“I am at peace with myself” says Firas Fayyad before describing the torture and imprisonment he endured by the Syrian regime.
In front of him, several students sit listening sharing looks of anguish, shock and respect. Firas recounts his story, never wavering once; he is at peace with his past and comfortably retells his story and memories in vivid detail.
“They start to hit you with a cable, like thick tree, they have electric things and rod and put them in your back and torture you. All the time they asking you, give me names, who has worked with you?, how many times you filming the demonstrations?, are you spy for France and America?, you are filming by the Photoshop. It’s like that.”
He says the Syrian prisons are a place you go to die or be tortured “You was arrived to die or tortured.”
Firas a Syrian born filmmaker and journalist spent eight months in prisons around Damascus in 2011 after filming a movie focusing on the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria.
His film called "On the Other Side," focused on an exiled Syrian poet living in the Czech Republic.
He was arrested upon boarding a plane from Damascus to Dubai for a film festival.
“When I arrived to Damascus airport, one of the secret police said give me your passport. He take my passport and take a look at me, at my names and my picture, for three seconds, I just know I’m finished.”
Firas was imprisoned in September of 2011, he spent the following seven months in seven different prisons. In each he was subjected to torture and interrogation.
“They hit me all the time, in the secret prison they put me underground, three floor underground and they put me without anything, naked and they get a big stake and start to hit me in my back.”
Having been imprisoned for one month by the Syrian secret police for filming demonstrations in March 2011, Firas knew what prison in Syria was like however the second time in September 2011 he said was much worse.
“The second time I’m arrested, I stay seven months, it was bad experience, I’m arrested because I finish my film, the secret police in the Syrian regime get the film and knows everything I do for that. So the torture was very bad and bad experience.”
Yet even in this place the filmmaker retained hope, he escaped the reality of the prison by creating a fictional old man to talk to in his prison cell or as he called it his “small house”.
“Sometimes when we go back to my prison, my small house, I called it small house I tried to thinking something good, and try to create story inside, so I create a man, old man, he have white hair colour, and we start to discuss, I told him about the cinemas, told him about my life.”
Eventually released on a presidential pardon, a decree granting a general amnesty for criminals and jihadists by the Bashar Al-Assad regime, Firas was released.
“With the jihadists I get out, with the jihadists. I’m a jihadist of the cinema” He jokes.
Upon release he immediately escaped to Jordan, his work and films had all but been destroyed by the Syrian government.
“I lose everything, all my cameras, computers, materials, all, everything so I get out with just my glasses.”
Whilst in prison his family had no knowledge of what had happened to him, his parents living in Syria and his wife living in Dubai knew only that he had disappeared.
“They didn’t know what’s happened with me just Firas is disappeared.”
Upon his release he immediately contacted his parents to tell them to disown him as he was scared they too would be targeted.
“I told my father, my brother and my sister that we didn’t know this man he is not from our family, I didn’t want the Assad regime to find any reason to catch my family and take them to the prison.”
Since his release Firas has continued to write films and report on the troubles of the people living in Syria.
His current film looks at children being exploited in Syria by extremist groups.
“It is about how Isis, and the extremists groups, and how they use the kids to be a part of the war. That’s our story now”
His memories and experiences of prison remain with him but Firas shows no anger to what he endured; he states that everyone in Syria is a victim of the Bashar Al-Assad regime.
Even when Firas saw his torturer on the opposite side of the road, one of the men who had tortured him in prison, he remained unaffected and calm.
“In street I meet a man who has tortured me, I didn’t care with him and so I walk.“
“Something in my hurt and my psychology said you should have peace inside your body and because the reason of all of this is one man Bashar Al-Assad. This torturer is one of that people who is like victim, same as me he is victim, but he is torturing me, it was normal, very normal for me I was surprised for myself.”
“It take a big big power to say I don’t want to call you, I don’t want to kill you, I don’t want to make your body like what you do to my body, to say that I forgive you.” He said
Firas now lives in Istanbul with his wife and his daughter Elona which means “green tree in old Syrian.”
Despite the worsening situation in Syria Firas still dreams that one day he will be able to return to his country Syria. A dream he says all Syrians share.
“That’s the dream of the Syrian to go back to their country and build again every step and every place in Syria without any dictator, with the dream of the democracy and let the people choose.”