian women's...

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Jan 6 2017, 6:05pm

Illustration by Eleanor Doughty

For survivors of trauma, there is often a decisive moment one can pinpoint as the instant when "normal" was replaced by a darker, new reality—an instant when what was previously unimaginable became truth. For 29-year-old Noura Al-Jizawi, the moment came nearly five years ago, when four men in civilian clothes entered the bus she was on and demanded to see passengers' identification. Under the dictatorship, Al-Jjizawi tells me, this was a not-uncommon occurrence. "But it was the first time they asked for women's IDs."

After comparing Al-Jizawi's identification card to their papers, she says they put a gun to her chest and ordered her to come with them. The driver brought her bags from the bus while the men confiscated Al-Jizawi's mobile phone and began verbally abusing her. "I felt like, OK, they're arresting me again," she says. "Let's do this."

A seasoned activist, Al-Jizawi was no stranger to being handled roughly by Syrian police. Years earlier, she had been detained over a story she had written on her blog that the government described as "having the soul of political issues." The arrest was "normal," and she wasn't in jail for more than a couple of days.

Read more: The Battle of Advocating for a New Syria

This time, Al-Jizawi was held for seven months without charges. During that time, she says she was beaten and shocked with electrical rods. She was forced to listen to the sounds of those around her being tortured. Prison guards regularly threatened to harm her family if she didn't turn in her activist friends.

By many accounts, the Syrian Civil War began in March 2011, when a group of young boys were caught scribbling pro-democracy graffiti on a school wall in the southern city of Daraa. After peaceful demonstrators were met with unmeasured violence, rebel groups began to form—first to defend themselves and later to reclaim their communities, which were being overtaken by security forces. The violence between two sides escalated into what has been dubbed the greatest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. It is estimated that at least 470,000 people had died as a result of the war by 2016.

In addition to this devastation, thousands of people have been unlawfully held in detention. According to a 2014 report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights the Syrian government was unlawfully holding some 215,000 civilians. Human rights experts say that every month the number increases by the hundreds, and that a significant number of these detainees experience torture. Nearly 18,000 Syrians have died in prison since the conflict began.

Those who make it out, more challenges lie ahead. Following a traumatic experience, some survivors retreat into the private sector in hopes of regaining some semblance of life as it once was. Others choose to fight, by adopting what trauma expert Judith Herman calls a "survivor mission." Since her release in late 2012, Al-Jizawi and other survivors have been fighting harder than ever to improve the situation inside Syria for its citizens. In December of 2013, she was named vice president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a committee officially recognized by the British government as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian people. In late 2015, the National Coalition formed the High Negotiations Committee, or HNC, which was invited to peace talks in Geneva in 2016 to broker a political solution between the Assad regime and the rebel factions. Though she stepped down as vice president of the National Coalition in January 2014, Al-Jizawi remains an outspoken advocate, not just for herself but on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Syrians arbitrarily detained and tens of thousands tortured by the Syrian government under President Bashar Al-Assad.

I felt like, OK, they're arresting me again. Let's do this.

In April, Al-Jizawi spoke alongside a panel of female survivors at another session of talks in Geneva calling on the international community to put an end to the Assad regime and address crimes committed under his dictatorship. These speakers were members of a women-only advisory body to the HNC known as the Women's Consultative Committee. According to one expert I spoke to, the WCC were some of the most effective members of the political negotiating team. The WCC echoed the National Coalition's immediate goal to end air strikes and see to the release of detainees. They also lobbied for the rehabilitation and care to traumatized communities, including transitional justice that holds accountable those responsible for systemic crimes.

In March, it was agreed that women should represent at least 30 percent of decision-making structures in Syria should Assad be removed from power and a transitional government be put in place. This, as well as the role women had played thus far in the talks, inspired cautious optimism about the country's future for women and girls. But as the airstrikes continued, Syrians' faith in a political solution diminished, and by the end of April, the ceasefire collapsed entirely as the HNC pulled out of the talks to protest the ongoing conflict and lack of aid to the country.

The United Nations is beginning to make space for the voices of Syrians who've experienced detention, women in particular, echoing the "nothing about us without us" movement in the West, where populations directly affected by policies are demanding a literal seat at the negotiating table. Directly impacted, survivors are understood to have information about the conflict that outsiders don't, and they can make an emotional appeal that those more distanced from the conflict can't. As vice president of the opposition coalition, Al-Jizawi was called a "revolutionary of the trenches" who offered an activist's perspective and lent credibility to a team cynically criticized as "hotel revolutionaries" detached from the struggles on the ground. "I was sick of this negativity, of people criticizing the Coalition instead of fixing it," Al-Jizawi told Al Jazeera back in January 2014. "So I decided to join it."

In an interview with the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), Al-Jizawi noted that the speed of what's happening in Syria means outsiders only see "the surface" of what's going on. The media sweeps over the devastation and loss, she argues, but fails to document the "deep human destruction." Al-Jizawi is most critical of the media for focusing on suffering and not seeing "the real Syrian woman—how she participates in the revolution, and is an immense and essential energy for the revolution."

Noura Al-Jizawi in her interview with ICAN. Screengrab via YouTube

Al-Jizawi first began working as an activist in human rights in 2008, organizing students at universities against the practice of honor killings. At the same time, Al-Jizawi followed the revolutions occurring in the region. She read literature and learned tactics in nonviolent action. "I thought, One day we will have a revolution. It is not acceptable to have our life under a dictatorship in Syria."

In 2011, demonstrations started in the city where she lived, Homs. Al-Jizawi made it her job to document the protests and promote the message that they were part of a nonviolent movement seeking equality, gender equality, and freedom from dictatorship for all Syrian citizens. She sent news, videos, and photos to international media. She helped produce Hurriyat, or Freedoms, an underground newspaper.

