After years in jail, Syrian mother eyes new life

Hasna Dbeis said she was two months pregnant when she was detained in August 2014 in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, accused of working with rebels; an allegation she denies. (AFP)
Updated 26 May 2019

After years in jail, Syrian mother eyes new life

  • The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says around 200,000 people have gone missing since the civil war started in 2011
  • Nearly half are believed to be held in government jails

MAARAT MASRIN, Syria: After giving birth and raising a toddler during four years in a Syrian prison, 30-year-old Hasna Dbeis is now free — and determined to forge a new life for her family.
Dbeis says she was two months pregnant when she was detained in August 2014 in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, accused of working with rebels; an allegation she denies.
She was shuffled around various detention centers, including one where she saw her father and brother for the last time.
“They were tortured in front of me,” she told AFP, her face veil revealing tired eyes.
She is one of tens of thousands of Syrians jailed during the conflict for opposing President Bashar Assad.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says around 200,000 people have gone missing since the civil war started in 2011.
Nearly half are believed to be held in government jails.
Dbeis said she was kept in solitary confinement for 40 days at one stage, in a cell littered with garbage.
Insects crept up the walls, and the screams of inmates being tortured rang around her, she recalled.
She was allowed out of jail only once, when she went into labor.
“A newborn came into my life and I didn’t know what to do,” she said, clad in black.
After giving birth to Mohammad, Dbeis was transferred to the notorious Al-Fayhaa prison in Damascus.
The facility housed other mothers, including Iraqi women detained on suspicion of working with the Islamic State jihadist group, she said.

Dbeis shared a cell with her newborn and a 20-year-old Ethiopian woman.
Her cellmate, who other inmates called Lamees, would help her sew clothes for the little boy, she said, but also care for the infant when Dbeis was being interrogated.
Guards usually entered her cell at around midnight to take her to another room where she was beaten and suspended by the wrists, she said.
The first time, she recounted, “the interrogator started by taking off my veil. He looked at my hair, brought a knife, and started cutting” it.
“Then he started beating me,” she said.
Her hands were cuffed behind her back, she said, and she was left hanging from her wrists for hours.
She also contracted tuberculosis, she claimed, and had to be kept away from her child for more than four months while she received treatment.
By the time she recovered, her son — then nine months old — thought Lamees was his mother.
“He didn’t know who I was,” Dbeis said.
For three years, her hope for a better life dwindled, as she watched Mohammad grow up in a cell, the sound of other children playing echoing in from outside.
“I used to dream of walking in the street with my child and entering a store to buy him clothes like normal mothers do,” she said.
In April 2018, she was released.
She did not return to Eastern Ghouta, which had fallen under government control that month, after regime bombardment and a crippling siege.

Instead, she boarded a bus that took rebels and their families from the Damascus suburbs to opposition-held territory in the northern province of Aleppo.
Dbeis remembers the first time Mohammad saw a stand selling tomatoes.
“He ran toward it, grabbed a tomato, and started gobbling it up,” she said.
“He’d never seen a tomato before.”
But catching up with one of her sisters in the neighboring province of Idlib brought new trauma.
Dbeis was told that her mother was dead and that her husband had been killed by regime forces.
Two of her sisters were detained by the government, and the fate of her father and brother — who she last saw in jail — was unknown.
“After hearing about my family’s heart-wrenching fate, I decided to start a new life,” Dbeis said.
She remarried and moved to Idlib, a region outside regime control ruled by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
But four months after her wedding, her 25-year-old husband was hit in the stomach by shell shrapnel, leaving him unable to work.
In a desperate bid to provide for her family, she joined a sewing workshop employing former female detainees.
“The money I make, I spend on my home,” said Dbeis, who makes children’s clothes.
But her life is under renewed threat.
Since late April, heightened bombardment of Idlib by the regime and its ally Russia has sparked fears of an imminent full assault against the jihadist stronghold.
“I don’t want the regime to enter Idlib and throw me back in prison,” Dbeis said.


Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

Updated 17 September 2019

Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

  • The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is putting increased pressure on the nation’s armed factions, including Shiite-dominated paramilitary troops and Kurdish guerrillas, in an attempt to tighten his control over them, Iraqi military commanders and analysts said on Monday.

Military commanders have been stripped of some of their most important powers as part of the efforts to prevent them from being drawn into local or regional conflicts.

The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq. 

Each side has dozens of allied armed groups in the country, which has been one of the biggest battlegrounds for the two countries since 2003. 

Attempting to control these armed factions and military leaders is one of the biggest challenges facing the Iraqi government as it works to keep the country out of the conflict.

On Sunday, Abdul Mahdi dissolved the leadership of the joint military operations. 

They will be replaced by a new one, under his chairmanship, that includes representatives of the ministries of defense and interior, the military and security services, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Ministry of Peshmerga, which controls the military forces of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

According to the prime minister’s decree, the main tasks of the new command structure are to “lead and manage joint operations at the strategic and operational level,” “repel all internal and external threats and dangers as directed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” “manage and coordinate the intelligence work of all intelligence and security agencies,” and “coordinate with international bodies that support Iraq in the areas of training and logistical and air support.”

“This decree will significantly and effectively contribute to controlling the activities of all combat troops, not just the PMU,” said a senior military commander, who declined to be named. 

“This will block any troops associated with any local political party, regional or international” in an attempt to ensure troops serve only the government’s goals and the good of the country. 

“This is explicit and unequivocal,” he added.

Since 2003, the political process in Iraq has been based on political power-sharing system. This means that each parliamentary bloc gets a share of top government positions, including the military, proportionate to its number of seats in Parliament. Iran, the US and a number of regional countries secure their interests and ensure influence by supporting Iraqi political factions financially and morally.

This influence has been reflected in the loyalties and performance of the majority of Iraqi officials appointed by local, regional and international parties, including the commanders of combat troops.

To ensure more government control, the decree also stripped the ministers of defense and interior, and leaders of the counterterrorism, intelligence and national security authorities, and the PMU, from appointing, promoting or transferring commanders. This power is now held exclusively by Abdul Mahdi.

“The decree is theoretically positive as it will prevent local, regional and international parties from controlling the commanders,” said another military commander. 

“This means that Abdul Mahdi will be responsible to everyone inside and outside Iraq for the movement of these forces and their activities.

“The question now is whether Abdul Mahdi will actually be able to implement these instructions or will it be, like others, just ink on paper?”

The PMU is a government umbrella organization established by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in June 2014 to encompass the armed factions and volunteers who fought Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. Iranian-backed factions such as Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah represent the backbone of the forces.

The US, one of Iraq’s most important allies in the region and the world, believes Iran is using its influence within the PMU to destabilize and threaten Iraq and the region. Abdul Mahdi is under huge external and internal pressure to abolish the PMU and demobilize its fighters, who do not report or answer to the Iraqi government.

The prime minister aims to ease tensions between the playmakers in Iraq, especially the US and Iran, by preventing their allies from clashing on the ground or striking against each other’s interests.

“Abdul Mahdi seeks to satisfy Washington and reassure them that the (armed) factions of the PMU will not move against the will of the Iraqi government,” said Abdullwahid Tuama, an Iraqi analyst.

The prime minister is attempting a tricky balancing act by aiming to protect the PMU, satisfy the Iranians and prove to the Americans that no one is outside the authority of the state, he added.