Branch 251/
S1E8: "He Called Me Ammo"


In this episode, Fritz and Karam speak to two survivors of Branch 251. They share with us the painful details of their detention, memories and how this impacts their lives now. And what they would ask the accused if they got the chance.

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Episode Transcript

Female Interpreter: I would try to close my eyes for a bit, and then open them and look around and wonder where am I. I realized this feeling inside of me that I am imprisoned, that something has been taken from me, my freedom.


Fritz: That was one of our two guests for today's episode. We'll hear more from her in a bit.

Karam: This is the eighth episode of our podcast, the podcast that follows the trial of two Syrian officials who both came here to Germany as refugees, but then found themselves behind bars. In a court at the German city of Koblenz, accused of crimes against humanity, and faced with their victims who are seeking justice. This is Branch 251, I'm Karam Shoumali.

Fritz: I am Fritz Streiff. Welcome back.

Karam: Fritz, the eighth episode already, the podcast has been around for two months now and so has the trial.

Fritz: Yes, it feels like we've been on this for much longer. For some reason, it feels like this trial has already gone on for much longer than eight weeks, but it's actually still just at the beginning.

Karam: Yes, and now that the court is still in recess. It feels like a bit of a break. Why do you think they take these long breaks sometimes in between court sessions?

Fritz: Yes, a three-week break does seem long, but I assume they just need a break every now and then. Everybody involved, the judges, the prosecutor, the participating victims, and their lawyers, and the accused and then lawyers too. This is hard work, a trial like this.

Karam: Like we said a few weeks ago, it's like a full-time job for both of them, especially Anwar R, we have heard from court observers that he has really started being more active, listening attentively to testimonies, when Feras Fayyad and Anwar al Bunni spoken called as witnesses, he was writing all kinds of notes, and passing on messages to his interpreters and lawyers.

Fritz: Yes, he was listening very closely, taking in every word immediately deducting, and analyzing and all that it seemed. Like the meticulous investigator that also our guest, Christoph Reuter described on the podcast on the episode about Anwar R.

Karam: Absolutely. Yes.

Fritz: Last week, we described the most recent witness testimonies in court.

Karam: Today on the podcast, we will dive a bit deeper into the accounts of Syrian survivors. We heard from two of them last week, Feras Fayyad and Anwar Al Bunni. They testified in court as witnesses, and both of them were representative of many others.

Fritz: We mentioned this number before, but I will just say it again, because it is easy to forget because of the unimaginable size of these numbers. A report in New York Times from May last year, 2019, referred to 128,000 detainees who are presumed to be either dead or still in custody at this point, or at the time of the report of May last year, and at least 14,000, "Killed under torture," over the years.

These numbers do not even include those who survived. An article I read this week mentions another staggering number of reportedly around 100,000 individuals detained in Syrian prisons at this very moment, often under inhumane circumstances.

Karam: People I speak to think the numbers are much higher, they assume it would be somewhere around 200,000 at least.

Fritz: As always a pretty damning dark figure on top of what is more or less known of the 100,000. It's hard to deal with these staggering numbers. They often seem so un-sizeable, so unreal and then our brains, at least mine, just disregard them as if they didn't exist, or at least they don't manage to understand what these terrible, terrible statistics actually mean.

Karam: While we are reminding ourselves that these numbers are absolutely important, we want to go back to the human impressions again to the actual stories, because they represent the big numbers. They are real humans, individuals. We both want to talk to survivors of the Syrian torture apparatus this week.

We wanted to know more about their stories from the past, but mostly also about their lives today, how they managed to deal with the painful memories, and what they would ask the two defendants if they had the chance to talk to them.

Fritz: On today's episode, we will first present you guys the conversation that Karam had with Nuran Al-Gamian, and then we will listen to my conversation with Luna Watfa.

Karam: I went to meet Nuran in Berlin. We had spoken many times on the phone, but this was the first time I met her in person. I have come across her story many years ago, because she's a well-known revolutionary figure amongst Syrians. She was arrested in 2012 when she was still 20 years old, and she was a political science student at the Damascus University at that time. She's a joyful person. She's soft-spoken.

We first shared a meal at Berlin's famous Alexanderplatz, then walk down the street where we recorded this interview. If you hear some music in the background, that's just a street performer, near the Berliner Dom at 9:00 PM when a lovely day. Here's my conversation with her.

