The Sarraj brothers spent 12 years apart—one as a free man, the other in the depths of Syria’s worst prison.
By Rebekah Frumkin
Ala and Bara Sarraj as children. (Photo: The Sarraj Family)
In 1985, Ala Sarraj went to sleep in Damascus and dreamed of a big yellow door nearly 300 kilometers away, in Palmyra. He was 22 and one of the top-ranked students in Syria, studying medicine at the prestigious Damascus University. In the dream, the door’s outlines were vague, its color diluted by hints of gray. The grinding and screaming of torture could be heard behind it.
Ala would dream again of the door after hisolder brother, Abdul Rahman, fled Syria for Chicago that same year; again after Ala joined him in 1987 to complete his medical residency at Rush University; and again after the two were joined by their mother and sister in 1988. Their father, who’d died in Kuwait when Ala was five, had not lived through Hafez al-Assad’s regime as the other Sarrajes had — had not seen the beatings on buses, the home invasions, the decimations of whole cities.
The dream of the yellow door was always jarring: He’d jolt awake thinking the door was associated with someone he loved. And then he’d feel the same sense of loss he’d felt for the past year. He was missing a significant piece of himself, a piece whose daily presence gave his life consistent meaning: his reflection in the mirror, his shadow on the street, the response to his call. His twin, Bara (“innocent” in Arabic), had been imprisoned and tortured for reasons known only to Assad’s militia.
Then one morning Ala woke up and realized he’d been dreaming of the door to Bara’s cell.
Moments before he disappeared from the civilian world on March 5th, 1984, 21-year-old Bara Sarraj was sitting on a bus stopped just outside the gates of his electrical engineering college in Damascus, lingering over a copy of Egyptian poet Ahmad Shawqi’s Death of Cleopatra. A line of students waiting to be searched snaked beyond the gate and down the street: President Assad’s intelligence, the mukhabarat, had paid the college a visit. Bara was prepared for another day of insufficiently rigorous classes in a field for which he felt no passion — in addition to reading Shawqi, he intended to spend some lecture time studying English — but the sight of the mukhabarat jolted him from the waking sleep of another school day.
He happened to be wearing a military uniform, requisite for a mandatory course in military training. He adjusted the uniform’s stiff collar and watched the plainclothes mukhabarat busy themselves at the front of the line. They were supposed to be undercover, but he could always tell from their dress, demeanor, and accents who they were. It was difficult to miss the characteristic blend of braggadocio and blind adrenaline, the capacity to terrorize at a moment’s notice. Bara wondered which unlucky student they had come for.
“They don’t treat you like Syrians. They don’t treat you like humans.”
On that same day, Bara’s fraternal twin brother Ala was busy with his medical studies. He would go about March 5th, 1984, as he had gone about many days: winning friends with his ready-to-quip smile, playing soccer, and maintaining his reputation for academic excellence. Even after the mukhabarat had tampered with his grades, Ala’s high school grade point average (GPA) was still strong enough to earn him acceptance to one of the most competitive schools in Syria. He was accustomed to going everywhere with Bara, but Bara’s similarly competitive GPA had been ruined, forcing him to abandon his dreams of studying medicine with Ala. Although the twins still lived together, Ala went to college alone. He worried about how his twin would get along without his influence; the possibility that they would be apart in college, Bara says, “had never crossed my mind.” According to Ala, where he was cynical, Bara was optimistic. Where he was skeptical, Bara was trusting. They had grown up under the panoptic glare of Ba’ath Party officials attempting to recruit their support for Assad. In their short lifetime, Syria had become a place where everyone was keeping tabs on everyone and violence could erupt at any minute. Not a place, in other words, where trust or optimism thrived.
It was a temperate spring day, with a cool breeze left over from winter. Years later, after the entire Sarraj family had fled to Chicago, both brothers would express their preference for Syrian weather, Bara with a long-faced shrug (“If we all left Chicago because of the weather, no one would live here”), and Ala with boastful energy (“It’s stable weather, I don’t think we had forecasts. Recently they started having them just to say: ‘It’s sunny! It’s sunny again!’”). This was not an unusual dynamic between the twins: a consensus modulated by two very different personalities, a psychic connection transcending disposition and place. While on a trip in Australia, for instance, Ala bought War and Peace; that same week in Illinois, Bara purchased Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Morihei Ueshiba’s The Art of Peace. Last year, the twins bought similar briefcases, unbeknownst to one another, during the same week. Such occurrences are frequent enough that they don’t seem to merit discussion. And the same unspoken bond explains the abrupt downturn in Ala’s mood on March 5th, 1984 — an “unforgettable sinking feeling of your heart left your chest [for] somewhere else.”
