01/31/2012 12:03 EST | Updated 04/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Syrian Dissidents: "One Day in Prison is Like a Year"

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The regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has been struggling mightily to portray Syrian Christians as staunch supporters of the government. But facts tell a different story. All Syrians, including Christians, are the victims of widespread repressive and intimidation by the Syrian regime.

Hadeel Kouki, for example, is a 20-year-old Syrian Christian who was brutally tortured in prison for distributing leaflets calling on Syrians to march peacefully in the name of freedom. As a student at the University of Aleppo, she was working to build a country not ruled by fear and secret police. First detained on March 10, 2011, she was arrested several more times and spent no fewer than 52 days behind bars.

When military intelligence agents summoned Hadeel, intending to arrest her for her role in providing medical aid to injured protesters, she decided to hide with nomads in the desert. She was eventually smuggled into Turkey by the Free Syrian Army, a group of defectors and officers that sided with the Syrian people against the regime.

"When I hid amongst the nomads, it was freezing cold, like hell," Hadeel told me. "It was in December, and there was no hot water or heat. I was so scared by the unknown future."

At the same time, the Assad regime was launching a public relations campaign to show his support for minorities in Syria. They set up a huge Christmas tree in the heart of Damascus to be seen as a protecter of Christians and to play on Western gullibility. Tens of people were huddled under this tree enjoying heat and Christmas carols while Hadel's soft skin was lashed by the the frigid cold. Instead of carols, she heard wolfs howling in the desert.

It reminded her of the legend of Jesus' birth when he was hidden in the cold night for fear of being killed by Herod.

On December 20, she finally escaped to Turkey. "I put a hijab on my head so as not to look suspicious. Then a car approached with members of the Free Syrian Army. They were like angels from heaven. They smiled widely and put us in the car and smuggled us out of hell. It was the first time I felt the army was there to protect me."

Throughout it all, Hadeel kept her sense of humour. She wrote on Facebook even before leaving Syria that she had arrived in Sweden, so the security forces would stop harassing her family about her whereabouts. Her online status read, "I passed the train station I should have gotten off at and the train is taking me somewhere unknown." I learned recently from Hadeel that she was never on the train in Sweden but rather was lost in the Syrian desert. "We did not know the right direction, so it was a coded message to my family and friends," she said.

Eventually, Hadeel traveled from Turkey to France to Sweden -- for real this time. She worked to help the Syrian opposition and now lives in Egypt. She is one of the most active Syrian cyberdissidents working to help the Syrian people against the regime. Even in Egypt she is under great pressure from sympathizers of Bashar Al Assad.

I asked Hadeel what drove her activism:

"I want freedom," she said simply. "I have seen too much suffering of Syrians who spent years in prison merely for expressing a thoughts. Syrians deserve to live in freedom. The alternative of this regime would not be an Islamic state. Syria is different from the other Arab countries. We have blocks of religious and ethnic minorities and Sunni Syrians are more open-minded and used to this diversity. All of my friends are Sunni and they are very secular and calling for a civilian state where all people are equal."

Hadeel explained that Assad is playing the sectarian card. Allawite dissidents such as Hanadi Zahlout, a woman jailed for months, and Ali Nazir Ali agreed. They say that Syria post-Assad might not be a utopia, but it also won't be a dystopia.

I identify with Hadeel's saga, and so many others, as I had a similar experience escaping Syria five years ago to the U.S. I was jailed for political activism in Syria and simply hope to see my homeland free of dictatorship. Young activists like Hadeel are forced to become more mature quickly due to their grave experiences. As a Syrian proverb says, "One day in prison is like a year."