The secrets of Eastern Ghouta’s rebel-run prisons spilling out

Jaysh al-Islam detained women and children. Prisoners were tortured, forced to dig escape tunnels and used as human shields. Many were locked up in cages left outdoors, in the streets and squares. Trappist nuns were among the first to report abuse.

Damascus (AsiaNews) – With the fall of Eastern Ghouta, a rebel enclave near Damascus besieged for years by government forces, the first details are coming out about the violence and abuses rebel jihadi groups committed when they held the area.

One of these groups was Jaysh al-Islam which is still holding many people in makeshift jails in the Douma area, including women and children (pictured). For a long time, these prisoners were a taboo topic among Eastern Grouta residents because of fears of possible retaliation.

Members of the opposition have been among the first to talk about the crimes, about widespread intimidation and torture, committed by the anti-Assad militias against civilians and prisoners.

Many dissidents or fighters from rival militias were locked up in regular and unofficial prisons, along with civilians accused of collaborating with government authorities.

Such systematic violence went unreported by western media and governments, as evinced by a harsh letter of accusation signed by Trappist nuns. Apostolic nuncio to Syria Card Mario Zenari also did not mince his words. In their letter, the nuns described how men and women were held outdoors in iron cages and “used as human shields".

The fate of soldiers and civilians, including women and children, grabbed when government areas fell to the rebels, was one of the issues Russian mediators and Jaysh al-Islam representatives discussed.

Freed prisoners can now talk about their experience. In fact, most of Eastern Ghouta (90 per cent) is now in the hands of forces loyal to President Assad. The one exception is the city of Douma.

However, this came with a hefty price. More than 1,600 civilians died during the offensive, this according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Local sources quoted by French newspaper Le Monde say that on 26 March, government soldiers freed at least 28 soldiers or civilians from long-term detention in rebel jails.

Still, the largest number of prisoners is in rebel hands, in Douma. They include the “Adra abductees”, members of the security service, government officials and their families captured in 2013 when anti-Assad groups seized the area, as well as other groups of prisoners of war.

The Syrian government media have accused Jaysh Al-Islam of refusing to free these people in last week's negotiations. The prisoners are being held in part because they are Alawis, like President al-Assad, as a possible future bargaining chip.

The Syrian government has usually opted for negotiations to get the release of officers and soldiers, leaving civilians to their fate.

Rebels have used the latter to dig escape tunnels in areas besieged by government forces. Others have been tortured.

According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, Jaysh al-Islam is one of the groups with the most prisoners. Although figures are hard to come by, they are certainly fewer than those held in government prisons.

People who have been freed following negotiations describe a climate of violence and terror with women and children separated from the men, some locked up in cages placed in the streets and squares of the town or used as human shields against attacks by Syrian and Russian planes.

Many women and children from religious minorities are still in rebel and jihadi hands.