ALONG THE JORDANIAN-SYRIAN BORDER — Syrians who have defied President Bashar Assad flee to the safety of Jordan with tales of torture and death at the hands of the dictator in Damascus.
Even a 65-year-old carpet merchant got no mercy when he was arrested for demonstrating against the regime.
"My heart bleeds for what I have witnessed," said Abu Shams, when asked about conditions in Syria's notorious prisons.
He said police beat him with heavy sticks before releasing him. As he made his way to Jordan, he slept at night "between the trees."
"We have suffered more than 40 years of dictatorship in this criminal system," he said. "Freedom has a price, and we will not stop."
Many Syrians interviewed by The Washington Times told similar stories of abuse after they were detained during peaceful protests that began in March. Mr. Assad has unleashed the military in a brutal crackdown on protests throughout the country, killing at least 1,700 people.
In Syria on Monday, Mr. Assad continued his assault on the eastern town of Deir el-Zour, a day after his security forces killed 42 people there. The army also killed three people at a funeral in the town of Daraa, human rights activists said.
Arab nations applied more diplomatic pressure, as Kuwait and Bahrain on Monday followed Saudi Arabia and withdrew their ambassadors to protest the ongoing violence. Saudi King Abdullah pulled his ambassador out of Damascus on Sunday, denouncing the "bloodshed" in Syria.
On the Jordanian-Syrian border, Ibrahim al-Jahamani, 24, said he was picked up by police after walking with a friend in Daraa, which has been a flash point of protests against Mr. Assad.
Police fatally shot his friend and tortured Mr. al-Jahamani in a Damascus jail for several weeks.
"They beat my head, legs, hands and back. My nose was broken. The scars are still visible," he said pointing to the marks.
"We were naked and barefoot. The torture was daily and systematic. They used to tie us with chains. Others were held in a crosslike position. Some were hanged upside down and continuously beaten," he said, dark eyes flashing.
A cabdriver from Daraa, who asked to be identified as Abu Mahmoud, said he and his family escaped with the clothes on their backs after their house was destroyed and car burned by the Syrian military.
"I kept going out for the protests," said the 37-year-old man, cloaked in a long, white robe and sporting a beard.
"The authorities made a list of the participants, and it was understood if we were caught, we could be killed. The security has been very severe, especially going after and detaining youths," he added.
Abu Mahmoud said he knew a number of people from his village who died in the protests and during detention when they were tortured. After authorities released their corpses, he often was the person to prepare their bodies for burial according to Islamic tradition.
"As I washed the corpses, I could see that the neck was broken because it was very loose and dislocated. Arms were pulled out," he said, his voice trembling as he spoke.
"Their fingers were very blue and green and the nails dark, like they were stuck in an electric socket. Other times I saw wounds to the head and feet from electric shock and bruises on the stomach and back," he said.
The online activist group Avaaz.org recently reported that more than 1,600 Syrians have been killed and nearly 3,000 arrested by security forces are unaccounted for. It estimates that one person disappears every hour on average in Syria.
Human rights activists say that more than 1,000 Syrian families are sheltering in northern Jordan. The fortunate come through checkpoints allowing legal entry, while others play the high-risk game of moving surreptitiously along thorny paths before entering a windy plain sweeping the border region.
Most are taken in by relatives, while others find care from sympathetic Jordanians and Syrians who have lived in Jordan for decades.
"Syrians come here terrified with stories of houses broken into, their valuables destroyed and people taken away," said a businessman who identified himself as Abu Tala, a member of the large, prominent al-Zoubi tribe who helps provide food basics to those who flee.
"There are no [refugee] camps [here]. We want people to feel like they are in their homes," he said.
The United States and other nations have ruled out military intervention in Syria, an Arab regional powerhouse with strong ties to Iran and the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia.
Although the uprising in Syria spurred calls for reform, the spiraling death toll and slow pace of change have enraged government opponents who are now demanding nothing less than Mr. Assad's ouster.