Only one of Rabe Alkhuder’s brothers came back alive from a Syrian prison.
“My mother was wailing by that time,” Rabe, a Syrian refugee now living in St. Louis, Missouri, recalled in an interview with Business Insider late last month.
“She asked Hassan how he could be sure that his brother had died.”
He was describing the moment he said his brother, Hassan, emerged from one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most infamous prisons, Tadmor, and told his mother that her other son, Hameed, had been killed inside.
“He told her that after he was beaten and hung, the guards returned the body and threw it on top of Yunus. They left both bodies there for two days. Hassan had to watch his brother lay there dead for two days. We only got Hassan back, and Hameed’s death certificate. It’s now been three years since we lost him.”
Four years later, Rabe finds himself 6,000 miles away, in St. Louis, Missouri. After months of harrowing experiences, he sought and found refuge. But in a story typical of the destruction and displacement of the Syrian civil war, Rabe is still waiting to be reunited with his family.
‘His name was Yunus’
Two of Rabe’s brothers, Hassan and Hameed, were arrested in 2011 for helping to treat protesters injured while demonstrating against the Assad regime, Rabe said. Both had gone to pharmacy school, and had their own shop in Aleppo where they sold medicine.
Rabe said were detained for two months in the regime’s notorious Tadmor prison in Palmyra, the city that was recently liberated from the Islamic State by Assad’s Syrian Arab Army.
“One day my brothers were called to treat a victim at his home,” Rabe explained. “They went to the given address and were trying to do it quietly. They knocked on the door but nobody answered, and they felt that something was wrong. Suddenly they were surrounded by Assad’s intelligence forces and were captured.”
He continued: “As detainees, they were beaten with batons and cables. The interrogators used braided electrical cords to beat them across their backs and neck, and batons to beat them on the bottom of their feet in Tadmor. The agents promised to released them if my family paid them a ransom, so we paid $7,000 to get both of them back. But Hassan was also forced to make a deal. He had to promise to collect information for the regime about doctors and pharmacists working in Syria’s medical aid networks.”
Hassan betrayed his captors and fled to Turkey after he was released, Rabe said. But his other brother, Hameed, was killed inside the prison.
“We gave them all the money and only one of my brothers walked out of Tadmor,” Rabe said. “We waited and waited for my other brother. No one came. We looked at Hassan and he could not speak. My mum hurried to hug him and she begged him to tell her about her other son. Hassan just cried uncontrollably. She insisted for him to tell her right then.”
He began to explain.
“He told us that while he was in prison, there was a young boy being detained in their cell along with six others. His name was Yunus. Yunus was sick all the time. One day, he suddenly fell to the ground. He got up and stumbled across the cell and fell to the floor again. He lay there on the ground curled in a ball. Yunus seem epileptic.”
After his release, Hassan explained that Yunus had been in the prison for a month because his family was poor and couldn’t pay for his release. He was not allowed any medication for his condition, and, Hassan recalled, “on that day his health seemed to fail him all together.”
“Hassan ran over to the boy. He found him huddled against a stone wall. His face was buried in his arms, which were resting on drawn-up knees. Hameed tried to hold Yunus’ head up because he knew that he was about to have another seizure. At first he did not understand anything Yunus was saying. It was as if he were speaking some unknown language. Yunus continued to make his plea, but nothing but gibberish came out.”
By Hassan’s recollection, Hameed sat down on the cement floor with Yunus and held him while he had a seizure.
“Yunus shook so violently that my brother was barely able to protect his body from banging into the cement wall,” he said. “His eyes rolled back into his head. Then the guards came.”
The guards, Hassan explained, demanded that Hameed let Yunus go and leave him on the ground. But Hameed refused to leave him by himself. A few moments later Yunus completely collapsed and lost consciousness.
“The guards grabbed my brother and left this child to suffer alone from his seizure. Within a few long moments Yunus was dead.”
Not long after, Hameed was dead, too. After trying to get out of the guards’ grip to reach Yunus after he collapsed, Hameed was dragged out of the cell and hung.
‘You will go behind the sun’
“There’s a saying in Syria that if you do something wrong, if you defy the government, you will ‘go behind the sun,'” Rabe said. “In other words, you will be arrested and then just disappear. No one goes to Assad’s prisons without being tortured.”