Have been an odd home? Would you like to sit here?

Nuran: Okay.

Karam: Okay.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: On May 27 in 2012, I joined a sit-in in Altiani district. The sit-in was infiltrated. Within a few minutes, gunshots were fired and we were dispersed. I ran for six or seven minutes to a street in Alduada [unintelligible 00:05:49]. I was stopped there but two men on a motorbike. They asked me for ID and then they detained me.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: My mother was there near the sit-in. She knew I was joining and wanted to watch me from afar. She felt something might happen. She was curious and decided to film the sit-in, and of course, as you know, filming can be used as an accusation, and she was detained for this reason.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: I was put on the bus that took us to Branch 40, in Alabiat. I saw my mother there and I had really bad feelings. I was like, "Wow, why is my mom here?"

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: This was really really one of the harshest moments. She had her head down and your hands behind her back. Her tears were falling down.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: One couldn't raise their head, or move, or talk. The guards kept cursing and insulting us.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: We entered Branch 40. The treatment was really bad, and about midnight, we were transferred to Al-Khatib branch.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: I was in denial. I didn't believe that I was there. Like, "What? What just happened?" The overwhelming thing was that my mother was with me. This really destroyed me psychologically. I was really sleepy, so I would try to close my eyes for a bit, and then open them and look around and wonder where am I? I realized this feeling inside of me that I am imprisoned that something has been taken from me, my freedom.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: It is really hard to describe this feeling in an ugly place where no one knows anything about you, even you don't know anything about yourself.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: Dirty blankets filled with bugs. It is a disgusting place, and we were 17 females in a tiny place. We were not all political detainees. Some girls were accused of prostitution. It seemed like those girls were in and out of prison the whole time. They were used to it. I was astonished by the inhumane way they treated me and talked to me.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: Sometimes if I slept a bit longer than the agreed upon time, because of the lack of places, if I slept a bit longer, they would verbally attack me.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Karam: Do you remember a specific conversation you had with your mom there?

Female Interpreter: I remember the type of conversations we had. The majority of them were about fear, especially with the mystery of the whole situation overshadowing what was to happen next.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: We didn't know what was going to happen next.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: We were thinking about what my father and my sister would be doing. It was a really hard situation.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: On the first night, they interrogated my mom and the rest of the girls who were detained with me and I asked the jailer, "When will they be interrogating me?" He told me my interrogator will be special, and he wasn't at the branch then, and will be coming the next day. He said that was because my file was big.

In mom's interrogation. She was asked why she joined the protest and such questions that are mixed with the regime's method of insulting detainees.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: The following morning I was taken to an interrogator. He accused me of many things, and said I incited murder and I would be in jail for 10 years for it, but he could let me out if I helped him, to give him information about individuals. I was beaten up and tortured. I don't know. I don't want to go into the details of this, if it's okay.

Karam: Okay.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: Then they called my mother's name and they took her out. I thought she left prison, then my name was called. I was taken from the communal cell to solitary confinement, where I suffered a lot psychologically.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Karam: [speaks Arabic]

Karam: When was the first time you saw Anwar during your detention?

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: I saw him once during the time I was in solitary confinement. I asked to see him.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: I knew he worked there, because on the 15th of February in 2011, this branch detained my sister Marwa. Few days later I went there with my family and we were allowed to visit her. This was the first time I saw him. We entered his office as civilians to check on a family member, not as detainees. Of course such a thing doesn't happen, but it was still the beginning of the revolution. She was beaten up and tortured.

That is when I met Anwar, and I was under the impression that he was a good guy and might help. At least take me out of solitary confinement. After three or four days of me insisting to see him, a jailer took me to him. I was blindfolded I still could see a little bit. I was sure it was Anwar. I could read his name on a wooden plate on his desk. It said colonel Anwar Raslan. I sat there while the jailer waited outside. I was devastated and I was crying.

He asked me, "Why are you joining protests, don't you know this is wrong?" His cold demeanor was really irritating. At that time I was young, I was devastated not knowing what would happen to me or where my mom was, I didn't know where my family was, and my family didn't know where I was.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: They didn't know for how long I would be detained. All the while his cold demeanor continued while laughing, he laughed at me.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: I told him, "I don't want anything just put me back in the communal cell. Don't leave me in a cell alone, because I'm about to lose my mind." I was like a child talking to him, it was painful. I was in pain, I felt like my life was in his hands. He said, "It is okay, Ammo." He called me Ammo.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Karam: Hi listeners, Karam here. In Syrian Arabic an older man would address you as Amo, and that is to suggest that he is a close person, and can be trusted.

