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Silenced at ‘the university of whispers,’ an Assad prison survivor can now tell his story

Syrian teen Omar Alshogre was arrested and jailed for participating in a protest. He survived three years of torture in a compound referred to as “the university of whispers” because its prisoners were forbidden to speak. After fleeing to Turkey and then Sweden, Alshogre is finally able to share his story of the Assad regime's brutal crimes. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    And now to anther story from Syria, one of inhuman suffering and near superhuman perseverance.

    A warning before we go further: The account you are about to hear may upset many viewers.

    It's been eight years since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad began. The brutal war that followed has killed hundreds of thousands, forced millions from their homes, and led to the imprisonment, torture, and murder by Assad's regime of thousands more.

    Now, even as the Syrian leader secures his gains, international efforts at accountability are beginning. Many hope those could one day lead to justice.

    From Oslo, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    At a time of extensive indifference to Syria, Omar Alshogre strives to energize outrage at the bestiality perpetrated by President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    For the first time, I was protesting because it was fun. But then I get arrested, and I get tortured for two days. And I lost my nails. And they shocked me with electricity.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Alshogre was in Oslo to attend a human rights film festival. Before his appearance, he told me how torturers repeatedly sought to extract confessions for a crime he hadn't committed.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    "How many officers have you killed? No one?" They come torture me with electricity, like that. And you can't continue. Then you say, "OK, I killed one." So he starts to take out my nail.

    (SCREAMING)

  • Omar Alshogre:

    Oh. Hit you again and say, "Look. You should look"

    And "I didn't kill anyone."

    And then he say, "OK, we move to the next one."

    And you go, "Oh, oh."

    "Look."

    "I killed, I killed, I killed, I killed, I killed."

    "OK, how many have you killed?"

    "One."

    "Continue."

    "Two."

    "Continue."

    "Three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10."

    When I said 10, he was satisfied at that time.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    After first being imprisoned at the age of 15, Alshogre ended up in a mountaintop compound north of Damascus.

    Its name? Saidnaya, the pinnacle of Syria's industrialized sadism.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    They say, "We torture you 10 belts. If you're silent, it's only 10. If just you scream one time, we're going to continue until you die."

    When I got the first belt, I could not control myself. I was like…

    (SCREAMING)

  • Omar Alshogre:

    And the belts is — like it's a rainy day. The belts are just coming, coming, and people are hitting me, like, with metal and electricity, and without stop. It's just getting hurt of everything. We call it the welcome party when you come to a new prison.

  • Eyal Weizman:

    Saidnaya is perhaps equivalent to a death camp, because people are coming there to be executed or starved to death. Now we're going into the vehicle, the truck that brought those prisoners on to the site.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Professor Eyal Weizman is a forensic architect. He lead a team who worked with other survivors of Saidnaya to build virtual images of the prison to trigger memories and testimony that may one day be used by a prosecutor.

  • Eyal Weizman:

    It really is the last station that you would pass through when — after you have been arrested by the Syrian government forces. It is absolutely hell on earth.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Weizman sees comparisons between Assad's methods and the Holocaust.

  • Eyal Weizman:

    There is a banality of that evil, which is the kind of management of life and death, the management of reduction of bodies to bare-bones, to put people on the threshold between life and death, a kind of calculated way of slow killing, if you're not executed outright.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Amid a litany of depravity, one of the most gruesome allegations is of summary executions before naked inmates were given their only meal of the day.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    Every day, they killed more than two or three people in every room, but not only that. It's not the torture hours when you get your food. It's just good morning, and the head of this dead body should be over the food, so the blood can come in. So you can't any day without the blood in your food.

    So you get in the body. You should put the head on the food. If you don't, you get tortured.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Alshogre's powers of recall captivated the Norwegian audience and fellow panel members like Gerald Folkvord of Amnesty International.

  • Gerald Folkvord:

    I believe it's very credible, because it's the same story Amnesty International's researchers have heard many times from both survivors, but also from prison guards. We have also been in contact with some of the people who actually worked there, including some of the people carrying out torture. And they're all telling the same story.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Former prisoners told the forensic architects that they were forced to communicate by whispers. Alshogre tells a similar story.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    It was the university of whispers, because we weren't allowed to speak in prison. The person next to me was a doctor, the other side a psychologist, in front of me an engineer, behind me a lawyer. He died, you get a teacher. He died, you get an economist.

    The doctor is sharing knowledge how to take care of our wounds, and the psychologist how to be happy in prison.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Alshogre says his fellow inmates provided him with the mental fortitude to survive.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    It was like torture, physical and psychological torture, sexual torture, a lot of dead people. Some people was just killed by just like cable or something. Some people were killed by torture when they ask them. They torture you, and you get electricity until you die. Other people died from starvation.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Like the Nazis, the Syrians apparently keep extensive records and coerce prisoners into performing key tasks.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    When anyone dies, you take the body to the isolation room, you get a pen and the paper, and you write the number on the forehead.

    The bodies were in the room more than seven, eight days, which means their bodies destroyed. So we were forced to like take the legs here, so when I take a body, we take just two arms, two legs, like a bit of body and a head, and take it out.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Three years of violence and malnutrition almost killed Alshogre, and, once, he was dumped with other corpses for disposal.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    I just wake up, and I was like almost dying. I looked at the ceiling when I opened my eyes. It was like an arm over my head. I couldn't breathe. And I just moved this arm.

    I tried to take me to the door, and just started knocking on the door. Someone opened and said, "What?"

    I said, "I get alive," like second life.

  • And he said:

    "Why? You should die."

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Hala Alghawi's brother also disappeared into Saidnaya prison, and she flew from Turkey to Oslo in the hope that Alshogre might have some information.

  • Hala Alghawi:

    Unfortunately, I cannot be hopeful. At the same time, I still have something that tells me maybe he's still alive. I feel justice is very important, because no peace without justice.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Legal experts believe the volume of evidence of war crimes and human rights abuses in Syria outstrips that available at Nuremberg, where Nazis were put on trial after the Second World War.

    So what are the chances of the Syrian perpetrators facing justice? Russia and China blocked the International Criminal Court from dealing with Syria. So it's up to individual countries to act.

    There have been arrests of suspects in Germany and France. Austria has launched an investigation, and, in Sweden, a lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the survivors of torture.

    After Norway came Washington and a briefing on Capitol Hill for senior members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who made promises of support.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    These people in prison deserve to survive.

  • Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas:

    Assad cannot now deny his crimes, his crimes against humanity. And he will pay for those crimes.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This is how Alshogre looked when he was finally released, he thinks by mistake, and was then subjected to a mock execution.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    Aim, shoot, poom, was the last thing I hear.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Somehow, he managed to escape across the border to Turkey, and followed the refugee trail to Greece, through Central Europe, and eventually to Sweden, where he's had death threats from Damascus.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    I'm the strong guy. I survived. You tried. You made me silent for three years in prison, and, today, you are silent in this — silent in this picture. I am talking. I won this challenge. I won this war. I'm the survivor. I'm the winner. I love it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Such candor carries the risk of assassination. But Alshogre says his liberty comes with an obligation to speak out.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Oslo.

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