Bara descended from the bus and surveyed the line. His college’s student population was diverse: a mixture of Christians, Sunni Ba’athists from the countryside, Jewish students from a nearby neighborhood, and Muslim students from all over. They all stank of various brands of cologne, a smell Bara remembers as “glaring.” Normally he wouldn’t have considered skipping the line. Six years before, as a 15-year-old boy in resource-deprived Hama, he had dutifully stood the requisite three hours in line at the bakery to get a loaf of bread, refusing an influential uncle’s offer to pull some strings so he could skip ahead. But on this day, facing the prospect of a mukhabarat shakedown before hours of lectures he already couldn’t bring himself to care about, Bara decided not to stand in the nauseating cloud of his classmates’ cologne. He skipped to the front of the line, a first for him. “I was rushing toward my fate,” he recalls.
Soon he was approached by a clean-shaven young officer and asked if he was Bara Sarraj.
“Yes, I am.”
The officer nodded curtly. “We’ll just need you for five minutes,” he said. Bara would be gone for 12 years.
Ala sat next to his twin’s empty chair and plate that night at the dinner table. As the meal dragged on and Bara didn’t return, the mood in the kitchen became increasingly tense. Ala knew that misfortune didn’t strike randomly in Syria: If something went wrong, a member of Assad’s intelligence likely had a dossier to justify it. Just two years before, Hama, the small city on the banks of the Orontes where the twins grew up, had been sealed off and besieged by Assad in attempts to thin out the ranks of the anti-government Muslim Brotherhood. Death toll estimates ranged between 10,000 and 40,000. Ala and Bara had returned to the city afterward and found their grandmother’s house crumbling, a school friend of theirs burned alive in bed. It was the government itself, they said — not some extra-legal criminal element — that perpetuated chaos and destruction in the lives of Syrians.
“My mother used to call the Presidential Palace and give them a piece of her mind. She wouldn’t give them her name, but she would tell them they’re enslaving people against their will, let them go. She would do that every month.”
Ala describes his family as “idealistic” and “fighters”: “My mother used to sit us down and write poetry against the government. We were in our pajamas. Friends were burning tires and we were writing on the walls.” Uncle Sammy Sarraj ran the cultural center in Hama, welcoming his nieces and nephews to visit and pore over books of classic Arabic literature and anti-government pamphlets. Their father’s family had been members of the Syrian resistance against French occupation. The twins had gone to mosque regularly, a practice that could raise suspicion among pro-Assad Alawites. Bara had even begun a detailed study of the hadith, the narrations of Muhammad. But when the family learned that Bara was being interrogated at a military branch in Hama, Ala’s idealism began to flag. If they had done this to Bara, what would they do to him? He had read all the same pamphlets, attended all the same meetings, gone to the same mosque as his twin. “There’s no way to take one without taking the other,” he thought.
Ala traveled with his mother to visit his twin at the Hama military branch. When Bara was led out to meet them, Ala was shocked. Here was his reflection — his Roman nose, his double-peaked upper lip, his brown eyes — worn by someone other than Bara. “He looked like a prisoner,” Ala recalls. “He had a shaved head, his clothes smelled. He was underweight.” Bara assured them both in whispers that he was OK and that he would be released soon. He didn’t know what else to say.
An aerial view of Tadmor, annotated by Bara Sarraj. Red sections mark where hundreds were tortured and killed. Green sections mark where Bara lived over the course of his nine years at Tadmor. (Photo: Courtesy of Bara Sarraj)
“They don’t treat you like Syrians,” Bara says of his time at the Hama military branch. “They don’t treat you like humans. Everything is with a slap, with a kick, with a whip.” Each captive was expected to name names. Bara named disappeared friends who’d been sent to Tadmor, a maximum security Palmyra prison notorious for its brutal conditions. He prayed that the friends had already been killed and that the guards didn’t know that, that they would mistakenly think he was offering them fresh names. In between beatings, Bara wondered what he’d done to warrant his arrest. Had it been his studies at the Hama mosque, where he’d spent some of the happiest days of his young life? The pamphlets he’d read with his twin? The fact that his brother Abdul Rahman had once spent a few months in prison for having dinner with a friend of a friend? Bara’s path to his cell was too byzantine to unravel from within the cell itself.
On March 22nd, Bara’s mother visited and brought him a package of food and clothes. In the package were five eggs, one for each member of his family. “I decided to keep them, I didn’t want them to be touched,” he says. “I was superstitious. If I let those eggs break, I would not come back.” Five days later, he was moved to a collective room with 20 other prisoners. Though food was scarce, he wouldn’t let anyone touch the eggs. When another prisoner accidentally mixed them in with a batch of new eggs, Bara became livid. He had been able to keep them preserved for 10 days before they broke.
After two months at Hama, Bara was transferred back to an intelligence branch in Damascus. He was now just minutes from where he had studied electrical engineering, minutes from where his twin still studied medicine every day. His new quarters were dark and crowded, rife with lice and scabies. He saw skin diseases and infestations the likes of which he had come across only in textbooks. “I became the minister of lice, because my screening was really efficient,” he says. “Anybody who entered the room, he will go aside to undress, hand me his underwear most importantly, and I will look for lice. One person in Hama, I got 300 lice out of his shorts.” The torture was near-constant, sleep fleeting. “Day and night, the screams would not stop. I could differentiate the way of torture from the screams. I became an expert.” He sometimes wished he could be transferred to Tadmor just so the interrogation would stop: There at least he would be presumed guilty beyond redemption and no new names would be demanded of him.
On June 6th, 1984, his wish was granted.
According to Ala, a degree in medicine from Damascus University frequently functions as an entrée into the world of politics. (The current president, Bashar al-Assad, holds this degree.) “Going to med school to see patients, that was not my intention,” Ala says. “I thought I would be a minister somewhere.” He had been class president and valedictorian in high school and arrived on campus in Damascus hungering for leadership. His sense of duty to his country was so strong that he felt predestined to save it from Assad: “In med school in Damascus … it’s our job to stand up against the government. We were created to correct Assad.”
Then Ala’s twin was swallowed by the same government forces that had disappeared so many other idealistic Syrians, and Ala began to feel as though his own place in the world was in jeopardy. “The country was blowing up against the government … you could never tell what would come the next day. You could never tell actually if you’d be living the next day,” he says. “Every day I think I am going to be taken.” He went to school and studied, dutifully took his exams. Intelligence officers, he says, frequently barged into classrooms with lists of students to be arrested. Ala watched from a few seats over as his classmates were pulled from their desks and escorted outside. “You feel your heart pounding: ‘Is it for me? Is it for me? Is it for me?’” When he went home, it was to an empty bedroom. He kept his twin’s books and papers arranged on his desk exactly as he had left them on March 5th, 1984. There was no way for him to know that his brother was locked in a detention cell mere blocks from where he was studying.
When the twins’ older brother escaped to America in 1985, the family was relieved. “One survived the demolition machine,” Ala remembers thinking. Struggling to live without his twin, Ala began to fixate on his own escape. He stopped socializing altogether and studied to the point of exhaustion for his med school finals. When Australia opened its borders to Lebanese refugees, he wondered if they’d be friendly to Syrian refugees as well. By then his older brother had begun his medical residency at Rush University in Chicago and encouraged Ala to consider citizenship in the United States. Ala’s mother and sister were supportive, making their own plans to follow the brothers wherever they went. So Ala studied hard for the TOEFL, poring over his English dictionaries. When he managed to sleep, he dreamed of the yellow door.
In 1980, then-President Hafez al-Assad was awaiting the arrival of an African dignitary outside the guest palace in Damascus when gunfire broke out and a grenade landed at his feet. He survived after kicking it away. The attack had been perpetrated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Assad’s brother Rifaat decided to retaliate by delivering 60 soldiers to Tadmor prison — which contained members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood — with the instruction to kill every prisoner in sight as a warning to any future rebels. The death toll was estimated to be between 500 and 800, and the massacre would set the tone for life in the prison thereafter.
The late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, right, with his youngest brother Rifaat at a military ceremony in Damascus in 1984. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Bara describes Tadmor as a “symphony of terror”: “It’s Middle Ages, just torture and fear morning, noon, evening, and night. And you have to live with it. There’s no trace of life there.” The cells were crowded, containing as many as 130 to 200 prisoners at a time. Sleep happened in shifts, and the quarters were sufficiently cramped that you had to sleep on your side, burrowed against someone else; inmates nicknamed this conservation of surface area “swording” because their bodies resembled the thin blades of unsheathed swords balanced on their sides. Food was scarce, Bara says, and, for meals, a cell of 130 often had to share 10 mashed eggs. Inmates were lucky if they managed the tip of a spoon of yogurt, three dirty olives, and one-eighth of a mashed egg a day. Eating was a group activity, and if you couldn’t manage to wolf down your portion fast enough, you would go hungry. Bara was unaccustomed to competitive eating: “I’m from a very meticulous family. I cannot eat like this.” As a consequence, he grew dangerously underweight and made the decision in 1990 to eat alone. The other inmates accused him of antisocial behavior and mercurial moods, but he ignored them.
“In med school in Damascus, it’s our job to stand up against the government. We were created to correct Assad.”