Female Interpreter: He then called the jailer and told him to take me back to the other women. I saw he raised his eyebrows when he talked to the jailer to actually tell him to take me back to solitary confinement. He wanted me to hear something and understand that the jailer is the one who took me to solitary confinement. The jailer took me to solitary confinement. I pretended I couldn't eat, and I had constant nosebleeds because of the psychological pressure, and I made some drama.

I smeared the blood on my clothes and on the walls and told them I was bleeding. They got worried. Next morning they took me out of my cell, but then they opened the door for another individual cell. Then I saw they were taking me to the solitary confinement cell where my mother was being held.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Karam: [speaks Arabic]

Karam: All of this time you were under the impression that your mom was out of prison?

Female Interpreter: Yes. I thought the whole time she was out of jail. We hugged each other for almost 30 minutes, but it was an ugly scene. She seemed tired and hurt. We stayed at that individual cell for a while together. It was very tiny, we couldn't both sleep at the same time, our bodies respect to each other, it was very hot and infested with bugs. Everyday we heard sounds of torture, we slept to sounds of torture.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: I was detained for about three months. I was conditionally released after paying a bail. I was released after being detained at Branch 40, Branch 251, Military Security Branch 285, then Military Jurisdiction Branch and civil jurisdiction, then landed at Adra prison from which I was released.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: I have have been living in Switzerland for three years, somehow comfortable. I'm working and raising my daughter and thinking of finishing my studies. Eventually life will go on, and I'm determined to go on with my life.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: This was one of the most difficult moments in my life, the power he had because of his position, he could end a person's life, that is how it felt. Well, he didn't end my life, but he scarred me on the inside.

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Karam:  Feras Fayyad said he could forgive him if he admits. Would you forgive him?

Female Interpreter: No. I won't forgive him. This is something he committed, regret or admitting guilt doesn't wash the crimes committed before.

Karam: When you look back do you regret joining that sit-in?

Nuran: [speaks Arabic]

Female Interpreter: No. Of course not because that was real and it's still real. What happened is not only a phase in my life, it is part of who I am now.

Karam: Thank you Nuran. Nuran is actually ready to testify as a witness on this trial. We'll be updating you on that in future episodes.

Fritz: Our next guest is Luna Watfa. This is her nickname, her alias. It's the same one she used for her work as a journalist in Syria before she was detained, and she still prefers to go by that name. Her real name is Sumaya Alalabi, she was a political prisoner in Syria where she was detained for her work as a journalist covering the biggest chemical weapon attack in the early years of the Syrian conflict.

She now works as a freelance journalist in all Koblenz of all places. We heard from her briefly in an earlier episode when she commented on the statement by Anwar R.

Luna: I felt like I will have some bad emotion about what I'm going to hear but that never happened because that wasn't true.

Fritz: That was Luna a few weeks ago. Now I got the chance to have a longer conversation with her on the phone. I started by asking her about the incredible coincidence that she lives in the same place that this trial is now also taking place.

Luna: Ja, hallo, Guten Morgen.

Fritz: Hi Luna, Guten Morgen, how are you?

Luna: I'm fine and how are you?

Fritz: Good. Thank you. Thank you so much for making the time in the morning. I know that you have a really busy day.

Luna: No. Not at all.

Fritz: You're living in Koblenz must be the biggest coincidence that I have heard in a long time.

Luna: Yes. It was really good for me, because to be in the same city that this trial is to take place, it's just something I was really lucky with it.

Fritz: When were you detained in Branch 251?

Luna: I was arrested by the 40 Branch, and it belongs to the state's security Branches as well. Then I was transferred to the general intelligence branch Branch, and then to the general intelligence department Branch, and that was in 2014. I stayed in the security Branches for a period of two and a half months. A full month of them in Al-Khatib Branch. After that I was transferred to the central prison of women in Damascus, but the entire period of my detention was a year and one month.

Fritz: What did they arrest you for, what did they say you did?

Luna: The main charge was that I'm a journalist who covered the chemical massacre which happened in eastern Ghouta in 2013. That I collected all the evidence that happened in that time. More than 800 names for the victims, and videos also, and photos and I leaked all this information to the opposition outside Syria, so because of that, they arrested me, and they asked me to say that this massacre never happened at all.

