"Doctor please come and talk."
Rayan cautiously surveyed the scene around him. Not an hour earlier, he had been attending to patients in Sakhour field hospital, a clinic located in the Syrian city of Aleppo. The work was fast paced and exhausting, and in the midst of another tiring day he had needed a break. Knowing he could find tranquility in a short walk and a cigarette, he set out from the hospital to clear his head. But now cars surrounded Rayan, and the man addressing him seemed to be giving him orders rather than suggestions.
"We can speak here," Rayan replied, not wanting to go with the men.
"No, we can talk in the car."
"Then you have to tell my boss that you need me." At least someone would know he had been taken.
"No you have to come with us now," came the firm answer.
Again, Rayan refused. But he had exhausted the man's patience. "Another two guys (then) came with their guns," he recalls. "Their accents were Syrian but they were hiding their faces. They pushed me and took me into the car."
He tried one last time as they tossed him into the back seat. "Please tell my boss I am going with you."
"Everyone will know (who took you)" came the response.
A boot shoved Rayan's head down between the seats, and a blindfold was wrapped tightly around his eyes. The men were right. Everyone would know he had been kidnapped by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an extremist group operating in Syria that at the time was affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Rayan (using only his first name) tells his story in a flurry of motion. His hands fly across the room as he speaks, dancing alongside his words as he struggles to reveal the invisible scars still residing deep in his memory. ISIS kept him imprisoned for 18 days in November of 2013, torturing him extensively and accusing him of collaborating with the regime. Now living in Turkey, he hopes his story can stimulate the lagging humanitarian response to the Syrian civil war.
We want to "send a message to the world," says one of his friends as Rayan nods along. They envision an "international day to recognize the suffering of the Syrian people" where individuals across the globe show their support by donating to aid organizations helping civilians affected by the conflict.
Asked when they would like this to happen, both Rayan and his friend answer in unison: March 15, the third anniversary of the uprising. "Three years of suffering is enough. It's time that someone hears us and does something."
When protests broke out against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in early 2011, Rayan was in his third year studying medicine at Aleppo University. By August the revolution had turned violent, and he began visiting houses to treat opposition activists injured in the demonstrations. Throughout the summer the bloodshed continued, and as Syria descended into civil war Rayan became increasingly concerned for his safety. Fearing he was wanted by the regime and unprepared for his September exams because of his work, he decided not to return to school. By February of 2012, he was volunteering full time as a nurse at Sakhour.
Despite lacking a medical degree, the shortage of doctors and escalating number of casualties quickly forced Rayan into roles he had not fully been trained for. "Doctors pushed us to help them in surgeries," he says. "We had simple equipment at the time. (At one point I) had to cut off the leg of a man with no anesthesia."
But out of necessity, he quickly adapted. "My university study did not help me at all," he continues. "I became skilled through my work at the field hospital. Later on, I became a specialist in removing bullets from the legs and arms."
Armed with this new expertise, Rayan began traveling where he could throughout the city and surrounding countryside to offer his help. While still based in Sakhour, he moved where he was needed, working stints in al-Shifa hospital until it was shelled in November of 2012. By the next summer, as ISIS began asserting itself in Syria after expanding its operations from Iraq in April 2013, Rayan had established himself in Aleppo's medical community and had found relative comfort in an abandoned house near the hospital.
Up until then, his interactions with ISIS had been minimal. "I dealt with all types of brigades (in the hospital)," he says, "even treating fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda's official branch in Syria) and ISIS." His motivations were not only humanitarian; this was "for the sake of the revolution. I worked for free as a volunteer because it was a cause I believed in."
But it would not be long until Rayan caught a glimpse of what he now believes to be ISIS' true nature. At the end of the summer, the group came to him and confiscated his house.
"Why did you take my house?" he asked the men.
"For the sake of the Muslims," came the reply.
They ended up giving his property to a family from al-Safira that was working with them. "(ISIS) does not work for the sake of the Muslims," says Rayan. "They work for the sake of ISIS."
The next month only reinforced this perception. Not only was the group authorized to take property from citizens; they were also permitted to take lives. According to Rayan, a Libyan fighter told him confidentially that "anyone from ISIS could kill anyone who they thought was a danger." Rayan refers to this as "killing Muslims for the sake of Muslims." As the words leave his lips, it is difficult to tell whether irony or disgust is written more prominently on his face.
The car sped off quickly. They did not drive for long, but when they finally stopped and Rayan was thrown from the car, he had no idea where he was.
"Shabih!" came the yell from the men.
Rayan tried to cover himself as the kicks and punches flew in.