As time went on, Al-Jizawi says the situation in Homs worsened. "We could not move between streets. They cut all connections. Telephone, electricity, mobile phones, internet." She moved to Aleppo where she "joined a good group, mostly students from Aleppo. We worked together in two fields: continue our support to Homs, and move the revolution to Aleppo." She and her friends continued nonviolent activities, coordinated speakers, and hung posters in streets and shops. "It was a great time for me, to be involved again in [the] nonviolence movement and continue supporting my own city of Homs."

In May 2012, Al-Jizawi was returning to Aleppo after a meeting with fellow activists in Damascus when she was forced from the bus by four armed men. After getting off the bus, Al-Jizawi says the men covered her eyes, bound her hands, and stuffed her into a car. "I didn't know where they were taking me," she says.

Because the men had been dressed as civilians and never identified themselves, Al-Jizawi didn't know if they were shabiha, armed civilian gangs supporting the government, or governmental security forces called the Mukhabarat. "I started to prepare myself for all scenarios. If they were shabiha, how I should deal, and if they were Mukhabarat, how I can keep my power to avoid my other colleagues and friends from getting arrested."

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What happened next, Al-Jizawi says, was not an arrest. "It was kidnapping," she says. "When a government wants to arrest someone, they get permission from the court. They inform him or her of the charges when they take them in for questioning. But in Syria now, it is totally not this way."

From the bus, Al-Jizawi says she was taken to a jail run by military intelligence before landing in the Adra prison on the outskirts of Damascus. In Adra, political prisoners were mixed with common criminals—everyone from traffic offenders to murderers. The prison was built to accommodate 2,500 people, but by 2010 it had swelled with more than 7,000 bodies, mostly men. In 2010, Human Rights Watch reported that the dozen or so female prisoners at Adra weren't allowed out of their cells more than twice a week, and suffered verbal harassment by male guards assigned to other prisoners.

According to a comprehensive report published in 2015 by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network called "Detention of Women in Syria," conditions in most facilities are dismal. There's not enough food and water; the food prisoners are given is often inedible. Detainees are often denied the use of toilets for long stretches of time. Released detainees say many contracted lice, scabies, and other communicable diseases. According to the report, "a number of women interviewed" were denied sanitary pads; one woman told Syria Deeply that they were forced to cut pieces of their clothes to use instead. The situation, she said, is particularly "miserable" for pregnant women. "Sometimes their infants would die in their wombs due to torture or malnutrition," the woman said. "Some of them found out their babies had died after they left detention."

Beyond these untenable conditions come reports of physical torture: detainees being strip searched, kept in solitary confinement, kept awake, blindfolded and bound, beaten with iron rods, and given electric shock treatment. According to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network report, sexual violence is "very common." Survivors report the psychological terror of being made to watch or listen to others being tortured, including people they knew.

Our community is not good with this idea of former detainee.

"To be a prisoner is to be dead, until God gives you a new life," said Aziza Jaloud, an activist who spoke alongside Al-Jizawi in Geneva, in her speech at the peace talks. Taken as a hostage in her 20s, while pregnant, she was imprisoned for 11 years without trial or charges. For two of those years, she said, she was kept alone in a room.

During the seven months Al-Jizawi spent in captivity, she says she was regularly tortured and verbally harassed. Her captors threatened to harm her family in an effort to extract information. In a 2014 interview with the Daily Sabah, she says her experience is "not worth mentioning," because what others experience is much worse. She describes the suffering as mostly psychological (besides being "merely hit with cables and electrocuted"). "They tried to force me to say [my one friend] was an advisor in army," Al-Jizawi recalls, "but I refused."

After some months, Al-Jizawi was transported from Adra and spent her last few months of captivity in a prison in Homs until her eventual release. Today, she lives with her husband in Istanbul, Turkey, home to approximately 366,000 Syrian refugees and where their struggles are said to only "intensify."

When a prisoner is released from captivity, experts say, the effects of torture remain. Survivors suffer from physical pain and emotional symptoms, including nightmares, paranoia, sleep problems, and withdrawal. The psychological consequences of detention and torture can often be worse for those experiencing the extraordinary stress and additional trauma of living as refugees.

Read more: 'I Though I Was Going to Die': Syrian Refugees on Giving Birth in the Desert

Reintegrating into their communities is particularly challenging for women. According to one local report, when a man gets out of prison, "sheep are slaughtered [in celebration]. When a woman gets out, people see it as a disaster."

Female survivors, particularly detainees who have experienced sexual violence, are stigmatized and shamed. In some cases, women are divorced or otherwise abandoned by their families. "Many families feel afraid to speak with former detainee[s]," Al-Jizawi explains. "They feel the government is watching them, and will arrest them."

As for Al-Jizawi, she says she was lucky in that her family and friends were, for the most part, supportive. "I remember well how one friend's father refused to allow me to visit them in their home," Al-Jizawi tells me. "I didn't ask why. I knew. Our community is not good with this idea of former detainee."

Because Al-Jizawi chose to fight harder and more visibly for democracy after she was released from prison, she continued to be targeted and harassed. In the interview with the Daily Sabah, she said that her mother was constantly followed and said that her father had been imprisoned and her siblings detained. Last August, Al-Jizawi was the victim of an apparent attempted cyber-hacking.

These days, Al-Jizawi works full-time for the Istanbul-based nonprofit organization she founded called Start Point, which helps Syrian women who have been kidnapped, raped, or detained reintegrate back into their communities. By providing survivors psychosocial support and advocacy, Al-Jizawi says, her goal is to raise women's voices and help Syrian women to construct an image of themselves—to, as Al-Jizawi told ICAN, "make them understand they are free, and show them respect. And [show them] that we respect them even more because of their suffering and challenges."