Syrian torture chambers brought to life in haunting drawings

Clare BYRNE
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Syrian artist and painter Najah Albukai has exhibited dozens of his drawings across France

Najah Albukai's head is filled with the dead and disappeared of Syria's civil war.

The prisoners with whom the 49-year-old art teacher shared a cell in Syria fill two black ink drawings hanging on the wall in the living room of his French apartment where he lives in exile with his wife and teenage daughter.

One of them shows row upon row of hunched naked men with dark, sunken eyes, their arms shielding their genitals.

In another, they look down on stacks of jumbled emaciated corpses, as if contemplating their fate.

"In prison you're suspended between life and death. It's an apocalyptic time. You feel as if you're in a nightmare," Albukai told AFP in an interview.

Three years after his escape from the homeland, Albukai's experiences in the regime's torture chambers continue to explode on to his sketchpad.

Dozens of drawings, which he has exhibited across France, depict the horrors he witnessed, from prisoners being hung by their wrists from the ceiling to being folded in two in a wooden contraption nicknamed the "Flying Carpet".

Another prop used by the torturers of President Bashar al-Assad was called the "German chair", which saw prisoners lashed to the back of a chair and stretched to breaking point.

"I will draw this German chair until the end of my days to denounce this form of torture," said the artist with a piercing gaze, whose bookshelf contains works by Jean-Paul Sartre and Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

- 'Flying carpet' -

Like many in the Damascus suburb of Jdaidet Artuz, near the town of Daraya, a longtime rebel stronghold, Albukai was infected by the revolutionary fervour that swept Syria in early 2011.

But it was only when the government's crackdown on the peaceful protests left 55 dead that he and his wife Abir joined the protests.

In 2012, he was arrested on a bus on his way to work and taken to military intelligence centre "227" near Damascus where he was interrogated and beaten for "weakening national morale".

"They would interrogate several people at the same time and while others beside you are being tortured you have to answer questions," he said of the sessions, during which the prisoners were blindfolded.

Held with 70 others in a cell measuring five by three metres (16 x 10 feet), he found it nearly impossible to sleep and illnesses such as scabies and diarrhoea spread quickly.

Even while behind bars, Albukai found an outlet in art, trying to imagine the horrific scenes on canvases.

"I tried to find comparisons with paintings by Goya, or the Raft of the Medusa by (French Romantic painter Theodore) Gericault, which shows a group of people trying to escape," he said.

- Carrying down the dead -

After a month he was released when his wife paid 1,200 euros (1,400 dollars) to have a judge drop the case.

Using a pseudonym on Facebook he continued to post about abuses by government forces online, but he tried to keep a low profile, fearing he could be arrested again at any time.

In late 2014, he tried to flee to Lebanon, but was caught on the border and returned to centre 227.

By now, nearly four years into the war, "even the walls were diseased" and the bodies were piling up.

Albukai saw several people die from torture or common diseases like diabetes left untreated.

The centre also acted as a sort of "temporary depot" for bodies collected from other military intelligence centres, with prisoners called on every night to unload bodies from trucks for storage in the basement.

"Some had weak necks as if they had been strangled and most were very thin and bore signs of illness," he said.

Each had a number inscribed on the head or chest with a marker. He remembers two: 5535 and, 60 days later another: 5874.

- The pen as weapon -

Tens of thousands of people are missing, believed to be in government jails across Syria, where authorities have recently begun updating civil records to mark detainees as "deceased".

In a 2016 report, Amnesty International estimated that 17,723 had died in custody between March 2011 and December 2015.

Were it not for his wife, Albukai might have been another name on a list of the deceased.

A French teacher with a salary of 80 dollars a month, she sold their car and enlisted help from abroad to cobble together 20,000 dollars in bribes to win his freedom after around 10 months in detention.

In October 2015, the pair managed to reach Lebanon with their daughter and applied for asylum in France, where they now live in a quiet suburb south of Paris.

As government forces step up their bombardments of Idlib province, the last region still in rebel hands, Albukai is prepared to admit that "maybe we've been defeated and the revolution failed."

But drawing what he witnessed helps keep the flame alive, says Albukai, who has received offers to publish his output.

"It is a way of not giving in, of not laying down arms," he said.