Life at Tadmor was hearing the terrified screams of fellow inmates, wondering whether the same lay in store for you, weighing the value of survival against the enormity of the pain still awaiting you. Inmates were made to fold their bodies to fit into small car tires, a process called dulaab, so they could be whipped with kirbaaj, or rubber belts embedded with metal pieces. There were “breathing sessions,” during which inmates were taken outside under the premise of getting some fresh air and beaten for arbitrary reasons. Names were erased, and everyone was called wla (little). “We gather in fours and fives, and they ask us to walk or to sit, depends on their mood,” Bara says. “And then they will start selecting us for beating under many contexts. ‘Qalil, why did you open your eyes? Why is your head high? Why are you bored?’” Bara recalls being badly beaten for the curve of his nose and for wearing a red jersey and pants. The breathing sessions could be as short as 30 minutes or as long as two hours. The guards seemed to delight in terrorizing inmates with uncertainty: “You feel you are at the end of the world. The day is all fear, waiting for the unknown. Especially when things worsen and we do not know why.”
While his brother was trapped in Tadmor, Ala was over 6,000 miles away in Chicago, the city where he would complete his medical residency, meet his wife, and start a family. A day did not pass without thoughts of Bara: What was he eating, if at all? Was he getting outside? Was he still alive?
In 1991, the Sarrajes began to work with human rights groups Amnesty International and Middle East Watch on a letter-writing campaign for Bara’s freedom. Ala got his friends from medical school involved, and soon they had written multiple letters to senators in multiple states. “My mother was calling Syria,” Ala remembers. “She used to call the Presidential Palace and give them a piece of her mind. She wouldn’t give them her name, but she would tell them they’re enslaving people against their will, let them go. She would do that every month.”
The efforts culminated in a letter from the late Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts to United Nations Human Rights Committee Chairman Nisuke Ando asking for the release of Bara and other Syrian students captured by the mukhabarat.
Two years later, Bara was called up from his cell at Tadmor and told that he would be transferred to a maximum-security prison in Sednaya, a city directly to the east of the Lebanese border. After two years in Sednaya, he was told to report for an interview with intelligence officials. It was October of 1995, over a decade since he’d been a free man. He knew the intelligence officials would want to know if he had been a member of the opposition. If he lied and said yes, he’d indict himself. If he told the truth and said no, they wouldn’t believe him.
After a preliminary interview, Bara was brought to Sednaya’s interrogation room at night. At around 9 p.m., AK-47 shots ripped through the dusky quiet, startling the prisoners and announcing the arrival of Assad’s top officers. Bara recalls that it was strange to see them all in the same room, shuffling stone-faced through stacks of release papers. They asked him if he saw his family, and he said never. They asked him if he was willing to collaborate with Assad’s forces after his release. Bara replied “Yes, Inshallah,” Arabic for “God willing,” a term that caused the officials to bristle with suspicion.
“He is not ready,” one officer said. “Put him back.”
The head of the committee looked at Bara’s papers, then at Bara, then at the officer.
“Come on,” he said. “He’s going to report to us after release.”
Then he turned to Bara and said: “We are not letting you go because people [in America] have been talking about you. We are letting you go because we are benevolent enough to do so.”
Bara was released that day, and boarded a plane to Chicago a little less than a year later.
By the time Bara arrived in Chicago in the fall of 1996, Ala had enough experience seeing medical patients to know that his brother was very sick. He imagined the better world in which he was not administering to his dangerously underweight twin in an examination room in the Chicago suburbs. Instead, he was a powerful minister reclaiming Syria from a violent dictatorship, his family living peacefully in Damascus.
Ala treated Bara for tuberculosis, offering a cocktail of antibiotics to which Bara responded well. He drove his twin around the city, pointing out the things that had shocked him the most upon arrival almost a decade ago: the cold, the lack of bicycles, the smoking and drinking. Ala had spoken to Bara nearly every day since his release from prison, but it was still strange to be sitting in the same car as him, to watch him react to the wider world for the first time in over a decade.
There would be much to come: Bara’s marriage, Ala’s children, the bombing of Aleppo, the drowning and suffocation of refugees, visits from Assad’s ministers to the U.S., global outcry with no resulting action. The twins would age, settle into their careers (Ala as an emergency room physician, Bara as a professor of biology and immunology), and speak as often as possible about their country. Ala would rhapsodize about the Roman waterwheels in Hama and the prophets’ tombs while expressing no desire to see them again. Bara would be haunted by memories of swerving mukhabarat Jeeps and gunfire, insisting he’d return to Syria if only it were safe to go. But for now they would keep driving around Chicago, Bara’s eyes on the skyscrapers and Ala’s on the road, separated for the first time by the past.