They forced me to go into a TV interview in Al-Khatib Branch and to say in front of the camera that this massacre never happened at all, and we faked all the evidence. All victims in these videos they were all actor, and not victims at all.

Fritz: You covered the earliest, biggest chemical weapon attack that happened in Syria on the civilian population with, I believe, some sources say that close to, or maybe even more than 1,000 civilians died in that attack, right?

Luna: Right. They only want to deny it, that never happened at all, that's what they wanted to say and what they forced me to say also.

Fritz: For that, they put you into the prisons?

Luna: Yes.

Fritz: How did they eventually arrest you?

Luna: It happened on January 29, 2014. It was 10:00 AM. I stopped to drink coffee cafe with a friend in Damascus, someone came to me and asked for my ID, and he ordered me to go with him outside the cafe. There were two cars, occupied with many security devices, and nearly 20 security men. In that moment, there were a scarf on my shoulders, they put it on my eyes so that I couldn't see where they were taking me.

Then they took me to a security branch, two hours of investigation with threats after that. When they couldn't take any information from me, they took me again, while I was blindfolded to my house. There was my son, 14 years old, and my daughter was at school. She was 11 years old. Then they started confiscating everything in the house: laptops, cameras, and also money. They were approximately 12 security men.

The person in charge of them told me to give him the names of the rest of the people who work with me. I told him, "There is no one but me." He ordered them, at this moment, to arrest my son in front of my eyes, and to arrest my daughter from her school. In this moment, I started to talk. I told him it's illegal to arrest anyone without arrest warrant. He laughed actually and he said, "I'm the law, I can do whatever I want."

Throughout my time in the security branches, I was threatened to torture my children in front of me if I didn't tell them what they wanted to hear.

Fritz: They threatened to torture your children in front of you?

Luna: Yes. All the time. After arriving at the central prison, I knew that my children were not arrested, but rather, they put my son in the toilet of the house, so that I couldn't see him, and threatened him not to make any noise or sound so I can hear him. He remained three hours in the toilet after we left, and he was unable to move out of fear. They did this only to blackmail me.

Fritz: How did your son eventually get out of the toilet?

Luna: After three hours, he could move, so he just went out, but he stayed one month without talking about what happened, because he couldn't.

Fritz: Your daughter?

Luna: She was fine. They didn't went to the school.

Fritz: Okay. If you can, and if you want to talk about it, can you just describe what happened to you in prison?

Luna: Yes, of course. There was torture, I heard my threat the whole time to torture my children and then they were arrested with me, and couldn't know if they were okay or not. I was also beaten on my feet in Al-Khatib Branch, and also I was sexually harassed in the branch 40. Ja.w That was in the past. No, really it's okay.

I feel like it's my duty to tell this story again and again, more and more, because there are still people in these branches, and there are still people who have this torture. If we can't say anything about them, no one will know what happened there.

Fritz: Well, it's very brave of you and very courageous. We wanted to ask you and some others on the podcast this week, just about how you're coping with your experiences in everyday life living with these painful memories.

Luna: My main suffering since I was released is the imbalance in my memory. For example, some things happening with me now like very normal things in life, but the first thing I remember from it is something happened to me in the prison. Sometimes I feel that everything that happened before or after the prison period did not happen at all, or did not exist. As if my entire life is only that period that I spent in prison.

This is why I told you before that I feel like the prison lives inside me. Sometimes I focus on the funny things that happened between us as detainees, and try to transfer memory from prison to something simple or something funny. Of course, I cannot always do that, especially since the funny situations were very rare or not even exist in the prison.

Fritz: We were also wondering, what would want to ask the two suspects if you had the chance to do that?

Luna: I would like to ask them about two things actually. The first thing, why did it scare you, our request for freedom in the beginning of our revolution? That's something I can't understand. The second question will be, "Why do your families never came to support you while you are in this court?" I think about that because if one of my family was in Eyad or Anwar's place and I thought he was right, I would have supported him whatever happens.

Fritz: Why do you think they did what they did?

Luna: I think because they were afraid for losing their positions, and then they chose the winner's side in that time, 2012.

Fritz: Do you have any message or messages for the two accused for Anwar R. and Eyad A.? If you could say something to them?

