This story originally appeared in the Prison Issue of VICE magazine.
The smell of Deep Heat filled the air inside the TV room of the Adana detention center in southern Turkey. Next to me an Afghan refugee rubbed the pain relief gel into the arm of a Chechen. The Chechen, rumored to be an Islamic State (IS) fighter who'd been caught at the Syrian border, had three bullethole-shaped scars and a surgical incision mark in his pale skin.
Sat around this small, sweaty room were refugees from Cameroon, Iran, Syria, Palestine, and Afghanistan. We shared cigarettes and drank tea as Turkey vs. Lithuania played on the TV. The refugees would boo and hiss every time Turkey took a shot on goal. None of them wanted Turkey to win. I too was rooting for Lithuania. I wasn't at the detention center as an observer, but as an inmate.
I was there waiting to be processed for deportation back to the UK, with my friend and colleague Phil Pendlebury. Prior to this, we'd spent the last eight days locked up in squalid solitary holding cells, and in two hellish "F Type" maximum-security prisons. This was all the result of being arrested on August 27 in Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey — 345 miles away from Adana.
In the southeast, an outbreak of separatist-related violence between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish state has been spiraling out of control since July. Hundreds of policemen and soldiers have been killed by the PKK since the fighting broke out, and Turkey has launched air strikes on PKK positions, claiming to have killed thousands of militants (numbers likely exaggerated).
Phil, myself, and our colleague, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, were in Turkey to cover the conflict. With a tense political situation and worsening bloodshed, journalists are becoming less welcome in the country by the day.
We discovered this on the night of our arrest, when we were charged, bizarrely, with assisting IS and plotting to blow up a police station. The charges, contradictory and false, changed several times as the investigation went on. No evidence was put to us whatsoever that could possibly support any of them. They were ridiculous, and aimed at silencing and discrediting our journalism. What's most distressing though, is that our friend Rasool still remains behind bars in a Turkish prison.
Phil, Rasool and I were friends beforehand, but after spending eight arduous days together in the Turkish prison system, we bonded deeply. We'd been constantly pushed around by angry nationalist policemen (one of whom threatened to shoot us), handcuffed for seven hours in the back of a sweltering military vehicle without water, and slept on filthy mattresses and concrete floors. Despite all of this, we'd managed to hold it together well by finding support in each other.
So when a prison guard told Phil and I that we were free, it was all the more heartbreaking that we had to leave Rasool behind. We wrapped our arms around him and promised we'd fight for him on the outside. His face was blank — completely shocked. He just nodded and said, "Get me out of here guys." Within 30 seconds we were rushed out of the cell.
Being white and Western, with British passports, both Phil and I were released from the F Type early. Unlike us, Rasool, as a Kurdish Iraqi, had no powerful government going to bat for him behind the scenes. So, Phil and I were taken to the Adana detention center, where for three days we lived among imprisoned refugees, former Syrian rebels, and alleged IS members. Upon arrival, we had no idea how long we would be staying or why we were there. We'd been out of prison maybe 30 minutes before we were driven there by two silent policemen.
The other inmates stopped and stared at us as we were pushed through the iron gates at the entrance of the wing. We were a wreck. Our shirts were stiff with dirt. We hadn't had a proper wash for over a week, we'd slept on concrete floors, and I'd lost a stone in weight. We were, again, the only two Westerners in the whole facility, which housed around 100 people. In the F Type prison there had been no mixing of the general population due to the maximum-security status. Now though, we were in with everyone else. "Now we're really fucked," I said to Phil. "Yep," he replied, fake-smiling and nodding at everyone.
We made our way down the wing, which consisted of one narrow 20-foot corridor with six rooms to each side. At the end of the corridor was a communal shower and toilet room. To the right of this was the TV room. Conditions here weren't great, but compared to the prisons we'd just been in, it was like the Ritz.
A stout Iranian guy in his early 50s, with a grey goatee and a few broken teeth, greeted us in basic English. "Hello," he grinned. "Don't worry. Come with me." The Iranian explained where we were. The other "inmates" were, for the most part, actually just refugees who'd been caught by the Turkish authorities and put into the detention center.
According to UNHCR, over 1.7 million refugees reside in Turkey, making it the largest refugee-hosting country in the world. The people in Adana had made their way across the country's borders too. In the detention center now, they have no idea when they're getting out. Most have been here for months. "It's OK. This is not prison," added the Iranian, who'd been in detention for 41 days. There were bars at the windows and padlocks on the gates. It was a kind of prison — a prison for refugees.
We figured we were going to be deported sooner or later after we saw ourselves on Al Jazeera in the wing's TV room. The news of our release from prison splashed across the TV with pictures of me and Phil. We were sat with a 22-year-old Afghan refugee named Ali. He burst out laughing. By this point any fears we had of getting lynched in the showers had all but gone. People welcomed us. They gave us sachets of granulated coffee, which we treasured like liquid gold after a week on a bread and water prison diet.
Ali helped us settle in. He seemed to be the wing's tough guy. He wore a vest at all times and followed a strict fitness regime of press-ups and star jumps every morning after prayer. People were constantly calling his name to sort out minor disputes or dish out the meals at dinnertime. Ali arranged a bunk bed for us in his room. We shared the room with two guys in their 20s, Heli from Palestine and Super from Afghanistan, and the Iranian.
