Dorothy Parvaz is a journalist with Al Jazeera. While on assignment for the Qatari network, she was arrested by Syrian security forces in Damascus and detained for three days. A Canadian, American, and Iranian citizen, Parvaz was deported to Iran, where she was kept in a detention facility near Evin Prison for about two weeks. On May 18, she was finally allowed to board a flight back to Qatar, and, eventually, Canada. Parvaz recently spoke with Maclean’s about her ordeal. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.
Q: What happened when you first arrived at Damascus International Airport on April 29?
A: I passed immigration, they stamped my passport, and then at customs is where I encountered difficulty. They found satellite equipment, did a strip search, and found my American passport in my pocket. They later flipped through, and found my Al Jazeera sponsor visa. It said in Arabic that I’m a journalist and that I work for Al Jazeera.
Q: When you got the assignment to cover the unrest in Syria, were you thinking there was a chance you might end up spending some time in jail?
A: It’s always a possibility, right? I wasn’t sure. Other journalists had been detained, and it’s unclear exactly why they had been detained. I guess I was surprised they would take a journalist and detain me there, in that detention centre–and then let me go. I don’t know what they thought, maybe that what I saw would intimidate me.
Q: Do you think your jailers might have been wanting to send some sort of message, to intimidate other reporters?
A: Yes, definitely. These are the actions of a government or a system that’s trying to intimidate and terrify people into silence.
Q: You has described your cellmates as young, terrified kids who didn’t seem old enough to pose a serious threat to the regime. Did it all seem random and unpredictable inside the prison?
A: What they’re doing makes sense if you look at what appears to be the objective, and that is to silence. If they just round up anybody, if they just detain anybody, if they beat up anybody, if they kill anybody, that sends a very clear message to the population: that no one is safe. ‘We don’t care if you’re an activist, we don’t care if you’re not an activist. If you know an activist, you better turn them in.’
That [boy] I saw, handcuffed to the radiator, holding a pen, I can’t even begin to imagine what they were expecting that kid to write. He was shaking so hard. Nobody I saw being escorted in handcuffs or beaten, none of them seemed older than twenty.
Q: During your captivity you were spending your days listening to people being tortured. How did you manage to keep your sanity?
A: The only way I could do it is to be a journalist—try and record information with the hope of being able to report it later. That’s the only way—just constantly looking around, being alert, trying to remember details, going over and over things that I observed in my head to make sure I don’t forget any detail. If I had thought of myself just as the average person in that situation, I think I would have really flipped out, and maybe said some unwise things to my interrogator.
Q: I imagine you didn’t allow yourself to think of your family.
A: Somewhat. In Syria, I was only there for three days. I felt like I had other, more immediate concerns. Job one was to get out of there, as soon as I could. In Iran, I had far more time, and of course far more time had elapsed, so I knew that more and more people were aware that I had gone missing. And they knew I had gone to Syria, so they were thinking I was still missing over there. I knew that my family would be far more worried about me in Syria than Iran, for no other reason than I speak Farsi fluently, and I have an understanding of the culture. I was extraordinarily worried that my family would be panicking, my employer would be panicking, my friends and colleagues would be panicking–and of course they were.
Q: After the Syrian government handed you to the Iranians, you said you were worried that your family would think you were still in Damascus. But with three passports, and so many friends and colleagues all over the world, did you have a hope, or a sense that people had been mobilized to get you out of jail?
A: One has hope, but the reality is that when you’re in that situation, you feel like you’ve fallen into this metaphysical rabbit hole—it’s like you have stopped existing. The Iranian authorities said that, by law, they were not allowed to contact my family until they had decided whether they were going to charge me [with spying]. My biggest fear actually—after being killed—was that they would tell my family: “Look, we didn’t have any problem with her. She left the airport, she didn’t check into her hotel? Sorry.” I thought they would be cruel enough to do that to my family. I read what happened with that photographer in Libya, whose family was told he was alive and well, and with the pro-Ghaddafi forces. And then it turns out he’d been dead for some time. Some of these tactics are cruel, and I hoped, hoped that they weren’t doing that at the very least.
Q: You also wrote that you needed sleeping pills in order to be able to sleep while in jail in Iran. How are you doing now?
A: I’m OK. But, it’s hard for me not to think about things. I think about what happened to that 13-year-old [Hamza al-Khateeb], I think about what this child must have suffered before he died, and that is unfathomable to me. And then I think about the screams I heard. [The kids I saw in the Syrian jail] must have been a bit older, but they sounded like teenagers. I think of those screams. I flash back to certain moments, like my interrogator—he was this affable, pudgy guy—he’s asking questions, he doesn’t like what I’m saying, and he says: ‘Say something logical.’ Those were his actual words to me. You could hear people screaming outside and this man is asking me for logic? What do you say to him?
Q: Is that the worst part—dealing with the torturers and interrogators?
A: For them this is so normal. At one point, when I was outside—they had me up against the wall, blindfolded and in handcuffs, and I’m hearing these prisoners having God knows what done to them and screaming like I’ve never heard anyone scream—off to one side of me, the guards were cracking jokes, and laughing. Almost all of these men, anyone I dealt with, would show me pictures of their children. The guy who handed me over to the Iranians and watched me kicking and screaming myself hoarse, trying to get off the plane would show me pictures of his children on his mobile at the airport. The only words he said he knew how to speak in English were “I love you,” which he kept saying to me over and over again. This is just another day at the office for them.
Q: When did you learn you were finally being sent home?
A: At ten or eleven o’clock at night–something late like that. My interrogator said: ‘you’re going home, and we’re sending you off with boxes of candy.’
Q: Boxes of candy?
A: Correct. I was born in Esfahan, where they make this delicious, nuggety stuff called gaz. And during the course of the interrogation, I told my interrogator that when I travel there, I really enjoy eating that. So he told the agents who took me back to the airport to get some gaz for me. This is typically Iranian: “Sorry for the detention, here’s some candy.” I had three boxes of gaz.
Q: You first flew back to Qatar, where you were based working for Al Jazeera, and then to Canada. How did it feel to land in Doha?
A: It felt great, but I felt like I had blown my own deadline by two weeks. Because for two weeks I was in [detention] and I had no pen, I had no cellphone, I had no laptop. I really wanted to file this story as soon as possible. I just felt like I owed it to those people who were locked up.
Believe or not, until I set foot in Syria I was [thinking]: ‘Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem.” But the response of this government to little me—unarmed, five-foot-five, hardly a big threat—told me a lot. Let alone how they’re treating their own people, which is what I really hope nobody looks away from. And as grim and horrible as these stories are that are coming out of Syria, I’m encouraged to see that they’re still coming out somehow. Somehow, someone is reporting, and someone has the courage to still be there.
Q: And how did it feel to be flying home to Canada?
A: I could not wait to come home and see my family. I knew the toll [all this] had taken on them. I knew that for my parents and my fiancé and my friends and my colleagues it had been tough. After landing in Qatar, I had called them to let them know I was okay. But until your family lays eyes on you, they have this uneasy feeling. I can’t even begin to imagine, by the way, what the Syrian families are going through. My family is no different than a Syrian family, except I’m very fortunate. I got out.
Q: Once you were back in Vancouver, what did it feel like for the first few days?
A: Like a dream, an absolute dream. Even flying out, you’re on this commercial airplane, and you’re being treated nicely by the staff, and you’re sitting there thinking: ‘Less than 24 hours ago I was in a prison uniform. But, yes, I’d like another cup of coffee, please.’