When Pathik 'Tik' Root, a 21-year-old American college student, traveled to Syria to learn Arabic, little did he know that he would be spending weeks in a Syrian jail cell.
But that's what happened when he stumbled upon an anti-government protest in Damascus and was taken to be a CIA official by the Syrian police.
It all began innocently enough. Root was wondering around the Old City in Damascus, soaking up the scene. He decided to snap some pictures on his smartphone--and that's when the trouble began:
In an interview at the airport last night, Pathik Root explained how he was wandering around the Old City after Friday prayers ended on March 18 as hundreds of people began flooding out of mosques. He had just bought some chicken shwarma when he caught sight of some flags and heard chanting.
Then he made the fateful mistake of taking out his BlackBerry to take some pictures.
Seconds afterward, several plainclothes members of the secret police grabbed him, he said. One tried to drag him by his hair. He explained that he was an American, and the men threw him in the back of a Chevy Suburban.
When he showed his passport, it made things worse. The worldly young man, who studied politics and economics and has long been fascinated by the Middle East, had previously visited Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt, all of which had stamped his passport.
“I was saying, ‘I’m an American. What’s going on?’ ’’ he said.
They told him there was no problem, but then shoved his head down in the back seat. Five secret police officers crowded into the vehicle and drove him to a prison in Damascus. He never learned its name.
In the prison, Root describes his environs:
For his first week in custody, he was kept in a dank, tiny cell with one other man, a Syrian. They strip-searched him and took his shoelaces and the string from his hooded sweatshirt. He said the cell was about 3 feet by 7 feet and windowless. The only time he was allowed out, he said, was to go to the bathroom three times a day.
“They didn’t like it if you took very long,’’ he said.
Root said they slid his meals through a peep hole in the cell door. He ate only bread and potatoes for the 15 days he was in custody, and didn’t discover there was water until he asked for it on his third day. He said he was never allowed to shower.
But the worst part, he said, was hearing the screams. He said he was sure the prison was using electricity and clubs to torture the other prisoners. He said he met a man who was beaten for putting an X over a picture of President Bashar al-Assad’s face.
“I was not beaten, but I would say at least 75 percent of those in the prison were,’’ he said.
He said he slept on blankets on the floor of his cell and fought boredom by sleeping as much as possible, which wasn’t easy. “I would write stuff on the walls,’’ he said.
Root found out on Friday that he would be released, thanks in no small part to the lobbying efforts of his parents and the responsiveness of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Root, and his family, are from Vermont.
The Boston Globe details the understandable anxiety of Root's parents in the preceding weeks:
The parents of the 21-year-old Middlebury College junior from Ripton, Vt., who went to Syria to study Arabic, had no idea whether their son was alive. They spent the past two weeks making call after call to congressmen, senators, ambassadors — anyone who could help find their son and bring him home.
This weekend, after Syrian officials confirmed that Root was not a CIA agent, Root caught a flight from Damascus to London to Boston's Logan Airport, where he emotionally reunited with his family.