More than half of Syria’s population has either fled or been killed since the war erupted in March 2011. The vast majority have died simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time: barrel bombs dropped by regime helicopters on civilian targets in rebel-held areas have killed over 20,000 people, mostly civilians, in five years.
Thousands more have been tortured and killed in the regime’s prisons, a practice the United Nations deemed “extermination as a crime against humanity.”
The Islamic State and Al Qaeda’s affiliate group in Syria, known as Jabhat al-Nusra, have also ruled parts of Syria with an iron fist, but far fewer have been killed by the jihadist groups than by the government and its allies.
Members of Rabe’s family, scattered across Syria, often found themselves in the crosshairs of the militant groups. His father and his brother, Mazen, were captured and detained by al-Nusra in November of 2013 and released unharmed shortly thereafter, he said. They now live in a village on the Turkish-Syrian border.
abe said his uncle, Ahmad, was killed by the Islamic State in March 2013, along with his cousin, Hasan. They were charged with treason “for helping infidels move from one area of Aleppo to another” in 2013, Rabe said.
The Free Syrian Army, an umbrella organisation comprised of mostly moderate rebel groups backed by Western countries, kicked ISIS out of Aleppo later that year, Rabe explained. But before the jihadists fled, they killed all of their prisoners.
Still, when asked who his own family had suffered from more, Rabe was unequivocal.
“Both [ISIS and Assad] are hideous,” Rabe said. “But my family suffered most from the regime side.”
‘I don’t know what freedom is’
Rabe’s entire family left Syria in the revolution’s earlier days, before the refugee crisis began in earnest and it was easier to seek and be granted asylum in neighbouring countries.
“By January 2013, my whole family had left Syria. Now they are scattered across Turkey, Jordan, Germany, and the UAE.”
Months after the war erupted, Rabe, his wife, and their two young boys fled to Saudi Arabia where Rabe, a trained pharmacist, found work with a company that sent some of its employees to a conference hosted in a different country every year.
“I’ve been to Spain, Austria, South Africa, and Australia for this conference. Last year it was supposed to be in the US, so I got a tourist visa,” Rabe said, after providing Business Insider with the relevant documents as proof of his legal status.
The conference was canceled, but he kept his tourist visa — which proved useful when, in January 2015, he lost his job in Saudi Arabia and was unable to renew his pharmacy licence.
“My manager in Saudi Arabia was an Assad supporter from Latakia,” Rabe said, referring to the hometown of the embattled Syrian president at the center of the war. “And he knew my history —
I left Syria in July 2011 after participating in a demonstration against the regime, and I continued to protest in front of the Syrian consulate in Jeddah” in Saudi Arabia.
With few options, then, Rabe said he left his family in Saudi Arabia and came to the US using his tourist visa.
“I didn’t have any place else to go,” Rabe said. “I came here in February, and my only choice was to apply or asylum and try to get my wife and kids here.”
In November, President Barack Obama committed to taking in 10,000 refugees from Syria over the course of 2016. It was five times more than the US has permitted in the five years since the war broke out, creating the biggest refugee crisis the world has seen since World War II.
Rabe said he left Washington, DC, for St. Louis last month, where he lives with a childhood friend from Aleppo. As of this article’s publishing, Rabe was still waiting for his and his family’s asylum claims to be processed.
He keeps in touch with his family and friends via Whatsapp, and Skype, and Facebook. His Facebook page offers a glimpse into his life before the war — photos of him and his brothers at soccer games, his trips to Sydney and Cape Town, his boys playing with iPads.
Now he uses it to post videos of the war’s atrocities and photos of his sons draped in the revolution’s flag.
He is under no illusion that his family will ever be reunited in Aleppo. The war will rage on, he believes, as long as Assad remains in power.
“I can’t see an end to this war, and no one is helping to solve the root of the problem, which is Assad,” Rabe said. “Assad is the head of the snake.”
The embattled president recently said in an interview that he didn’t think it would be difficult to form a coalition government with members of the opposition, and that he would call for new elections if that is what the Syrian people wanted.
Rabe laughed at the notion, saying that he had never voted because there is no use in it.
“I don’t know what voting is. I don’t know what freedom is,” he said.
Then, he began to cry.
“Since moving to the US, I’ve met many Americans who ask me what it was like growing up under that dictatorship. They then say they ‘can’t imagine’ what it must have been like, that they were born free and will die free.”
“I’ve never experienced that,” he said, with a sad smile. “I will never experience that.”