Haunted by Memories of Syrian Torture, Saved by Art

Haunted by Memories of Syrian Torture, Saved by Art


He still remembers the smell of rotten flesh, the screams of other prisoners and how, horrifically, he and others grew accustomed to it all.

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“It is a personal therapy,” Mr. Bukai says of his work. “The whole time I was in hell, I tried to not see nightmares. Instead, I forced myself to see beautiful dreams.”

Credit
Najah al-Bukai

Today, Mr. Bukai (pronounced boo-Kay) travels across France to raise awareness about the horrors of the detention centers, while the French publishing house Éditions du Seuil is preparing to publish a book of his drawings.

His experiences during Syria’s civil war were not all that different from those of tens of thousands of other young men who took to the streets demanding democracy and human rights — except, perhaps, in that he survived. He was arrested three times for his participation in the protests. He was incarcerated in 2012 for a month, and for 11 months in 2014.

According to rights groups, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has tortured tens of thousands of political opponents, many of whom have never been seen by their families again. No one knows exactly how many disappeared.

“I have not seen anything like the methods of torture that the Syrian security services have used in any other country,” said Sara Kayyali, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Bukai, 47, was lucky to come out of Mr. Assad’s prisons alive, but more than 40 members of his family died in 2012 in a bombing of their neighborhood in Judaydat Artuz, a Damascus suburb. That he managed to survive and, eventually, escape from Syria was a tribute to the determination of his wife, Abir Jassoumeh. Both times he was arrested she searched until she found him, 10 days the first time, 20 days the second. She then bribed officials to win his freedom — more than $20,000, or around 10 times her annual income, raised with the help of siblings living abroad.

They chose to settle in this small French city because one of his brothers, a doctor, was living here. Mr. Bukai already had a connection to France — he enrolled in a bachelor’s program in Rouen in the 1990s, after studying drawing in the Syrian city of Homs and fine arts in Damascus.

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Mr. Bukai now travels across France to raise awareness about the horrors of Syria’s notorious detention centers.

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Pierre Terdjman for The New York Times

He had a comfortable if unremarkable upbringing, at least until the Arab Spring. His father, who worked in an oil refinery in Homs, was secular and not politically engaged. But many of his relatives opposed the country’s autocratic rulers, Hafez al-Assad and the current president, Bashar al-Assad, and were among the first to join the peaceful protests that broke out in 2011. In the first protest in Judaydat Artuz, 15 of the 25 participants were members of the Bukai family.

Mr. Bukai firmly believed that freedom and democratic values would prevail. He filmed videos of the protests and posted them on the internet. He thought the government’s days were numbered.

“When we saw that international forces took down Qaddafi, we thought ‘This is our chance to make the Assads fall,’ ” he said, referring to the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011 and the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. They expected a similarly rapid end for Mr. Assad: “We never thought he would butcher Syrians without anyone budging. We knew that maybe a few hundred would die, but it was a small cost for our freedom.”

So Mr. Bukai stayed in Syria even though he knew he risked arrest. The police had searched and burned his mother’s house in 2012. Still, he lived with the family until the police caught up with him.

“I was always scared,” Abir Jassoumeh said. “But even when I asked him to stop, he wouldn’t.”

His first arrest came in July 2012 as he was commuting to work at the International University for Science and Technology in Damascus, where he was teaching art. He made the mistake of staying on his bus as it went through one of the many checkpoints that appeared in Damascus as the civil war was heating up.

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The French publishing house Éditions du Seuil is preparing to publish a book of Mr. Bukai’s drawings.

Credit
Najah Al Bukai

The guards found his name of the list of wanted people. They made him get off the bus, calling him a traitor, handcuffed him, blindfolded him with his own shirt and took him to a detention center. There he was beaten so badly that he suffered multiple broken bones and temporary hearing loss. His wrists still bear scars from that day, and he says he still hears the screams of the other prisoners.

Jassoumeh paid about $1,000 to get him out of jail, but the charges remained. He then spent two years in hiding. But in 2014, he and his family decided to make their escape from Syria. They bribed someone to have his name omitted from a watch list at the border, then dressed as Christians, wearing crosses. But they had been betrayed: Mr. Bukai’s name was still on the list. He was arrested and taken back to the same detention center — facility number 227.

By this time, the abuses had reached new levels of depravity, and the prisoners were forced to watch and participate in the torture. Once again, Jassoumeh paid a bribe, this time $6,000, to have her husband transferred after 70 days to a jail where he was not tortured and was allowed family visits.

“I am lucky. I love life. I am attached to life,” Mr. Bukai said about how he got through the ordeal. “I had a big hope of getting out and of seeing my wife and my daughter again.”

His wife traveled every week to see him, crossing war zones 38 times to give him the courage, he says, to stay alive. After she paid a final bribe, he was released from jail, and in October 2015, certain that his name had been removed from the wanted list, they left Syria for good, carrying the few drawings he had done in the jail and musical instruments to attract the custom officers’ attention away from the art. When they made it to Lebanon, they immediately requested asylum at the French Embassy in Beirut.

Today, they are slowly trying to build a life abroad. But they still hope to return to Syria one day after the toppling of the Assad government. In the meantime, Mr. Bukai will keep sketching.

“It is a personal therapy that allows me to evacuate,” he said about his work. “The whole time I was in hell, I tried to not see nightmares. Instead, I forced myself to see beautiful dreams.”



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