Hasan il-Nefi was raised by a modest rural family in Manbij city in the countryside of Aleppo. The city was a mix of rural and urban since many of its inhabitants came from large cities, while the rest were from rural areas. This created a society characterized by a mix of rural and urban traditions.
Hasan had been passionate about poetry and Arabic literature since childhood. He was able to make his dream come true by majoring in Arabic Language at the University of Aleppo in 1983, and he was a third-year student in 1985 when he published his first collection of poems titled “Obsessions and Longings”.
Hasan was also involved in political and cultural activity at the university. He says, “Our generation started to become politically conscious at a very serious point in Syrian history: the 1980s, a period that witnessed a wave of violence and bloody clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and the governing authority. However, the confrontations were not limited to the Muslim Brotherhood only, but also turned into civil disobedience in which many trade unions participated. That’s when the authority first bared its teeth and exercised the most brutal forms of violence against the people.”
The regime crushed the Muslim Brotherhood effectively in Aleppo and less effectively in Damascus and Idlib, and then began to comb all Syrian cities, one by one. Every day or two, the regime forces would besiege a city and search all its houses. “In March 1980, I was studying outdoors with my friends when the tanks surrounded the city of Manbij, and roadblocks were set up in the early morning,” says Hasan. “Luckily for me, our house was on the outskirts of town, and I was able to reach home despite some difficulty. On that day, about 100 people from Manbij were arrested on suspicion then released after about a week.”
In the post-1980s period, the situation worsened, and the authority started treating citizens in a completely different way amid the encroachment of security personnel. Moreover, existing employees were removed from all state institutions and replaced by the army and intelligence services, which effectively became the rulers of the country. "A phase of ‘mating’ between capital and power, which reached its peak during the rule of Bashar al-Assad, began as the interests of the upper class of traders and industrialists were associated with the ruling authority," says Hasan.
In such conditions, Hasan and many of his generation became convinced that the ruling regime was a monster that must be resisted. The only way to do so was by engaging with clandestine political organizations. As such, Hasan joined the National Command of the Ba’ath Party, which was based in Iraq. He continued his opposition activity until he was arrested in 1986 during his fourth year at university. "I was living in the university dorms when the security agents came to arrest me. I changed my clothes and was about to put on my shoes but they didn’t allow me to,
saying that I would be back in 15 minutes," he says. “However, those 15 minutes turned into 15 years in prison."
"The investigation began in the political security branch in As-Sulaymaniyah,” he says. “We were just numbers for the security agents, who practiced different forms of unbearable torture on us. Today, tens of years later, the signs of torture remain on my left foot."
After the investigation that lasted for about 40 days, Hasan was moved to Aleppo Central Prison, where he stayed for 5 years. He says that those years were easy because the prison is civilian, and its detainees are not beaten or tortured.
In 1991, a presidential pardon, the first of its kind to include political detainees from Hafez al-Assad's rule, was issued. "The pardon was a bargaining chip, whereby the security branch presented prisoners with a document specifying three conditions that they must agree to in order to be released. These conditions were: to announce withdrawal from their political parties; to declare remorse and condemnation of their past actions and political history; and to cooperate willingly with the security branches and provide them with information. I and 18 other detainees refused to sign the document, and therefore we were not released."
Hasan was moved to Adra Central Prison in the Damascus countryside and transferred to the State Security Court. The trial sessions lasted about two years. "I stayed at Adra prison for about four years, which we called ‘the golden phase’. We were allowed to receive visitors every 15 days as well as read books and listen to the radio,” he says. “I made good use of that period by reading regularly, which broadened my horizons and knowledge of ideology, history, literature, philosophy and other fields."
He adds, “In 1994, two sentences were issued against me, one of 15 years and the other of 8 years. The two sentences were merged, and the most severe of them was applied. In late 1995, three senior officers bargained with us to sign a security document in exchange for release. Some prisoners agreed to sign it, while others refused, depending on their personal situations and health status.”
Hasan was one of those who abstained from signing, and was transferred along with his friend to the Tadmor military prison. There were 8 prisoners from the Iraqi Ba’ath Party and 22 prisoners who were communists. “I spent the last six years in Tadmor prison, and it was the most difficult periods of my detention. The cruelty and torture exceeded human capacity, and one cannot imagine being able to resist and tolerate all of that. We were tortured and beaten daily, until we reached the point of psychological breakdown. Even sleeping was difficult, as we were forced to go to sleep on the ground at 6 pm and suffered from extreme cold and hunger due to lack of food."
Hasan was able to create and memorize poetry in his head. After his release, he was able to publish a collection of poems called "The Ash of the Years", the product of all the poems he had created throughout the years of imprisonment.
In late June 2001, Bashar al-Assad had newly assumed office in Syria. He ordered the evacuation of Tadmor prison and Mezzeh military prison, and the transfer of detainees to Saydnaya prison in the Damascus countryside. Hasan was among the last batch of prisoners who, on August 11, headed to Saydnaya prison, where he spent the last three months of his detention. He thinks of this period as a vacation before his release, due to the nature of the prison and the good treatment he received compared to his previous experience in Tadmor.
"I arrived in the city of Manbij at around 6 am. One question never left my mind during the ride from Damascus to Aleppo, and it was whether my mother was still alive,” he says. “My brother and his children greeted me, and while I was being introduced to his family, I moved through the rooms, my eyes were searching the corners of the house for my mother’s face that had never left me throughout the years of detention, but then they told me that she had died."
He adds, “In just one hour, neighbors and relatives came to congratulate me. I had to act nice and greet people politely, although a volcano had erupted in my heart when I found out about my mother's death. I apologized to the guests, saying that I needed to shower and get some rest. In fact, I went to the bathroom and cried more than I ever cried throughout those 15 years in prison, despite the oppression and physical and psychological torture we experienced."