Michel Kilo, 72, is a self-exiled Syrian Christian writer and human rights activist who was first imprisoned for a few months by Hafez Assad in the 1970s before moving to France. He came back to Syria in 1991. Under Bashar al-Assad, he served a three-year prison term ending in May 2009 for signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration. He penned this piece in Arabic for today’s edition of Saudi Asharq Alawsat:
He always sat in a corner inside our prison’s sleeping quarters.
He consistently kept his hands and fingers occupied with his masbaha, or string of worry beads.
He had the hem of his jellabiya at all times tied around his waist, showing his spotless white sherwal pants.
His long dark beard covered his mouth and neck.
The first time I saw him, I thought he was a “terrorist cell” member captured in one or another of Hama’s alleyways.
A fellow-inmate told me he belonged to my crowd, which made me wonder if he had any leftist leanings.
“What’s wrong with you, man?” my fellow-inmate retorted. “I told you he was one of yours, and you tell me leftist and rightist. He is one of yours. He is a Christian, like you.”
I coined him a nickname that from thereon became time-honored in our prison sleeping quarters: “Sheikh Abulhuda Elias.”
Abulhuda was a second lieutenant in a tank brigade deployed to the battlefront’s northern sector.
During the war, he fought like Antarah ibn Shaddad or Al-Zeer Salim, valiantly leading his small tank formation to the heat and heart of battle.
He went on to breach the enemy’s defense lines and reach a vintage point on the Golan Heights overlooking Lake Tiberias.
He yelled for hours on his wireless, calling for reinforcements to continue his unit’s advance. His appeals fell on deaf ears.
Hours later, he learned that the army’s main fighting force had been crushed and the Israelis had drilled through the Syrian frontline and reached the township of Khan Arnabeh (near Quneitra).
He started cursing and talking of treason.
After the war, the army honored Elias Hanna, awarding him several valor medals. He got the privilege of standing next to his idol, Hafez Assad, and being introduced on state-TV as a national hero.
Shortly after that, a security officer wrote a report saying the man had cursed the leadership, accusing it of treason.
He was promptly arrested and handed over to Military Intelligence in Damascus.
After month-long investigations, he was referred to a military tribunal on charges of dereliction of duty, cowardice and insubordination in wartime.
He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years.
I remember seeing him once in the prison’s communal shower room with burn marks on his back and thighs despite having already spent seven years in Mezzeh Prison.
Abulhuda was about to get married when he was first arrested.
Five years into his prison term without knowing when and if he would ever be set free, he tried to convince his fiancée to break off their engagement.
The girl refused, telling him she would wait for his release until the end of her life, thereby increasing his sense of helplessness, agony and despair.
The 10 years expired. But Abulhuda was not let out of prison. His incarceration was extended a further five years, during which he kept trying to talk his fiancée into breaking off their engagement, but to no avail.
Finally, he was released from jail at the age of 46.
The girl’s widowed father entreated him: “Live in my home in case you wish to marry my daughter. Otherwise, leave her so she can care for me. I have no one else to look after me in what remains of my life. My elder daughter is married and lives with her husband in a remote city.”
Abulhuda chose to marry and live in his father-in-law’s village home, where he fathered two sons.
Gradually, he built a thriving farm raising cattle and horses.
His success became the envy of farmers in nearby villages, including adjoining villages at Lebanon’s doorstep.
Last November, almost a year ago, security forces entered Abulhuda’s village, stormed his farm, destroyed its barns and killed the cattle and horses before executing his two sons for standing in their way and trying to save the livestock.
The security forces then put to death Abulhuda and his wife after he had come out to challenge them with a rifle.
The following day, Syrian state-TV announced the killing of “the fundamentalist leader of a terrorist organization” in the suburbs of al-Qusayr.
As “evidence” confirming the leader’s belonging to al-Qaeda, state-TV screened footage of a dead man lying on the ground with his long white beard covering his mouth and neck.