From torture cell to Georgetown (& blinded with knives for getting a job)

November 11, 2020


Above: Omar Alshogre, one of the few survivors from the over 100,000 largely peaceful Syrians who were detained, starved and tortured for calling for democracy in 2011 at the outset of the Arab spring.

Left: Omar following his recovery in Sweden and, right, Omar a few days after his release from prison in Syria. Omar will soon start a degree at Georgetown University in Washington DC. (There is more about Omar, further down this dispatch.)

(I have written about or interviewed several such refugees over the years, and I remain in touch with many of them. For example, Hadeel Kouki, who is now a happily married mother living in America.)




[Notes by Tom Gross]

As long-time readers of my dispatches know, I feel that many media, in particular supposedly liberal papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, who have the resources to highlight more global human rights abuses, choose not to. So where I can, I try and highlight human rights stories that have been underreported in western media. (I read about such atrocities all the time, but it would be too depressing to send you these kinds of items daily.)

Below, I attach summaries of items I have read in recent days in the New York Post, BBC online, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera.



Pictured above: Khatera, 33, an Afghan policewoman who was blinded in an attack by Taliban “savages” who shot her and then stabbed her in the eyes. The Taliban were tipped off by her father who was opposed to her taking a job.

“I wish I had served in police at least a year. If this had happened to me after that, it would have been less painful. It happened too soon. I only got to work and live my dream for three months,” she said.

The New York Post reported yesterday : As a child, Khatera dreamed of working outside the home – and after years of trying in vain to convince her father, she got the support she craved from her husband.

She said her father provided the Taliban with a copy of her ID card and that he had called her the day she was attacked to ask for her location.

Khatera and her family – including five kids – are now hiding out in Kabul, where she has cut off contact with her extended family, including her mother, who has sided with her father.



The BBC website reportedon Monday (though not as far as I can tell during BBC news radio or TV broadcasts):

“More than 50 people have been beheaded in northern Mozambique by militant Islamists… The militants turned a football pitch in a village into an ‘execution ground’, where they decapitated and chopped bodies… Several people were also beheaded in another village.”

(Update: Since I wrote this note yesterday evening, this morning this story was reported in the Times of London, and the Daily Telegraph.)

The BBC added: “The gunmen chanted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is greatest’, in English), fired shots, and set homes alight [before] beheading more than 50 people.”

The BBC reports that in a separate attack two people were beheaded in another village and several women abducted.

“The militants are linked to the Islamic State group, giving it a foothold in southern Africa,” the BBC reports.

Tom Gross adds:

In its report, the BBC mentioned “poverty and unemployment” as a supposed root cause for these crimes without mentioning that the militants themselves were chanting the verse from the Koran which in its most extremist interpretation commands them to cut off the heads of the non-believers. “When you meet the unbelievers, strike the necks,” says Koran 47:4.

Such Islamist beheadings are happening almost daily in “third world” countries (either against non-Muslims or against Muslims who are not deemed sufficiently religious by the militants) but the western media tend to report on them only when they happen in countries such as France, as was the case last month when (in separate attacks) Islamist extremists beheaded a teacher outside his school, and a woman at prayer in a church.




Saudi Arabia is considering clemency for jailed female activists ahead of its hosting of the G20 summit this month, the Saudi ambassador to the UK has said. Because of coronavirus, the summit is to be held virtually on November 21 and 22.

Above: Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the jailed Saudi activists, who has been on hunger strike since October 26 in protest at her prison conditions.

Hathloul was arrested with nine other women’s rights advocates in May 2018, shortly before women were finally granted the right to drive in one of the liberal reforms that are presently being undertaken by the Saudi crown prince. (I have highlighted some of those reforms on this dispatch list.) Her family, including her sister, claim she has been tortured. At least five of those arrested in 2018 remain in jail.

(I have raised the cases of these women and other liberal detainees, and urged Saudi Arabia to release them, in private meetings I have held with senior Saudi officials. All I would say here, is that from various discussions I have held, it does seem that there is a genuine debate under way within the Saudi regime between those who want to step up the pace of liberal reforms and those who don’t. The reformers are the same group who wish to recognize Israel and liberalize attitudes to other religions and to women.)




Al Jazeera interviews a Yazidi survivor who kept a secret notebook in which she recorded the abuses committed against her and others.

(There are extracts below for those with limited time. You can read the whole piece here.)

Layla Talu never imagined that her neighbours would betray her. But when former friends from the villages surrounding her home in the Sinjar district of northern Iraq gave away her location, her family was forced to flee.

At 7 am on the morning of August 3, 2014, Layla, her husband, Marwan Khalil, and their two children, who were aged four and 18 months, left their home. Like tens of thousands of other Yazidis, they hoped to take shelter on Mount Sinjar.

But they never made it. Within a matter of hours, the Islamic State group had encircled the city of Sinjar and its surrounding villages. Layla’s family was captured on the road and taken with dozens of other Yazidis who had tried to escape.

