Mohamad Malek Daghstani is from the village of Deir Ful in the Homs countryside and is of Daghstani origin. He grew up in Jouret al-Shayah and al-Khalidiya neighborhoods in Homs.
Malek obtained his high school diploma in 1977. At that point, along with with three of his Palestinian friends, he began to engage in politics, especially relating to the Palestinian cause.
Malek enrolled in the Faculty of Economics at Damascus University. At that time, he began to feel that he was unable to carry on with his Palestinian political activities because of the nature of the politics and the work of Palestinian parties under the regime’s authority. So, he quit working for the Palestinian cause in 1980.
While attending university, Malek worked as a computer programmer at Syrianet. He was one of the first to go into that technical field. He also got married to his colleague at the university during his senior year. After graduation, he did compulsory military service and started to show interest in an opposing political party called the “Communist Labor Party”, which was described as a dangerous and banned secret organization.
Malek completed his military service in 1985 and returned to work at Syrianet, Homs branch. He began to feel uncomfortable within the party’s strict organizational ranks and became convinced that he would be more useful working outside the scope of political parties. As such, he resigned from the party but remained on good terms with his former colleagues.
In 1987, the Syrian regime decided to end the Communist Labor Party’s activity through a campaign against thousands of Syrian leftists and intellectuals. Malek did not feel worried since he had resigned about two years previously. He thought that perhaps he would be interrogated or detained for a few days at worst, and, indeed, that’s what happened. He was arrested by the military security branch in Homs upon the request of the Palestine Branch in Damascus.
“I was under arrest in Homs for three days, after which I was transferred to Damascus barefoot due to the severity of the torture I underwent," says Malek. “I got to know all forms of torture: electricity, the wheel, pulling fingernails ... but most of all, I learned how cheap the life of Syrians is to the security branches. The abuse is deadly, and what keeps you alive is pure chance.”
As he moved to the Palestine Branch in Damascus, Malek was horrified. After being convinced that he was in a human slaughterhouse, he found out that investigative techniques in that branch were smarter and more intense than that. He learned that psychological torture was more severe than physical torture.
Malek's cell was a small room without a bathroom or a toilet. It contained 56 detainees who were forced to live with nauseating odors because they were rarely allowed to shower.
“At that time, there were no sectarian considerations in Syria. Only the Syrian character was dominant among all groups of society,” says Malek. “For instance, the Alawites constituted about 50 percent of the detainees in the branch, in addition to the Ismailis, Druze, Christians and Kurds.”
Malek was detained in the Palestine Branch for five months, then transferred to the Military Investigation Branch concerned with the distribution of detainees in prisons. Malek and his companions were sent to Saydnaya prison in the Damascus countryside, which had recently been opened and was known to be less severe than Tadmor military prison.
“The situation was fairly comfortable in Saydnaya prison. All that detainees had to do was respect the prison rules,” says Malek. “The punishment method was funny, and involved the assignment of Communist detainees to cells containing members of the Muslim Brotherhood or vice versa. In addition, there was a punishment called “the black door”, which involved isolation.
Three years later, Malek’s family visited him for the first time. He saw his eldest daughter, who was then seven years old. He also got to meet his youngest daughter, whom he had left when she was four months old.
In 1993, during his detention, Malek wrote his first novel, "The Freedom Roundabout," which was edited and published in 2002. He also wrote another novel, which was not published due to the refusal of the regulating authorities. Malek also tried to take advantage his prison term as much as possible by learning English from his friends and reading many books. He also experienced good times with his colleagues, who invented musical instruments and staged plays from whatever material was available to them.
His sentence ended eight years later. As was the practice, Malek was transferred to the Palestine branch since it was the branch responsible for releasing detainees. He stayed there for five and a half months, during which time one of his friends died of tuberculosis.
Malek and his friends were released in 1996 to find themselves facing the outside world for the first time. One of the guards noticed how confused they were and showed them the way.
"I went to a relative’s house,” says Malek. “I called home, and my youngest daughter answered. When I told her who I was, she screamed and rushed to tell the neighbors' daughter that she, too, had a father.”
Malek had trouble finding a job because he had been stripped of his civil rights, and wasn’t allowed to work for the state. In addition, employers had a fear of employing a former detainee, so he had to opt for self-employment.
Malek wrote for several newspapers and websites. He also worked as a reporter for Time Magazine for which he conducted several non-political investigations.
He says, “What I suffered from the most was returning to a normal life as well as the constant security surveillance and repeated summons to security branches, which I never responded to.”