Then They Came for the Apostates

A torn family snapshot from the horrific and many-sided civil war that is convulsing Syria. Released in a prisoner exchange last week, Nadia Abdel Karim Stif was once an important civil servant, proud mother of a son and daughter. A Sunni Muslim, she had married a man who was a member of one of the country’s minority Shi’ite sects. For that, she paid a savage price when Islamist militants conquered her home city of Idlib last year.

Syria’s rebellion is a disunity. In the deserts of the east, the Sunni extremists of ISIS control a huge but largely unpopulated territory. The center of the country meanwhile is being contested by the government and a vast assortment of rebel groups, some of them Sunni jihadis, others not; all of them at war with the government, with ISIS, and occasionally with one another. Last year, two of the more extremist jihadi groups, Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, formed an alliance they called Jaish al-Fath [The Army of Conquest] and overran the rural province of Idlib and its eponymous capital city. A few largely Shi’ite towns in Idlib, including Fua and Kafraya, have held out, surrounded by Islamist rebel groups.

Neither old age nor her infirmities could protect Um Wael from the militants of Ahrar al-Sham. From the minute she was detained, they applied every page in the catalog of torture to her body.

Apostasy against her own religion was the crime Nadia Abdel Karim Stif, known as Um Wael [the mother of Wael],had committed when she married a man outside of her religious sect. Her ordeal took place in March 2015, after the city of Idlib was seized by Jaish al Fath [battlefield alliance of Sunni jihadi revolutionaries].

“The militants were searching for me,” Um Wael tells Al Akhbar [in an interview after her release last week]. “and when they did not find me in my house, they raided neighboring houses until they caught me. They dragged me out to a car that took me to a detention center at their headquarters in al-Dabeit neighborhood.”

Crying, she closes her eyes to summon the memory of the first moments after she was brought into the interrogation room of Jaish al-Fath’s Shariah Police.

After they sat me down on the chair, they tied my hands and blindfolded me so that I do not recognize their faces. Several minutes passed before an Ahrar al-Sham leader called Abu Yusuf, from the town of Binnish entered the room and started sarcastically asking me questions:
– “Where is this mother of Wael, the martyr? Do you consider your son a martyr? What would you think if I introduced you to his killer? He is here in the room. He is one of us.”
– “My son is a martyr whether you like it or not,” I replied, and his men poured out all their rage, beating my body.

“As they were hauling me to my cell, I told one of the militants to stop dragging me because my left arm is in chronic pain. He immediately started beating me there until he broke it.”

The militant group tortured Um Wael, a widow in her sixties with heart problems and high blood pressure, for two continuous weeks. “One day, they placed small metal rings on my fingers and electrocuted me,” she said. “Another time, they kept whipping me until I passed out. Finally, they then locked me up in the toilet,” she said.

The hour we spent with her was not long enough to summarize the ordeal of torture she survived. “The whipping and the torture were so intense that I would pass out for hours at a time.” The militants, she said, would pour cold water on her face to wake her up so they could continue the torture.

“One time, I was in so much pain, I told the torturer, who could not have been older than 22, think of his mother when he looked at me, thinking he might have pity on me. But it actually made him beat me more fiercely, especially on my broken arm. The other women in my cell all started weeping out loud.”

Um Wael was the only woman subjected to this kind of torture; the Shari’ah police considered her to an apostate because her late husband, who was from the town of Al-Fua, had belonged to a different religious sect.

She recounted that she was tortured from morning to night. She was beaten and electrocuted. She described how one time she kept bleeding from her ear and mouth; “I begged them to take me to a hospital, but they refused. They left me until the bleeding stopped and then placed me in solitary confinement.” Over the course of her detention, Um Wael said that she was placed in solitary confinement 9 times.

In the beginning of her ordeal the Ahrar al-Sham emir of Binnish demanded that she reveal the names of officers and regime ‘thugs’ in her town. Whenever she said that she did not know, more beatings would follow.

After six month of detention, “they finally allowed me to change my clothes,” she said. “Frequently they would not allow me to have water. But despite it all, I still felt strong inside, strong enough to bear it all, because I owed that to my martyred only son and to my country.”

The torture only ceased when Nadia’s name appeared on a prisoner-swap list; she was then sent to a hospital. “I was placed with a group of women who had been kidnapped from the [minority Shi’ite towns]of Fua and Kafraya,” she says. “I started getting visits from leaders of Jaish al-Fatah, including the Saudi Abdallah al-Muhsini, Abu Issa al-Sheikh [head of Ahrar al-Sham’s advisory council]and others. They realized that the Syrian regime cared about me in particular, so they wanted to swap me for one of their leaders being held by the regime,” she explained. “I told them that the regime would not agree to such a thing and that I would not accept that a murderer be freed so that I could get out. Weeks went by, and they started negotiating to release us in exchange for some of their militants who were being held by local militias in al-Fua and Kafraya.”

Nadia, who before the war had headed Idlib’s blood bank, was finally freed after 10 months of detention in a prisoner swap on January 25. In this deal, 30 people from the villages of Al-Fua and Kafraya, mostly women and children, were freed in return for 34 Islamist militants and a number of bodies in the custody of local militias in the two besieged towns.

Today, the mother of the martyr Wael, shot dead three years ago by militant bullets in Idlib, is recovering from her ordeal in a house she rents with her daughter far from her home town.

Sair Salim Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard