“The prisoner gives birth to two prisoners and everyone is at the mercy of the jailer. At the heart of the prison’s darkness, the two babies miss out on the greatest relationship on earth… This is not the day of judgment when every nursing mother will be distracted from her own child, but rather Assad’s chains.”
These opening words were uttered by the media activist Hadi al-Abdullah on the evening of Friday 11 February at a meeting with Rasha Sharbaji. Sharbaji, who is from Darya, was released in a prisoner exchange between detainees from the Alawite sect who were held by the opposition and detainees in regime prisons.
This agreement came about after meetings between the Salma Operations Room and the Bureau for Prisoners’ Affairs in Idlib. These meetings, held in the Bureau’s offices earlier this month, led to an agreement under which the Bureau for Prisoners’ Affairs took charge of negotiating with the regime. As a result, 55 detainees were released, among them Rasha Sharbaji and her five children.
Sharbaji was arrested while pregnant with twins, along with her three children and two sisters in-law in May 2014 when she was at the Immigration Center in Damascus to obtain passports. Their arrest aimed to put pressure on Rasha’s husband, Osama Abbar, who is accused of possession of and dealing in weapons, to turn himself in.
During the 40-minute interview, Rasha spoke about her life in prison with her sisters-in-law from their arrest in May 2014 until the moment of their release in February 2017.
She was first taken to the Immigration and Passports Center in al-Marja neighborhood in Damascus then moved to al-Qaimiriyyeh Branch of Air Force Intelligence, where she was interrogated by more than one security officer. She was asked about her husband’s whereabouts and made to listen to the contents of his phone calls. Sharbaji insisted that they were “normal calls, but they analyzed them as being about weapons”.
Rasha’s husband was accused of being “the biggest arms dealer in Syria”. The security forces used her, along with her children, as a “means of pressure” to push her husband to turn himself in.
After the interrogation, Rasha was transferred to the Air Force Intelligence branch in al-Mezzah, were she was given the number “714” to identify her inside prison. Her children were also given numbers. Rasha was placed in solitary confinement in a cell measuring three meters by three meters with her three children away from her sisters-in-law.
The Office for Human Rights and Democracy in the US State Department put Rasha Sharbaji’s name on a list of 20 female detainees from around the world and in September 2015, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, called for their release as part of #FreeThe20 campaign.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights nominated three individuals for the campaign, who were Dr. Rania al-Abbasi, Dr. Faten Rajab and Rasha Sharbaji, stating, “These three women all face human rights violations while the conditions of their detention and arrest differ”.
During the interview, it was obvious that Sharbaji was “psychologically and physically exhausted”. She talked about her daily life in solitary confinement with her three children. She said that she tried to make her children forget about the “darkness of the prison” through recounting cartoons and tales of their grandfather and relatives. She also recalled how she was moved between cells and how the warden used to treat her and other prisoners.
Fifteen days before giving birth, Rasha was reunited with her sisters-in-law Laila and Bayan and they were moved to a prepared room.
Rasha also spoke about her labor before giving birth after she was taken to a hospital. She was not given the name of the hospital or any information about it. Two security guards were placed in front of her room.
She spoke about the bad conditions she suffered when giving birth, which she described as “the most difficult period in detention”. The twins she gave birth to (Safa and Marwa) were “wrapped only in cotton”. “Instead of being surrounded by her family and relatives and being in a clean and well-equipped room for her babies”, she gave birth in terrible conditions and on “a bed of blood” after her Caesarian section at the hospital.
Rasha stopped as she was telling us about the labor period in prison, saying, “I don’t want to remember any of it”. She continued, skipping forward to four days after she was taken to hospital, when she was transferred to a prepared room with her children and the twins. At this point, the stage of taking her children away from her began.
During the interview, Sharbaji mentioned Lieutenant Colonel Suhail who asked her, “without any introductions” as soon as she entered the room, to give him her children to take them to the SOS orphanage in the Qudsaya district. She said she would rather be executed as “that would be easier than having my kids taken away from me”.
After her children were taken away from her, Rasha moved between a number of cells until she settled in a cell with her sisters-in-law Laila and Bayan. She went on a three-day hunger strike, which led to her health deteriorating.
In November 2016, after mounting protests in other cells by women demanding to see their children and speak to their families, Rasha saw her five children for only 10 minutes.
Major Mouayad told her that she would be released under a settlement that included her husband. On 2 February, Rasha was taken, along with Laila and Bayan (her sisters in-law) to branch “48” in al-Mezzah, where she stayed for five days. The wardens at the branch inflicted psychological torture on some detainees in front of her, using cruel treatment and torture.
One day before her release, Rasha was separated from Laila and Bayan and kept alone in a cell. The security guards told her that her release would be delayed for some time. However, she was released within 15 minutes of her sisters-in-law being released and was given her possessions (money and gold) but had her mobile phones confiscated.
“After boarding the bus, they told me to wait until they brought the kids”. They brought the children and “I felt like I was living a dream and a miracle”, she said.
According to the Syrian opposition, Rasha is one of around 13,000 documented female detainees. Rasha is urging others to work to save her fellow prisoners – known as mere “numbers” – who remain in prison.