"What is my mistake?" he asked.
But there was no answer. The blows persisted, and the men continued to accuse him of being an agent of the regime. Two sharp jabs to his head from the butt of a gun finally knocked him unconscious. Later, when he awoke, he found cable marks on his legs. They had whipped him with a wire while he was passed out.
For the first few days, he was beaten. "When they felt I was conscious they would hit me again and send me back," Rayan says. During this time, he was kept in a dark cell and deprived of sunlight. ISIS separated the prisoners, keeping activists, combatants, and doctors in different areas. After three days, the questioning began.
"How did you help the army get inside Base 80?"
Rayan was dumbfounded. He had served on the front lines as the regime briefly took back this military base near Aleppo Airport. He had seen Assad's brutality firsthand. And he was a doctor, a supporter of the revolution. "How could I have helped the army?" was all he could muster in response.
The question was repeated. If Rayan stopped talking, they would hit him, telling him "you have to answer."
"Give me evidence that I helped the army get inside Base 80."
Eventually the interrogator moved on. He told Rayan they had video evidence of him traveling to a regime-controlled area of Aleppo and meeting with a commander from the Syrian Army. "They asked me about the name of the general," says Rayan. "And they did not show me the video, of course, because there was no video." Besides, as he told the questioner, how could he go to an area controlled by the regime when he was wanted by them?
This continued for seven days. Rayan remained steadfast and did not admit to anything. More than anything, he was bewildered. "They had no evidence and I had no answer because it was not true," he says.
Perhaps realizing these tactics were not working effectively, ISIS sent him to a second location. In this prison, there were roughly 40-50 people, including old men and children. Rayan says seeing them was one of the most difficult parts of his experience. "When I saw these people I forgot about myself," he says somberly.
Here the methods were different, and if possible, more brutal. "They used electric shock on my stomach," Rayan recalls. "(And) they didn't just touch (it). They held it until I lost consciousness."
Instead of wild accusations, the questioning was now much more direct and targeted. "They asked first for my email, Skype, and contact info, and asked me to write my biography from childhood until now," Rayan says. "Later on I discovered they had opened all my contacts and... (tried to get information) from a bunch of people I knew."
At one point, while being led down a dark corridor to an interrogation, the guard turned to him and asked "doctor, why did they bring you here?"
"I don't know," said Rayan.
"You have to know. All of you are similar. All are very bad."
A short silence.
"This place is to execute people."
Fortunately for Rayan, this was not his fate. After five more days of being tortured and interrogated in the second prison, he was left alone for three days and given medicine to treat himself. Finally, he was brought before a judge to hear his verdict.
Well, sort of. He was still "talkative" according to the judge. And because of this Rayan was sentenced to exile. After being forced to read his judgment aloud, he was given 12 hours to leave the country. "I couldn't return until the regime fell," he says. "They took my passport, my money, and my phone."
The journey began immediately. From the courtroom he was brought to a car and, as usual, was blindfolded. The trip was short, and he was dropped off beside another vehicle. The new driver spoke tersely with him.
"Are you the doctor?" he asked.
"Yes," said Rayan.
He got in the car. Three Tunisian fighters joined them. In silence they crossed the border illegally, finally stopping at a bus stop in Turkey. Rayan was given 40 lira and a bag with what was left of his possessions.
"Where should I go?" he asked the driver.
"I don't know. This is my job."
The car pulled away, and Rayan was left alone. He did not speak Turkish, was unfamiliar with the city, and had no place to stay.
Less than four months later Rayan recounts his story from a mushy sofa in his Turkish apartment. He is relaxed yet animated, wearing long blank pants and a comfortable red windbreaker. The room is modest, the furniture old and bare. In the middle of the room sits a furnace. But all this is overshadowed by the presence of a large FSA flag hanging from the wall, a subtle reminder of the work that still lies ahead. "Before we finish the regime we need to finish ISIS," he says. "Not only because they took me and tortured me but because they are more dangerous than (Assad)."
After arriving in Turkey, Rayan spent his first nights on the street. After almost a week, he was able to land a job in a local café, working and sleeping there for 45 days. Eventually, he found his apartment through a friend. No longer employed, he hopes to return to medicine and continue to aid the revolution in its new battle against ISIS.
Still, the scars of his imprisonment remain. "After being jailed... I lost a lot of my memory," he says. "Sometimes when I need to remember something I must look at my ID to be sure."
Just 24, he refuses to let this get in the way of his ambitious goals. From a small, shabby apartment in southern Turkey, he and his friends still earnestly believe they can inspire the world to come together in solidarity on March 15.
"I lost everything," says Rayan.