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From university campus to torture chamber: A Syrian refugee's fight for freedom

RAMTHA, Jordan – One year ago, Syrian engineering student Emad Maho's future plans revolved around finishing his university degree and then starting a family.

The Arab Spring changed that. The 23-year-old says he was tortured by Syrian authorities for protesting against President Bashar Assad's regime.

Maho is among the thousands of Syrians who have fled their homeland. According to the United Nations, at least 8,000 people have died in Syria over the past year due to the government's violent repression of the uprising.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 5,000 Syrian refugees have registered with them in Jordan. But the Jordan government says the number is much higher and that as many as 80,000 Syrians have crossed into the country since the revolution started.

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Speaking from the northern Jordanian town of Ramtha, which borders Syria, Maho told of his arrest, torture and humiliation at the hands of Syrian authorities.

'I always hated the regime'
Maho had never thought about becoming an activist -- but says he had "always yearned for freedom."

“I always hated the regime and wished I could have the minimal freedom other people in the world enjoy,” he said. “When I received an invitation on Facebook to participate in a demonstration in front of the Libyan Embassy in Syria to support the Arab Spring, I was very excited and I remember thinking: ‘When will the Syrian people demand their own freedom?’”

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After more than 40 years of oppression, Syrians were not immune to the revolutions sweeping the region. Syria has been ruled with an iron fist by the Assad family since the current president's father, Hafiz Assad, seized power in 1970. Last March, Syrians decided it was their turn to demand their freedom.

“From the start of the revolution till the 9th of July 2011, I participated in more than 150 demonstrations all over Syria,” Maho said. “I made flags, wrote banners and reached a point where I was organizing the demonstrations, capturing footage on my mobile [phone] and sending the videos to Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya TV channels,” he said. 

The Assad regime does not sanction protests – so those who have taken part in demonstrations have reportedly suffered the worst forms of torture, including electric shocks. Activists have also had their homes stormed and family members taken hostage. Many of their relatives have been tortured, killed or simply disappeared.

“I became wanted by the Syrian security forces," Maho recalled. "So I left my home and went into hiding for a few months. But my mistake was that I missed my mother terribly.

"I went home to see her; she prepared breakfast for me and then we argued because I was tense. I knew I was going to be arrested that day. I took a quick shower then walked 200 meters to my father’s shop to say hello and get some money.

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“My mother came running into the store to tell me she spotted six 'shabeeha' – armed men in civilian clothing who assault protesters – walking towards the store.”   

Maho said he immediately realized he would be arrested, but that his main fear was for his father.

'My mother was crying'
“I tried to attack them so that they will only arrest me and forget about my father. I threw my phone away because it had all the videos I shot in recent demonstrations. I managed to hit two of them, but I was outnumbered and was arrested. My father was arrested, too. My mother was crying behind,” Maho said.

Maho said he spent 20 days imprisoned at the General Headquarters of the Military Intelligence in Damascus’ Kafer Soussa neighborhood. He said he was physically tormented for at least six days – beaten, tortured with electric cables and deprived of sleep. He said he still has nightmares.

“I was forced to stand naked on a wall with my hands tied to the ceiling for seven hours. Every 30 minutes they would spill cold water on me and electrocute me. On the third day of my arrest, they realized I wasn’t saying anything, so they blindfolded me, put a stick in my mouth and escorted me to a room. I heard a man screaming. As soon as they took the blindfold off my eyes I saw the man was my father. He was yelling and I started crying. He was on the floor and three men were beating him. That was the worst moment,” he said.

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Finally, after days of torture Maho confessed what his captors wanted him to confess: That he was a spy for Al-Jazeera since he was filming the demonstrations and sending them to the TV network, as well as the fact that he was an activist and protest organizer. After his confession, he says they continued to torture him, but finally released him.

But even upon his release, Maho says he returned to the demonstrations.  He said his father was arrested for a second time, along with some cousins, in order to pressure him to turn himself to the Syrian authorities.

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“I knew that if I stayed in Syria, they would never leave my family in peace.  And I believed I could be of more help to my people alive, rather than dead. I went to Daraa [near the Jordanian border] and was smuggled into Ramtha, Jordan.”

For now, Maho says he does not want to return home. He wants to help Syrian families in Jordan.

But he said he would like to see Assad leave the country. “We will not judge him, history will.”  

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