Luna: I would like to say, no matter how long it takes, no one will be immune from accountability. This is my conviction as well, not just my message to them.

Fritz: What was interesting in court when the filmmaker, Feras Fayyad testified as the witness, he said that he would actually be ready to forgive Anwar R. if he would acknowledge that torture took place. Is that something you can see for yourself?

Luna: Actually, I can fully understand Fayyad's position. After World War II, for example, the Germans had to move beyond what happened, and move forward because they wanted to rebuild their country. I think that at some point we should move forward, but that does not mean at all that war criminals are not held accountable only because they have confessed to their crimes.

After they get the punishment that they deserve, we must get past it, because if we don't, we will not be able to reconstruct Syria, and we cannot live as one people.

Fritz: I see. As a victim, how has this trial impacted your life so far?

Luna: Some of the sessions are very painful, especially those that included facts about the work of security branches, such as Eyad's investigation, for example, and the information he provided. As a former detainee, I can imagine that the place they are talking about and hear the screams of detainees being tortured, my memory return to that place.

It's not easy to live it again after trying just to forget it, but because I go there in this course as a journalist, I couldn't get out of these feelings and try to focus with my work. It's not easy at all, but I do my best to do that.

Fritz: Yes, and we will also definitely refer to your articles in our show notes, especially for those of our listeners who prefer to read Arabic. Have you been actively trying to look for more victims in a way of finding additional evidence?

Luna: As a journalist who's covering this trial, yes. I try to find new evidence and new victims as well, but I cannot close that now. All I can say now, that it was much more than I expected.

Fritz: At some point, you will come forward with this information and publish it?

Luna: Yes, of course. That will be in English not in Arabic. I hope soon.

Fritz: Well, thank you so much for making the time to speak to us today, Luna. We really appreciate it, and we know it's not easy for you. We really look forward to reading your stories and your reports on the case, and specifically really looking forward to the story that you will break, hopefully, soon with new information.

Luna: Thanks for having me.

Fritz: Of course.

Luna: Thank you Fritz-

Fritz: Okay. Thank you, Luna.

Luna: -and have a nice day.

Fritz: Yes, you too and take care of yourself.

Luna: Thank you so much.

Fritz: We'll speak soon.

Luna: Yes, of course.

Fritz: Bye-bye. Take care.

Luna: Bye-bye.

Fritz: Ciao-ciao.

Karam: Thank you, Luna, for being a guest on our podcast. It's good here to note again that Luna was detained at Branch 251 after the period of the indictment against the two accused. She was detained there after Eyad A and Anwar R had already left the Branch, just to prevent any misunderstandings. She was at Branch 251 and other prisons from early 2014, until early 2015. She's not a witness in this case, but of course, very much involved as a survivor, and wow covering the trial as a journalist.

Two brave women and they both managed to survive and share their stories with the rest of the world. The painful details and the disturbing memories. Their stories are unique, but they are also the stories of tens of thousands of other victims and survivors. We're now slowly approaching the end of this week's episode.

Fritz: This is all a lot, and we will need some time to digest this, I think ourselves and your listeners as well, I think. To help us with that, to help us understand some of the things that Nuran and Luna say here a bit better. We are talking to two experts on this subject matter, two experts on war victims' trauma. We will share our conversations with them on the podcast next week. Do stay tuned for that, it will be a part two of this episode.

Karam: Survivors of detention and torture, it is possible that they overcome this, but it takes a toll that's often invisible.

Fritz: More from them next week on the podcast. Until then, take care, everybody.

Karam: Please keep sending us your questions about the episode, about the podcast, about the trial, whatever you are curious about.

Fritz: Do subscribe to the podcast if you haven't done that yet, so you can get every episode automatically every week. If you want to support Branch 251, the podcast, please review it on your podcast app, share it in your social media and other networks. Hit the donate button on our website where it says Support this podcast. Every small bid is very much appreciated.

Karam: Yes, thank you for your support everybody. It means a lot, and keeps this podcast going. Branch 251 is listener-supported. It's created, produced and hosted by the two of us. Shout out to Maarten van Doornmalen for his production feedback this week, and to everyone else that has given us feedback.

Karam: Thank you so much, Katharina Buhl for helping with the voiceover. I'm Karam Shoumali.

Fritz: And I'm Fritz Streiff. See you next time on Branch 251.

Karam: See you then.