By Nour Braïdy
Khalifa el-Khoder remembers the torture his tormentors inflicted upon him, including "ballanco". After an extorted confession, he was sentenced to death. Set on escaping, he succeeded thanks to a total stranger who drove him to Aleppo. A freelance journalist now, he dreams of studying at the Sorbonne. But he cannot forget the terrifying violence he endured.
Beirut (AsiaNews/OLJ) – Today we publish the second part of Khalifa el-Khoder’s story. The 21-year-old Syrian delves into his seven-month captivity in the hands of the Islamic State. His descent into hell began when he drew a picture of the Virgin Mary on a wall in Aleppo, as a sign of peace.
In telling his story, he talks about the torture, the confession extorted through violence, his hurried flight and new found freedom. Today the young man is trying to rebuild his life and dreams of enrolling at the Sorbonne. However, nightmares and pain still haunt him. Here is second part of his story, courtesy of L'Orient-Le Jour. For the original, click here.
After 50 days of detention, Khalifa al-Khoder had his first interrogation. For several sessions, the young Syrian said nothing, but one day a Jihadi looked at him in the eyes before saying, "Who drew the Virgin? Are you licking the boots of the Nasrani (Christians)?"
At that moment, Khalifa had no doubt: it was his turn for the torture chamber.
Handcuffed, bound feet, blindfolded, lying on his belly: his torturer placed a metal pin in his hands and feet to bind them. Using a chain, he was suspended one metre above the ground, hands and feet tied behind the back. "Like a bag,” Khalifa said. This form of torture is known as ‘Ballanco’.
The torture lasted four hours. "‘Confess’, my tormentor said on and on. But I said nothing. He hit me so hard that my face would bang against the chain. I felt tingling in my whole body; I had the impression of being electrocuted."
Khalifa’s tormentor would take short breaks to pray, and then start again. He was asked if he had taken pictures of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting Islamic State (IS) militants. “I said yes just to get it over." This allowed him to land on the ground with huge relief . . .
IS uses a panoply of torture techniques at the al-Bab prison, Khalifa said – electrocution, "a technique used in the prisons of the Syrian regime," or locked up in a tight cabinet, hands handcuffed over the head. "This can last for days."
After his first torture session, Khalifa was unable to move. He had bruises on hands and feet, dried blood on the joints. Then came the second Ballanco session. This time, it lasted five hours. "I felt dead. I thought about my parents, my little sister. Then I decided to talk to God, to tell him my dreams . . ."
Next to him, his tormentor prayed. "I could not bear to hear my tormentor say ‘Allah Akbar’. . . I hated those words! How could this man pray and inflict such torture?" At that point, Khalifa decided to confess that he had indeed drawn the Virgin, thinking that “it would be something more dignified” for him.
His fingerprint was put on a paper whose content he did not know. After a few days of waiting, he was sent before a Tunisian judge. Having confessed to his "crime", Khalifa had to wait for his sentence in a cell reserved for prisoners of war who can be traded. "If you do not want to die, tell your parents to get the FSA to exchange you for one of our fighters," the Jihadis told him.
'I knew my time was up'
A few days later, Khalifa, who was still undergoing interrogations, saw a prisoner hanging from the Ballanco. "I was paralysed and more convinced than ever of my decision: confess everything, and let them do whatever they wanted."
At some point, Khalifa's parents were allowed to visit him. They drove 200 kilometres for a meeting of 15 minutes. "My mother was completely veiled. I could only see her weeping eyes,” the young Syrian explained. “I told her that I knew my time was up and I asked her to forget me."
For weeks, Khalifa rubbed shoulders in his cell with people from the FSA and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). He killed time by reading every religious book that fell into his hands. He read to forget the obstinate feeling that his end was near. With his nerves shot, the young Syrian flinched every time he heard the door open. Until the day in late November when an escort of IS fighters took him to a room where the judge was waiting for him. The verdict was read: Khalifa was sentenced to death for drawing Virgin and allegedly taking photographs of fighting between IS and other groups.
"The next day I was taken to a building near the prison. Seeing the sky and the clouds for the first time in months, I could not hold back my tears. Especially, as I thought they were taking me to my death," he said.
But in the new prison, Khalifa found out that a group of prisoners to which he belonged had been "pardoned by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS chief and self-proclaimed caliph”, and that he was required to study for three months in prison for his “rehabilitation”. Thus came religious courses. One of his teachers, who spoke fluent Arabic, was a German, known as Abu Youssef el-Almani, married to a Lebanese-German woman.
"I had the choice between staying in prison, being killed or escaping”
Quickly, anxiety became overwhelming. During his stay, Khalifa found out that one of the detainees, despite being pardoned, had been executed anyway. "I said to myself that they had lied to me and that I absolutely had to run away."
On 17 December 2014, the young Syrian told a prisoner who had become a guard at the "rehabilitation centre" that he was going out and that he would be back in time for his work: fill sandbags used to protect the prison from coalition air strikes.
After walking for about a kilometre, he went for broke and asked a driver he did not know for help. "Today, looking back, I realize the huge risk I took. But I had nothing to lose. I had the choice between staying in prison, being killed or escaping.”
The journey seemed endless: three hours on the road that seemed to never end. For Khalifa it felt like the car was stuck. At the first IS roadblock, Khalifa was able to keep his cool. "I knew Daesh was very meticulous to check cars entering its regions.”
Only after this point did Khalifa tell the driver that he had just escaped from an IS jail. He remembers the man “panicked and told me to never contact him once they had arrived to safety. For the rest of the trip, I kept to myself. Like a kid, I watched the scenery around me. I could see things I had thought about in prison and that I thought I’d never see again."
The car drove on and on, passing a village, then another, with checkpoints, manned by the FSA here, the al-Nustra Front there, until Aleppo. “Finally, entering Jazmati, My Aleppo neighbourhood, I had the impression of entering a holy place. Children began to call me, adults came out barefoot to see me . . . everyone thought I was dead."
Facing his demons
Khalifa went home. Everything was intact. The cup of tea he was sipping and the book he was reading before his arrest. Nothing had changed. "I touched the walls. I could not believe I was alive. Seeing my reflection in the mirror, I barely recognized himself."
The next day, Khalifa left for Turkey, where he began a long period of convalescence. He had lost ten kilograms and his eyesight had deteriorated due to malnutrition. For several months, he followed treatment for the leprosy he had contracted in prison. "But the worst was the psychological pain; those wounds do not heal."
The idea of escaping to Europe did go through his mind several times. However, Khalifa decided that he did not want to live on the run, that he had to face his demons and defeat them. In Turkey, the young Syrian went back to study sociology online, and got his degree. He is now taking French courses to go to the Sorbonne. That is his dream. A freelance journalist, he writes about Raqqa and Aleppo. Khalifa also plans to write his own story.
Today if Khalifa is resolutely turned to the future, but the demons of the past still haunt him. "When it's cold, my sore hands remind me of the hours of torture on the Ballanco.” His former tormentors also haunt him despite the distance and the passage of time. "When I watch an IS video, I often recognise them. I recognise them from the eyes."
(To read the first part of Khalifa’s story, click here).