The men were separated from the women and children…The women and children were beaten, insulted, threatened and starved…


“We were transported to Raqqa in large buses with hundreds of other Yazidi women,” Layla recalls. “The way they dealt with us was not different from the way you deal with sheep and animals; they did not even provide us with adequate food and drink. We slept on the floor, and we received three daily meals along with beatings by IS operatives.”

Layla spent 40 days with her two children in a prison, before being moved to an apartment in the Al-Nour neighbourhood of Raqqa. It was the home of a senior member of IS.

The man was a surgeon. He was in his 40s, and short, with green eyes, fair hair and a full face, Layla says.

“He was tying me and beating me hard with a whip because I refused to submit to his brutality, so he raped me,” she says.

He later sold her to another man. This man came from Mosul (Iraq), she says, and was in his 30s with dark skin and “black eyes”. “He raped me several times, and then he sold me for a profit.” …

After this, Layla was raped by a Saudi man, who she says would beat and strike her with a whip. When she became pregnant again, her pregnancy was again forcibly aborted.

During this time, Layla was living in a small house with her two children, cut off from the outside world and with no knowledge of what had happened to her husband and the rest of her family.

She says the next person she was passed on to was a 33-year-old Lebanese man who would rape her with the help of his Dutch wife. While she was with him, she says many other men also raped her…

Layla considers herself one of the “lucky” ones because she and her children survived…

Layla hopes to one day be able to give evidence to the authorities about what happened to her and other women and girls…



Al Jazeera provides a platform for Omar Alshogre to recount his time being tortured in a Syrian prison to winning a place at a prestigious American university.

(There are extracts below for those with limited time. You can read the whole piece here.


… When I was 15 years old, the Arab Spring shook dictatorships around the Middle East. I hurried out to join the crowds on the streets of Baniyas [for demcoarcy]. That was the first time I was thrown into a political prison. I was 15 years old and the Syrian regime viewed me as a threat.

I was held at a prison in Tartous, where I was tortured for a few days before my mother gathered the women in our area to blockade the main highway and put pressure on the regime to release me.

Those few days broke me physically and made me taste a kind of fear I had never felt before. I was tortured and had my fingernails pulled out. I was surrounded by dead bodies. I could not see the guards who tortured me because I was blindfolded. I imagined them in my head; to my 15-year-old self, they looked like zombies…

Then, in my last year of high school, when I was 17 years old, I was arrested again, along with three of my cousins – Bashir, 22, Rashad, 20, and Nour, 17. We were taken from our home and transferred between eight different political prisons so that no one would know where we were.

In August 2014, we were moved to what we called the “slaughterhouse” – Saydnaya prison, which brought a new level of pain and fear.

Our nails were pulled out; we were hung from the ceilings, electrocuted and mutilated. But the worst part was that we were forced to turn on each other. We had done nothing wrong so had nothing to inform on each other about. So, instead, they made us beat each other with belts and burn each other’s bodies with cigarettes.

Later, at Branch 215, a political prison in Damascus which we call the “branch of slow death”, Rashad died after months of torture on March 15, 2013. Bashir died a year later. I heard nothing about Nour, and I counted her dead too. I found myself alone in a place full of monsters, being tortured and waiting to die.


I grew up in prison. I witnessed the torture, starvation and dehumanisation that took place there. They are designed to implant fear and break people’s spirits so that, even once released, they will continue to suffer physically and mentally. Nightmares still haunt former detainees, including me. The psychological trauma that follows such systematic torture leaves a person isolated from society if they do not receive treatment.

Inside the prison, people sit in overcrowded cells, gasping for air and sunlight. The smell of death fills every corner and the screams of men, women and children echo in the hallways. Children as young as three were put in prison as punishment for their parents taking part in the peaceful protests in 2011.

You can never escape from it. The screams of my cousins, Bashir and Rashad, who both died under torture in front of my eyes, still ring in my ears today.

Many of the detainees in Syrian political prisons have been forcibly removed – or “disappeared” – from their families. Forced disappearance is used as a way to punish not only the political prisoners but their families as well, leaving them not knowing what has become of their loved ones.

In Assad’s Syria, families of detainees are refused any information about their whereabouts and wellbeing. It leads to years of uncertainty and pain.

At one point, the Syrian intelligence service told my mother I had died in prison. She grieved. My family held my funeral, without my body.

This has become the reality for so many in Syria. And it is part of the reason why so many people are fleeing for neighbouring countries and beyond. More than 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the start of the crisis.

[Tom Gross adds: Eventually his mother managed to gather $20,000 to bribe guards to smuggle him out, and he made his way to Turkey.]

Omar continues:

Together we made our way by rubber boat from Izmir to Greece and then on through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Denmark and, finally, after a month of travel, ending up in Sweden, where I was immediately hospitalised for tuberculosis and malnourishment. We sought asylum and were later moved to Stockholm, where we stayed with a Swedish foster family we had met at the hospital…

Now, aged 25, I wanted to fulfil my father’s dream for me to get a great education from a respected school. So I applied, and on October 24 this year, I received an email from Georgetown University granting me admission…


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.