Syrian torture chambers brought to life in haunting drawings

Syrian artist and painter Najah Albukai looks on during an AFP interview on August 20, 2018 in Yerres. (AFP)
Updated 23 August 2018
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Syrian torture chambers brought to life in haunting drawings

  • Held with 70 others in a cell measuring five by three meters, he found it nearly impossible to sleep and illnesses such as scabies and diarrhea spread quickly
  • 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

YERRES 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 said 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 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.
Like many in the Damascus suburb of Jdaidet Artuz, near the town of Daraya, a longtime rebel stronghold, Albukai was infected by the revolutionary fervor 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 center “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 meters, he found it nearly impossible to sleep and illnesses such as scabies and diarrhea 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.
After a month he was released when his wife paid €1,200 ($1,400) 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 center 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 center also acted as a sort of “temporary depot” for bodies collected from other military intelligence centers, 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.
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 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.


Iran starts Gulf war games, to test submarine-launched missiles

Updated 22 February 2019
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Iran starts Gulf war games, to test submarine-launched missiles

  • More than 100 vessels taking part in the three-day war games in an area stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean
  • Iran has expanded its missile program, particularly its ballistic missiles

DUBAI: Iran on Friday began large-scale naval drills at the mouth of the Gulf, which will feature its first submarine cruise missile launches, state media reported, at a time of rising tensions with the United States.
More than 100 vessels were taking part in the three-day war games in a vast area stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean, the state news agency IRNA reported.
“The exercise will cover confronting a range of threats, testing weapons, and evaluating the readiness of equipment and personnel,” navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, said in remarks carried by state television.
“Submarine missile launches will be carried out ... in addition to helicopter and drone launches from the deck of the Sahand destroyer,” Khanzadi said.
State media said Iran would be testing its new domestically built Fateh (Conqueror) submarine which is armed with cruise missiles and was launched last week.
Iranian officials in the past have threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route, in retaliation for any hostile US action, including attempts to halt Iranian oil exports through sanctions.
US President Donald Trump pulled out of an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program last May and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. He said the deal was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.
Iran has expanded its missile program, particularly its ballistic missiles.
Iran launched its domestically made destroyer Sahand in December, which official say has radar-evading stealth properties.
The USS John C. Stennis entered the Gulf in December, ending a long absence of US aircraft carriers in the strategic waterway.
Iran displayed a new cruise surface-to-surface missile with a range of 1,300 kilometers earlier this month during celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Western experts say Iran often exaggerates its weapons capabilities, although there are concerns about its long-range ballistic missiles.