02/17/2016, 18.20
SYRIA – LEBANON
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A Muslim imprisoned by the Islamic State for drawing the Virgin Mary

by Nour Braïdy

Khalifa el-Khoder spent seven months in a jihadi prison for drawing Our Lady on a wall in Aleppo as a sign of peace. In his story, he tells of mosques turned into prisons, of overcrowded cells, and of every day torture.

Beirut (AsiaNews/OLJ) – For the first time, Khalifa el-Khoder, a 21-year-old Syrian, can talk about his seven long months in the hands of the Islamic State (IS), the cells in which he was held still vivid in his mind, the cries of tortured prisoners, the acrid smell that filled his nostrils.

For him, a Muslim, the descent into hell began when he drew a picture of the Virgin Mary on a wall in Aleppo, as a sign of peace. Today we publish the first part of his story, courtesy of L'Orient-Le Jour. For the original, click here. 

Khalifa al-Khoder had just turned 21 when his life changed dramatically. It was June 2014, at a roadblock at Tal Jijan, Aleppo province. A Moroccan member of the Islamic State organisation pointed the finger at him and said, "You! Take your stuff and come out!" This was the beginning of seven months of captivity during which discovered the nature of his “crime”: drawing the Virgin on a wall in Aleppo.

The descent into hell for this young Raqqa native had started a year earlier, in April 2013, a few months after the start of the battle for Aleppo that plunged the city in a whirlwind of violence, causing in particular the Christian exodus.

As the battle between the Syrian army and the rebels raged, Khalifa decided to draw the Virgin Mary on a wall amid the city’s ruins. Khalifa is Muslim and a sociology student. For him, drawing the Virgin was a message of peace for the world.

In 2014, Khalifa was living alone in "liberated Aleppo," under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but he made frequent round trips to Raqqa to see the changes in his home city after it was seized by Daesh in June of the same year.

"After each return, I noticed radical changes in the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate: the walls were all painted in black, the number of foreigners was increasing,” he told L'Orient-Le Jour via Skype.

"From one world to another"

Early morning on 3 June 2014, after spending an evening in Aleppo with friends, Khalifa decided to go to Raqqa, taking as a precaution the usual Manbij route (Aleppo province). However this time, at first IS roadblock, at Tal Jijan, the van in which he was travelling was stopped. An IS militiaman from Morocco, accompanied by a Syrian man and a child, ordered him to get out. As he got out, Khalifa was terrified. "I thought: That's it. I'm dead."

The young man was taken to a mosque-cum-prison. "I could not walk; I could not feel my body. I felt I was going from one world to another. Khalifa was searched, stripped and interrogated.

"I just said I was going to Manbij to shower and do my laundry because there was no water in Aleppo. They asked me if I had prayed. I said no. They then sent me to pray. My prayer was a farewell prayer.”

Without understanding what was happening to him, Khalifa was accused of all sorts of offences, including membership in the al-Nusra front (an IS rival). Without time to put two thoughts together, Khalifa found himself in a car driven by a Tunisian.

"I wanted them to kill me"

Taken to al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo, to an old courthouse used as a holding facility by the FSA and later by IS, the young Syrian was thrown into a cell of less than two square metres already occupied by two other prisoners, FSA fighters. He spent a month in it before he was taken to a room of 80 square metres with 90 people and then another of 40 square metres crammed with 55 prisoners. According to Khalifa, this going from one cell to another is a means IS uses to prevent inmates from establishing friendly relations.

Of those first days of detention, Khalifa remembers especially the cell door. "This black door petrified me; it suffocated me. I spent days with my head against the wall. I came to the point of wanting IS to kill me." Still, he eventually recovered and decided to do everything to survive. "I started to imagine colourful designs on the door. Daesh (Arabic acronym for the Islamic States) hates colours."

Slowly, Khalifa got used to the prison, and adapted to its rules. "Prayer was compulsory; otherwise it was torture," said the former inmate. Meals were served twice daily. "In the morning, we were entitled to bread with some jam or an egg, and in the evening, a little rice." With papers lying around from the days when the prison was a courthouse, Khalifa made himself some spoons to eat.

"Every 40 days, we were given a razor for five people,” he said. “If someone shaved completely, he was taken to the torture chamber because we could just shave our moustache, between the legs and armpits."

Khalifa slept on the floor, with a shoe bag as a pillow.

If pain had a sound . . .

During his stay, Khalifa managed to link up with some prisoners. "We managed to create a chess game and we often talked about what we would do after we left," he said.

Speaking about the prisoners, aged 15 to 70, he guesses that most were "Shabiha, pro-Assad militia, and FSA fighters.” He also met public officials arrested by the IS after they voted for Bashar al-Assad’s re-election as president.

Each week, a jihadist would come into the cell and call out several prisoners. "They never came back; we knew they had been executed." One day in August 2014, the prisoners heard their guards celebrating and laughing. They had just taken into custody a Japanese. Haruna Yukawa was executed in January 2015.

However, what was even more traumatic than the henchmen’s laughter were the cries of pain of the tortured prisoners. "If pain had to have a sound, that would be it,” Khalifa said. “Each day, I heard prisoners scream Allah and the executioners shout Islamic State! The detainee then had to respond ‘shall remain’.” To try to forget, Khalifa listened to tapes made available to prisoners. "We had the choice between Daesh’s hymns and courses on Islam. I memorised them by heart . . ."

The screams haunt Khalifa. The smells too. "The smell of excrement, sweat, our dirty clothes and mould has never left my nostrils. The cell, equipped with a single toilet, had no ventilation. It was dark and dirty. We laid on the ground, and in summer, the heat was stifling."

After 50 days of detention, Khalifa endured his first interrogation. Like all the sessions that followed, he was interrogated by a masked man, a Syrian. "He would tell me that he knew everything about me and would hit me with a green pipe for me to confess." But Khalifa did not utter a word.

A few weeks later, an IS member came into the cell, 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.

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Young Syrian who survived the Islamic State bears on his body his tormentors’ pain
18/02/2016 20:50


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