In order to give people outside Chios the possibility to understand how it is to be in a refugee camp on the island, A Drop in the Ocean will present an alternative Christmas calendar this year. Each day until Christmas, we will post the story of 24 amazing people, that we are so blessed to spend our everyday with.
The stories are written by our wonderful volunteer Diana Valdecantos and photos will be done by our amazing coordinator and photographer Nickie Mariager-Lam.
December 2nd: Mohamed Josef
Written by Diana Valdecantos, edited by Thomas David and photos by Nickie Mariager-Lam.
This is the story of a man who paid 500 Syrian pounds to see the sun for ten minutes after months locked up in a dungeon. For security reasons, we´ll call him Mohamed Josef.
The life of this young man was pretty much like any other twenty year old’s existence. He left his home town to study Economics at university, he enjoyed the nightclubs, the company of girls, football… “Everything was easy and simple. I passed my exams and I even found a job in Nestlé near Damascus”. As any other college student politics interested him. He started attending demonstrations and secret meetings were the youngsters dreamed about freedom for their country and the end of Bashir Al Assad’s era.
No one is to be trusted in a place where information can be used against you and black lists are as common as the sun showing up in the morning. So they covered their faces and joined marches outside their cities where it was easier to be unnoticed by political police. These demonstrations had consequences and the government agents didn´t hesitate to arrest students who were thought to be somehow involved in the resistance movement.
Things got worse when the war started, but Mohamed was lucky and avoided problems for a while. His biggest fear was not only to end up in a prison cell but Syrian prices. “Everything started to become really expensive. I lost my job and I needed food and a place to live”, he explains. That´s why he asked a close friend who owned a restaurant to help him. “I knew nothing about the business, about the food; so I started cleaning and doing the worst part of the job. I worked 15 hours a day for 300 Syrian pounds”, he remembers. At the end of the day, with that wage, he could only buy cigarettes and a sandwich.
It was also very difficult to combine working so many hours with university life so, when the exams came up, he had some trouble keeping up with his classmates. Nevertheless, life was not that bad for Josef. His cheering mood and personality helped the business and after some time his boss increased his salary and he was able to pay for a shared apartment.
Mohamed’s mum, however, was in need and asked his son to send her money every weekend, so he did just this for a long time. Almost two years had passed since the last time he had seen her, so one day he decided to visit her. After the family meeting he got into a bus and returned to his university and restaurant life, but he didn´t know his life was about to be turned upside down.
Near Raqqa, Mohamed was stopped by the political police who arrested him because in his student card there was a stamp missing. Suspicious enough for them, they arrested him. “I wasn´t scared, I knew I was a student and that everything would end up becoming an anecdote”, he says. He visited three different prisons in 11 days but it was in the last stop, a subterranean facility were his real nightmare began. “I was blindfolded and questioned about Assad. They tied me up in a chair and they hit me while I tried to convince them I supported the Government”. That was just the beginning.
For six months this 27 years old was tortured daily. They tied his arms to the wall and the police officers used sticks to scar him. They hit him, they broke his nose, they threw cold water onto him throughout all this and many other terrible things. The political police found new ways of torture everyday. Naked, with his hands and feet tied, he was put into a big car tyre where it was impossible for him to move and where he was savagely beaten everyday for months.
Mohamed explains all this with an astonishing normality and with no sign of rancor, almost as if he was talking about someone else’s life.
He was only fed some herbs and olives and didn’t see the sun for months.
“Once you´ve been beaten the second time, it doesn’t hurt, you just get used to it. I even made jokes with the other prisoners when the torture was over for the day. Shouting like in a football match, celebrating”.
He also paid good money for an occasional cigarette and one day he asked his captors if he could watch the sun. “Yes”, they answered, for 500 Sirian pounds. So that day, that morning, he got ten minutes of light after months of darkness.
The interrogation techniques didn’t work on Josef so he was offered a deal. They would let him go if he got information from other prisoners instead. Surprisingly, after all that hell, Mohamed was not going to condemn a fellow mate for his own sake. The torture then got worse. For three days he wasn’t allowed to sleep and was constantly beaten.
One day they stopped torturing him. He knew that was the first step before freedom. Letting the wounds heal so that their atrocities would be completely invisible to anyone else. And invisible he should remain in order to survive outside the prison walls. Because if someone found out he had been in jail, problems and blacklists will simply doom him.
The first thing he did when he was freed was to call his mother.
“Mum, its me, Mohamed”. She couldn’t believe it. “It was the first time I cried”, he remembers.
A huge party was thrown to celebrate his freedom and for days he slept hugged to his mother. But life had to continue and Josef had new plans for a restaurant in his mind. Luckily, he started a prosperous business and kept sending money to his mother. However, he was scared and feared he would be once again arrested, so Mohamed started to think about an escape. “Maybe Europe?”, he thought.
The only problem was he didn’t have that kind of money. Where was he supposed to get at least 3.000 euros?
“One day, my mother got me inside her room and took out a small box. “This is for you”, she said. When he opened the b ox, it was full of gold. “All the money I had been sending my mother had become this precious metal”. Now he had an opportunity, and that is exactly what Mohamed is still looking for, here on Chios.