Heli took an immediate shine to us. He was almost always smiling — a smile that was crooked due to a deep scar in his top lip. His body was littered with old wounds, most of which were the result of a bomb blast in Gaza last summer, which killed his mother, father and six sisters, he said. The scars starting at his wrists and leading up his arm were different though. He'd been cutting himself out of desperation.
"I started cutting myself to get service," he said. "Service" being some, any, form of attention from the guards. The only way to get hold of them was to bang the padlock of the iron gates until someone came, which often took ages. After six months in the detention center, Heli was particularly distressed because he hadn't heard from his pregnant wife or their young daughter. "I called, but the number doesn't go through. Now the guards won't give me any more phone calls."
Despite his constant grin, Heli had a deep sadness about him. He pointed out the window that evening as we watched the sunset, poking his hands through the bars to make an aeroplane taking-off gesture. "Soon, you will go back to England. Me, I've been here for so long. I need to go, but no chance Adana, no chance."
Then he popped open a packet of crisps and poured a glass of Pepsi for us to share. After being forced to drink warm, strongly chlorinated water from the F Type's dodgy tap during one particularly grim night, this impromptu snack was an act of kindness I could never repay or explain to Heli.
That night Ali ran in and out of our room for hours. The light would flick on and off. The door slammed. He'd rush out. Rush back in. I asked Super what was happening. Super spoke perfect English and helped us all communicate.
"Ali caught someone cutting their wrists in the toilets. I don't know, I think he was depressed. It's one of the Somalian guys." The next day at breakfast the guy sat next to me. He looked as if life was slowly draining out of him. A blood-soaked strip of bed sheet, administered by Ali, was bound around his left wrist. He wasn't taken to hospital and the guards were unaware he'd cut himself. The boy was 20 and had been detained for four months. Desperate acts like this were a regular occurrence inside the detention center.
We'd sit for hours with the guys, talking among ourselves in varying levels of broken English and sequential translations. They'd ask us questions about the West — usually about the women. We'd explain to them the best we could and ask them about their journeys, families and lives before Adana. They became our friends.
On our last night inside the Adana detention center Heli took us into a room up the hall. A group of Syrian refugees had invited us to join them. They were singing anti Assad songs, dancing, and pouring us ridiculously strong cups of coffee. They were in good spirits, all claiming to be former fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo.
Phil and I were leaving in a few hours. Our deportation flight was booked for 3am. We celebrated with Heli and the Syrians, singing along with them, laughing, and joking. The noise could be heard throughout the whole wing. People popped their heads in to say hello and sing along too. Then the extremists arrived.
"I am mujahideen!" yelled an overweight guy from Tajikistan, who had, characteristically for an extremist, come to ruin the fun. "Children are being killed in Syria, I came to fight. I am mujahideen!"
An argument broke out between the admitted jihadis — who the Iranian and many others told us were IS fighters who'd been picked up at the Syrian border — and the FSA guys. The jihadis were unhappy that the others were having a laugh with the kuffar (Phil and I). There were around 15 extremists at the detention center, most from Chechnya. At least three of them were wounded; one even had an open bullethole-shaped wound in his hand that leaked pus. They'd tolerated us for the last three days, some were even friendly, but clearly enough was enough.
#FreeRasool: Shane Smith and VICE Media Call For Journalist's Release:
The FSA guys argued back angrily. One pointed at three of the guys we'd been drinking coffee with.
"Commando, commando, commando!" he said as he pointed at each one. The fat jihadi from Tajikistan eventually shut his mouth and left. We went back to our room with Heli. He reassured us, with a cutthroat sign to his neck, that if the suspected IS fighters came for us, he would kill them. It was somewhat reassuring, especially after we'd seen Ali fashion a knife out of a sharpened teaspoon and a lighter the day before. It was hidden somewhere in our room. It occurred to us that we were perhaps under some type of informal protection with Ali.
Back in the room Heli was depressed. He was furious about the extremists and sad that we were leaving, as was Ali, who'd slept all day.
"You're born in England, so you're Christian," said Heli. "I'm born in Gaza, so I'm Muslim, but there is no difference between us." He clasped his hands together. "Friends." He touched his chest where his heart was. "If you look at me, you see I am always smiling and I look happy, but inside I am—" He couldn't find the words. Instead he just hung his head. "No chance Adana."
A few hours later the guards came to get me and Phil. We said our goodbyes before being driven to the airport and deported. It felt good to be free, but the joy was overshadowed by the fact that we'd left Rasool behind in Turkey. He is still locked up in the F Type as the "investigation" continues, held purportedly on suspicion of "knowingly and willingly helping an organized criminal group without being part of the hierarchical structure of the group," a provision increasingly used by the Turkish state to target and intimidate journalists. I'm certain that Rasool is innocent of these crimes, and Phil and I wait anxiously for the news that he too has been pushed through the iron gates at Adana, ready to be sent back to freedom.
Follow Jake Hanrahan on Twitter: @Jake_Hanrahan