Months after she was released from a harrowing detention, Dorothy Parvaz can still hear the screams of young men being savagely beaten by their captors.
The sounds were torturous to listen to, but the B.C. journalist doesn’t want to forget them.
“I think a person ought to remember something like that,” says the 40-year-old Canadian who went missing for 19 days after arriving in Syria in May to report on the country’s civilian uprisings for Al-Jazeera English.
Ms. Parvaz spent three days in a Syrian detention centre where she was kept in cramped, dirty conditions, subjected to multiple verbally abusive interrogations and made to listen to male inmates being tortured around her.
She was then transferred to Iran in an extradition of sorts – she was born in Tehran and also holds an Iranian passport – where she was imprisoned in far better conditions for 16 days as her case went through the judicial system.
“It was 19 days of unpleasantness but the worst of it was probably in Syria,” says Ms. Parvaz. “In Iran I was primarily worried about myself and my family. But in Syria, I was confronted very much so with the severe inhumanity being foisted upon the Syrian people.”
Ms. Parvaz struggles to fathom just why so many Syrians were subjected to brutal treatment instead of being processed through a fair judicial system.
She shared one cell with a young woman who had designer stilettos – not the best footwear for civil disobedience – who told Ms. Parvaz she had been grabbed by authorities while talking on her cellphone in a street. Another cell-mate, a distraught teenager, told Ms. Parvaz she hadn’t been able to contact her parents since being brought in.
Ms. Parvaz didn’t share any of her three cells with men, but says they were abused the most.
“Why beat them like that? Why punish them like that? Why extract blood and screams from them like that,” she asked, adding that her captors seemed almost nonchalant about the suffering they were inflicting.
“The thing that made me shake, shake, shake and just completely threw my mind into a tizzy; this to them was normal.”
Ms. Parvaz’s loved ones and co-workers had no idea where she was while she was being detained. They mounted an extensive social media campaign engaging politicians and human rights groups in multiple countries to press for her release.
“It was an experience that sort of exposed me to both the cruelty and the grace of humanity in a big way. Obviously the cruelty when I was away and the grace when I came back and saw just how kind people were,” she says.
“I would hope that they showed the same level of attention to the stories that are still coming out of that region.”
When Ms. Parvaz was released and returned to Doha, Qatar, her reporting base for Al-Jazeera, one of the first things she did after calling her loved ones was to write about her experience.
“It was the number one thing I felt I had to do before I could even think of breathing normally,” she says. “I felt like I had blown my deadline by 19 days to be precise, it was making me crazy.
Fewer than 24 hours after she put her account into words, Ms. Parvaz was on a flight to Vancouver to meet her family and fiancée.
“I so desperately needed that,” she says. “I went from being a full-on prisoner in Iran, in my prison uniform and blindfolds and being interrogated and the works, to landing in Vancouver. It was extraordinarily surreal.”
While fragments of her ordeal remain with her, Ms. Parvaz says she copes with the harrowing experience by running more, keeping busy and staying focused on her work, which she returned to after nearly a month in Canada.
“What else can you do?” she says. “Don’t take whatever liberties you feel you have for granted, because they can be taken away from you at the drop of hat. ... It’s nothing quite like being locked in a room to drive that home.”
The Canadian Press