After nearly three years in a basement cell of one of Bashar al-Assad’s most notorious prisons, Rasha Sharbaji never thought she would see her children or breathe fresh air again. At times the psychological torture was so bad she begged the guards to end her life.
Then, in a rare deal between the Syrian regime and the rebels, she was released last week along with more than 100 other women and children.
Speaking by telephone from an opposition-held area of Aleppo province, she told the Telegraph of the brutality of the regime’s jails and how most of the inmates are never even told what they are in for.
Mrs Sharbaji, from the Damascus suburb of Daraya, was arrested on May 22, 2014, when she went to the immigration and passport centre to get a passport.
The 34-year-old, who was seven months pregnant with twins at the time, believes she was detained along with her three children, Mohammed, eight, Muna, six, and Batoul, five, to put pressure on her husband Osama.
“He was an opponent of the government, a senior political officer in the Free Syrian Army, they wanted to get to him to hand himself in and thought this was a good way,” she said.
She and her children were taken to Damascus’s notorious al-Mezzeh prison, which was closed down by President Assad when he took power from his late father Hafez in 2000 but reopened again when the civil war broke out.
They stayed with her in a small cell with no light. She was given a prison number - 714 - and told her she was no longer to be known by her name.
“There was not enough food - just boiled potatoes and olives which had flies and insects in it,” she said. “The children ate only to survive, I couldn’t eat because of the stress.”
She tried to take their mind off their imprisonment by talking to them about cartoons they used to like and telling them stories about their grandparents.
“But when it got to winter it was too cold for the children, and eventually they took them away to an orphanage,” she said.
She was then forced to have a caesarean section in the military hospital known as Hospital 601.
A forensic photographer who worked at the hospital before defecting in 2013, known by his codename Caesar, smuggled images out of Syria showing rows of naked, emaciated corpses at the hospital with numbers written on their foreheads. Most bore signs of torture.
While Mrs Sharbaji was not physically harmed at the prison, or at Hospital 601, she said she was subjected to constant psychological torture.
“They threatened to throw the twins, Safa and Marwa, out of the window if I didn’t tell them where Osama was. They would not give me clothes for the babies, so they had only rags,” she said.
After the girls became malnourished and sick with diarrhea, they too were taken to the orphanage. And she was subsequently put in solitary confinement in the basement of the prison for the next few months.
“I cried for a week after they were taken from me,” she said. “I asked them to execute me, I thought it would be easier.”
She said she saw female inmates hit with cables and by hand. The prison guards would throw scolding hot water followed by freezing cold water on the women as a form of torture.
She saw one man electrocuted to death.
Even children as young as five were beaten and made to stand against a wall until they could no longer hold themselves up.
She was denied a trial and any contact with her family.
Prisoners are often tortured before they are executed inside Sednaya prison, according to Amnesty International
“I was held for two years, eight months and 15 days and never told why,” she said. “They just said that if they can’t get my husband then they’ll have me, they believed women were responsible for stopping their husbands joining the revolution.”
Tens of thousands of people have disappeared into Syria’s notorious prison system, most of whom never face trial.
As many as 8,500 women, including 300 girls under 16, are believed to currently being held in government jails. A report released last week by Amnesty International accused the government of executing as many as 13,000 people in mass hangings and the torture of 30,000 prisoners from 2011 to 2015 at Sednaya military jail near Damascus.
The testimonies provide some of the most damning evidence of the regime’s systematic use of torture in the six-year war.
Mrs Sharbaji was reunited with her husband and five children earlier this week, but says the older ones are traumatised and the twins do not recognise her.
“My own children do not know who I am, you cannot imagine what that feels like. My suffering has not ended with my freedom,” she said.
“My message to the international community is that they have a duty to condemn this criminal, who has tortured women, children and men, used chemical weapons against them, shelled their houses. Please put an end to this butcher.”