The lucky accident of our place and time has spared us the unspeakable domestic horror of watching our families and friends displaced from their homes and slaughtered as they flee for their lives. Our modern real-time communications do, however, provide an unsparing window into the close-up suffering of others while we, thankfully, have been spared their fate. Some survive to bear witness.
One lives among us here in Rossmoor. We will know him here only by the nickname Gus and without a photo since he fears that his outspokenness about the Syrian regime could threaten the safety of his and his wife’s relatives still alive there. He suffered imprisonment and torture in Syria as a young man soon after then-Syrian Minister of Defense Hafiz al-Assad wrested control of the country after staging a military coup 47 years ago, trashing the country’s lawful constitution in the process. His second son, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded his father and was made President in the summer of 2000. He is still Syria’s president today.
The western Allies, with all the arrogance of victorious colonialists, carved up the region after World War I and assigned Syria to French control and influence. In 1947 Gus was born in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the end of the Syrian Civil War late last year. Today, according to an Amnesty International report, Syrian government forces bear primary responsibility for “catastrophic damage” during the four-year siege of Aleppo, now largely in ruins. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human States stated in November of 2016 that in Aleppo “strikes against hospitals, schools, marketplace, water facilities and bakeries…may amount to war crimes.”
While still a child, Gus’s family moved from Aleppo to Damascus, known as one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, with reports going back at least 3,500 years. In the 1950s, when Gus was a child, Damascus was described as a diverse city complete with cabarets and movie theaters. During his French-influenced education in the cosmopolitan city, Gus attended a private Catholic elementary school; he remembers religion as no big deal and no barrier between people of different faiths. “I never saw my father pray,” he recalls today. His mother also attended a Catholic school as a child. “She was very elegant, I remember her in her Chanel dresses,” Gus said.
All that changed one ordinary June day in 1972 while Gus was eating lunch at his parents’ house in Damascus. Someone was knocking at the door so his mother, with all the traditional hospitality shown visitors throughout the Middle East, got up from the table and opened it. “They grabbed me and forced me into a Peugeot,” Gus said, “before putting a black bag over my head and taking me to a prison for political prisoners.” It was there that his interrogation by regime captors began. Still with a bag over his head but now also tied to a wooden chair, his kidnappers drilled him about his religion. “I kept saying ‘No, no,’” Gus said. “I kept my ideas to myself.” Then the torture began. “They started by slapping me, I was bleeding from my nose,” he said. “Then they pulled my hair out and made me look at the sun.” Pulling off a shoe and sock, he showed one of his feet, permanently damaged and discolored from the jolts from 220-volt electrodes between his toes. He remembers the pain was excruciating; he later required two operations on his feet. “They kept shouting ‘Tell us what you know,’” he said, “but I didn’t know anything.” Then one day, as suddenly as it began exactly six months and three days earlier, his torturers opened the prison door and let him go, with instructions to tell his family that he had been on vacation in the suburbs of Damascus. “I was in the same clothes and had not been allowed to bathe. They threw me out like garbage,” he said. The day he left he weighed just 99 pounds, more than 100 pounds lighter than the day he first walked through the prison door. He recalls bitterly that his kidnappers turned a gentle religion into a violent one. “The Quran teaches us that killing an innocent man is like killing all of humanity.” He says that his time in prison brought him closer to God.
After an emotional reunion with his family Gus’s father told him that he should not stay in Syria any longer. His exodus from his homeland began, first to Lebanon and then to Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a civil engineer. He later married in Beirut.
Now an American citizen, Gus was able to visit Syria in the mid-2000s by paying a $5,000 fine, temporarily allowed at that time. He returned to visit with his father before he died. Gus says he couldn’t believe Syria’s divisions, with the regime firmly in control of banks, universities, and the voting process, where regime officials watched over voters’ shoulders in an open voting area. “Syria is like a mosaic, divided into separate parts,” he said, musing “Where are we, the Syrians?” Gus said that Bashar al-Assad has been successful in managing foreign access in the country. “Visas are very selectively granted, and then mostly for regime-controlled areas. If you want to go to any other part of the country you are on your own, without government protection,” he said, adding that this strictly controlled exposure to a small, rosy slice of Syrian life gives an entirely false impression of what it’s really like there. “If you want two views you have to look at the rebel-held areas,” he said.
Gus says that many groups and countries have had a hand in the catastrophe that is Syria today, beginning with then-President George W. Bush. “The invasion of Iraq was a disaster for everyone but the Zionists,” he said, careful to differentiate between Jews in general and Zionists, who claim a biblical right to a homeland larger than Israel today that includes, among parts of other countries, present-day Syria. Gus also thinks that President Obama was weak in not enforcing a no-fly zone and not making good on his infamous “red line that will not be crossed” promise after al-Assad dropped the potent nerve agent sarin gas, once produced by the Nazis, on his own people in August of 2013. “I was there,” Gus said. “Tears ran from my eyes from the gas even though I was more than 20 miles away.”
Gus says that he’s a patriotic Syrian and American and is greatly saddened by what’s happened to the country of his birth. Last year the United Nations identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, of which more than 6 million are internally displaced and over 4.8 million are refugees outside of Syria. Asked what he would say today to Bashar al-Assad and President Trump, if he could, he said that, to Trump, he would say, “Don’t get involved militarily. Syria has had enough outside influences.” Of al-Assad he would ask, “Isn’t it enough that you and your father have been in power for 47 years, in defiance of the Syrian Constitution?”