PALMYRA

In this excerpt from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War I describe how my husband almost ended up in an underground prison in Palmyra, never to be seen again.

After two calm weeks in the company of family and friends, Michel was preparing to return to us in Madison, WI. On his way to Lebanon he had flown Chicago-New York-Frankfort-Beirut. When he re-confirmed his return flight the travel agent in Beirut suggested he change his ticket to take a faster, easier flight via Damascus-Frankfort-Chicago. Michel agreed. The idea of a better connection and time economized overrode the common sense decision to stay out of Syria. His brother Raymond volunteered to accompany him to Damascus the following afternoon, a three hour drive from Beirut.

When Michel and his brother arrived at the Masnaa border crossing, Raymond told Michel to wait in the car while he presented their permits to the border guard. Moments later the office door swung open, smacking furiously in the mortar siding. An officer pushed Raymond out the door. Michel watched in horror. Before he could react, the soldier flung open the car door and pulled him out by his shoulders.

“Your Syrian papers,” he yelled. “Hand them over.”

Michel was so scared he couldn’t remember where he had packed his documents. When he finally found them, the solder took a minute to examine them before ordering him inside.

“You’re under arrest as a deserter from the Syrian Army,” he shouted.
Michel tried to explain that there had been a mistake; he had papers to prove his innocence. A simple telephone call to Lattakia could clear everything up.

Raymond said he would drive there to fetch the papers. When the soldier heard this, he snatched Raymond’s car registration out of his hand. Without that document Raymond could not legally drive in Syria. Then the soldier grabbed Michel by the arm and led him to a cell.

“I’ll get to Lattakia somehow,” he whispered in English. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you out.”

A mile past the border crossing Raymond saw a soldier hitchhiking. He stopped and picked him up, reasoning that with a soldier in his car he would not be stopped at one of the multiple security checks along his route. At around four in the morning, when Raymond ran out of gas a miracle happened. A taxi driver saw the soldier in his car and stopped. He siphoned gas from his car to Raymond’s and six hours later with the soldier still at his side, he arrived in Lattakia.

He went directly to his office to retrieve the papers. When he discovered that he didn’t have the keys to his file cabinet, he hired a local thug to break it open. With papers in hand Raymond went to see a General he knew who in turn called the Commandant of the Military Prison in Damascus. He assured him that Michel’s papers were indeed in order. The General in Lattakia knew that Michel would automatically be transferred to Damascus from the border jail, a routine procedure for anyone detained at a border crossing. He requested that the Commandant keep Michel in Damascus until his brother could return with the documents, to which he agreed. Before leaving Lattakia, Raymond called his cousin Gisele who was visiting her parents in Damascus, gave her the number of the official document, and asked her to go to the Commandant’s office with the information while he was in route.

Meanwhile back in Masnaa Michel had spent a sleepless night on a narrow bench in a windowless cell. A hole in the ground served has toilet; he was given neither food nor water. The next morning a guard approached his cell. He introduced himself and said he, too, was from Lattakia. He warned Michel that he was going to be transferred to Damascus and on to the underground prison in Palmyra. Then, glancing to either side to make sure no one was looking, he pressed his face between the bars and whispered, “Is there someone I can call for you? Once you leave here no one will know where you are.”

Michel gave the guard Gisele’s name and her parents’ number in Damascus. Because the arresting officer had not taken his personal belongings, he gave what money he had in his pocket to the guard, a small payment for his kindness and for saving his life.

Looking out a small window in the detention room where he was being held in Damascus pending his transfer to Palmyra, he caught a glimpse of Gisele as she walked past. Minutes later he was ushered into the Commandant’s office where she was seated. She reassured him that Raymond was on his way with the papers.

“So,” said the Commandant, “you’re a physician.”

And the Commandant took that as license to recount his personal medical history. When word got out that Michel was also living in the states, six guards crowded into the room and peppered him with questions. Michel assumed their queries would also be medical but they were more interested in life outside Syria. How were blacks treated in the states? Were jobs easy to find. Could people live anywhere they wanted? Did Israel really tell the US what to do?

“We even heard that they bought off the entire American government,” one said.

“Only Congress,” laughed Michel.

Since he knew he was about to be free, he had a question of his own to ask.
“What would have happened to me if I hadn’t been able to prove my military exemption?”

The guards exchanged nervous glances; they were forbidden to speak of such things. Finally, one said:
“You would have been loaded into a windowless van and taken to the underground prison in Palmyra. No one would have ever known where you were. You would have died there because no one leaves Palmyra alive.”

This book is available for purchase here.

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