Nina Larson and Rita Daou, AFP
Last updated: 28 January, 2014

Activist’s road from Syrian prison to Geneva peace talks

Not so long ago Noura al-Ameer was being beaten and subjected to electric shocks in a Syrian prison. Today, she sits across from the regime that put her there, hoping diplomacy can end her country’s suffering.

“It was as if I was seeing the faces of the killers, the bombers, the torturers,” Ameer told AFP, describing her first meeting with regime representatives in Switzerland last week.

At 26, she is a vice president of the opposition National Coalition and the youngest member of the delegation in talks in Geneva aimed at ending her country’s nearly three-year civil war.

It was not easy, she said, sitting down across from representatives of the “executioner” and “criminal” President Bashar al-Assad.

“I felt the same thing I felt for my jailers: contempt,” she said, her black-charcoaled eyes shining defiance under a headscarf dotted with bright red flowers and black and grey leopard spots.

“I tell myself: You cannot hurt me no matter what you do, because I defend a cause and you are only here to defend one person,” said Ameer, who does not have a seat at the negotiating table but is one of the few women in the opposition’s extended delegation.

Sitting in the lounge of a luxury Geneva hotel, a stone’s throw from the UN’s European headquarters where the talks are taking place, Ameer described how she had been studying literature at the University of Homs in early 2011 when a “massacre” in the central Syrian city prompted her to put her studies on hold and join protests.

She was soon handing out fliers, shouting anti-regime slogans from loudspeakers and documenting abuses.

“We wanted the voice of the people to ring louder than the repression,” she said, speaking in Arabic and gesticulating with delicate hands for emphasis.

She had known from the beginning that she might be arrested, and when the moment finally came — in March 2012 as she sat on a bus from Damascus to Aleppo — “I didn’t feel anything.”

But soon she did. Ameer was shuttled between some of Syria’s most notorious prisons, where she was first held incognito for three months before serving three more months for “offending the state authority and the president” and “incitement to sectarian dissent”.

‘I was only beaten and shocked’

She was tortured, but not as badly as some, she insisted, straightening her black skirt over crossed knees and nervously tapping her foot.

“I was only beaten a bit and shocked with electric cables. It was nothing,” she said, waving her hand dismissively.

But then her dark eyes suddenly filled with tears: “I’m embarrassed to talk about my experience in prison, because others have suffered so much worse.”

Many women are raped, others folded into rubber tires suspended from the ceiling before being beaten, or hung by their wrists for hours and even days, she said, clasping her wrists together and lifting her arms above her head to illustrate.

Her sister, only 20, was tortured in this way, forced to hang for hours on end until her shoulder was dislocated, she said.

Ameer’s lips trembled, her gaze focused somewhere in the distance. She swallowed and took a deep breath before continuing: “Then they hung her by only her bad arm.”

She shifted uncomfortably on the silk upholstered chair, flames flickering in a large fireplace behind her.

The luxurious setting was far from the scene in her devastated hometown of Homs, where parts of the city have been under siege since June 2012.

“For the past 18 months, children, the sick and elderly have been starving to death in Homs,” she said, her eyes flashing with anger.

Ameer, who now lives in Turkey but is in regular contact with people in the besieged areas over the Internet, described how “parents are giving their children sleeping pills to help them forget that they are hungry, and people are eating grass.”

“The international community should be ashamed that no one has managed to get in a single carton of milk to a child in need,” she said.

Despite her own story and the catastrophe still unfolding in Syria, Ameer said she was convinced negotiations, in Geneva or elsewhere, will help bring an end to the suffering.

“There has been a pacifist battle, then a military battle. Now we need a political battle,” she said, insisting the revolution will succeed “through a political process, not war.”