February 22, 2015
Swedish journalist Joakim Medin talks about his four-day detention in a Syrian government prison in the vicinity of Qamishli, a town in Kurdish Syria he was covering as a freelancer. Arrested at a government checkpoint when he failed to produce a visa, he explains that very few journalists travel to Syria with the necessary legal documentation. Despite the relatively harsh conditions of his confinement - his cell was cold, dark and dirty - Medin says he was treated much better than other prisoners. He finishes by stressing the broader context of the battle of ideas - in addition to the brutal physical struggle - that is still being waged for the future Syria and Iraq - the right of people to live and work their land; the right of religious minorities to practice their faith. This is why journalists must continue to cover these areas in person, even if at times that means doing so without a visa.
TRANSCRIPT AND SHOTLIST
SOUNDBITE (English, Man) Joakim Medin, Swedish Reporter Detained by Syrian Government Forces
“We were walking down the street down in central Qamishli, on the 15th of February. On this day a lot of people stay away from, from their jobs and closed down their shops and so on, because it was a special memorial day, because of the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan on the same day in 1999. There was not so much people and movement, but this same day soldiers of the Syrian government also, for some reason put up a temporary roadblock or checkpoint just outside the government post office of Qamishli. They were stopping cars and checking people. When we passed this checkpoint on the sidewalk, they immediately arrested us and… and in a prisoners’ car and drove us to the local police station nearby. They accused me of not having a visa, a Syrian visa despite being there. “They put us in prison and I was told that they had to investigate this thing out. I explained that yes, this is correct I did not have a visa because this is the way journalists get into this area; an area of Syria that’s been heavily transformed and affected by the war with Daesh [ISIS] erasing the borders. So of course I didn’t have a visa unfortunately. I was told that in a matter of hours – one hour, five hours, ten hours – this matter would be resolved. “You have to stay in prison for this period of time.” However, these hours turned into days.
“I was treated much differently and better than the other inmates – the other prisoners – they accused the others of being sympathisers with Daesh. They were treated well at all. The situation with them was really bad. But I was locked in a tiny isolation cell. I was isolated from the other prisoners. There was no light, no access to fresh water. It was dirty and I had to sleep on the concrete floor. It was difficult. It was very different from the conditions of prisons in my country. Still, I was better treated. I was not seen as the other prisoners. I could go… I had access to the toilet. After four days, things suddenly changed. They drove an ambulance to the front of the building and we had to get in…”
Interviewer: “Why did they use an ambulance and not a normal car?”
“To get to the airport and not to be seen… I don’t know. We were handcuffed and blindfolded and they drove to the airport where we took a plane to Damascus under other identities. We did not fly under our real name but under false names. I was a 25-year-old man from Spain. Then we came to Damascus and I was imprisoned in the center of one the branches of Syrian intelligence.”
Interviewer: “And what about the situation in Damascus?”
“In Damascus the situation was sometimes similar. For example, there were also very small cells. [I was] locked in isolation. I wasn’t able to speak to anyone. I had access to nothing, no possessions.” Interviewer: “Did you see any ambassador as they promised you?”
“No, there was no ambassador. When I asked there was no response, really.” Interviewer: “What was the kind of questions?”
“Soon the interrogation…. It was about the cells… We were blindfolded and taken to different rooms where there people asking questions or reading information from a laptop for example. The questions were about why I came. The questions were targeting mainly why I came to Syria without a visa, and I explained to them that this was the only way I thought [I could] this area to be able to report. There were three subjects that I was here to report about: the situation of women, the situation of Christians, and the Kurds and the Yezidis fighting Daseh six months after the massacre in Shingal. “But soon these questions turned into more focus on whether I had some sort of assistance from Turkey and Israel to enter Syria. I explained that this was not the case. I was helped by these foreign countries.” Interviewer: “Have you been threatened in prison, that they will kill you?”
“No, but I felt unconformable. The days kept going and there was no information about… if my embassy was contacted, or if I can contact my family. They specifically said: “No, you cannot contact your family.”
Interviewer: And then what happened?
“Well, until yesterday at lunchtime, still… at least I thought it was very uncertain about what will happen. Still, there was no information. Still, a lot of questions, especially about Israel. Still kept in cells… and suddenly in the afternoon something happened. We were again told that we will fly away from Damascus using, again, false identities. We had to repeat these names over and over. We were told that will go back to Qamishli to be imprisoned there. That afternoon we were blindfolded again and driven in some sort of van with black windows to the airport, where we took a [civilian] plane again and came back to Qamishli. “First we were taken to the same regime prison in Qamishli, and the treatment somehow changed. They were acting different, more hospitable in a way. It was obvious that something had happened. They were very nice and polite. Interviewer: “In your opinion, what happened?”
“Well, we found out a bit later when we were taken to different offices to meet with a lot of people [whose] names we didn’t get, really. I don’t remember them. Suddenly we came to an office where the flag on the wall changed from the Syrian one [to that] of the YPG. That’s when at least I suddenly realized, “Ah! Suddenly we’re safe.” Just like this. Up until the last minute, I had no idea what was going to happen at all. I had no assurance at all about what was happening. “So we were told… we met with Redor Khalil, the spokesperson of the YPG, who told us that the Kurdish forces and the Kurdish administration in the region have been deploying forces and putting pressure on the Syrian government basically from the very beginning to let us go, and when this diplomacy – if you can call it [as such] – failed because of continued misinformation, I guess, then one or several high-ranking officers in the Syrian army – Syrian government army – were arrested by the YPG. Then there was a question of exchanging prisoners. And also, there was the threat of how the YPG would eventually intervene against the government-controlled airport outside Qamishli and basically stop all traffic unless we got released. This pressure eventually… well we got taken back from Damascus to Qamishli, which is not a normal process to happen this fast. And we got released.
“I and many others still think that this is something… what’s happening here with the… the social situation changes in Syria… the fight against Daesh, the fight to make people stay on their own land, in their own homes, the fight for minorities to stay in their own homes and not be ethnically cleansed by Daesh, the fight for many ideas and things and the war on that… I mean if we want anyone in the world to know about this, any people, we must be able to go. Sometimes it means that you come without a visa, unfortunately. “This is one of the few areas in Syria where we see social mobilization to protect the society in… in… it could stay the way it is not to make it collapse, but at the same time transform it into something better in the meantime. So I think if we want to see the region to be safe to report from and inside, and also see maybe an example of what Syria can like with stability, then this is one of these regions. I think it’s very important to keep coming here to report for the sake of all of Syria.”
Various of Joachim Medin with Sabri Omar, the interpreter who was arrested with him
Various of Joachim Medin indoors