“One of our colleagues in the party – he was caught out and taken to prison and his nails were pulled out. That era was completely impossible.”

Over the last number of years, we've been hearing of Syrians risking everything and making their way to Europe to seek refuge. But this isn't the first time that Syrians have been on the move. One Syrian man, Ghandi Mallak, who got involved in the Communist party, left in 1994 and hasn't been back since.

Ghandi grew up in Syria, when the country was under the leadership of long-time dictator Hafez al-Assad, of the Ba’ath party - the father of  Syria’s current leader, Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad held a tightly controlled and repressive political structure. Ghandi says he wanted to completely exclude the intellectuals from Syria, and that during his reign they were either killed, forced to leave the country, or in prison. Ghandi describes that time:

“Any political party wasn’t allowed. The only political party was the Ba’ath, which is the regime. Any other work was completely prohibited. If you asked for freedom of speech, or political reform, or a newspaper, you could be dragged to a prison cell for twenty years and nobody would know about you, even if you were alive or dead. It was horrific.”

The late Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad (R) with his youngest brother Rifaat (L)

Ghandi Mallak was one of the lucky ones – he grew up in a large wealthy family and lived a comfortable lifestyle. During the 1950s & ‘60s, his father was a high-ranking officer in the Syrian army and one of the main funders of the Ba’ath party. The party was not in power at the time, nor Hafez al-Assad. However in 1963, when Ghandi’s father was involved in displacing the then Syrian President, Nazim al-Kudi, of the People’s Party, circumstances began to change for the Mallak family.

“My father ended up being shot several times, exiled and imprisoned. And then, in 1970 when Hafez al-Assad came to power, the Ba’ath party split and my father was one of the people who was ousted. As a result, we lost all of the wealth... the cars.. .all that we had, and we ended up in a Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk Camp, on the suburbs of Damascus.”

The Ghandi family were left with nothing, and they were one of very few Syrian families living in the Palestinian camp. Those who lived there were extremely poor and their conditions below sub-standard. Ghandi recalls of that time:

“Living in the camp was extraordinarily difficult. My mother used to wash the dishes and we had no roof on our kitchen! Poverty, slums.. in need of everything.”

However, within a few years, the Yarmouk camp became one of the biggest Palestinian camps in the Middle East and one of the most important districts in Damascus. The Palestinians were very well educated and so, too, Ghandi and his family.

Palestinian children leave school after class in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp

Ghandi says the Syrian authorities never discriminated against the Palestinian people, and that during the 1970’s & 80’s, the only people who were allowed to work, read or talk politics were the Palestinians. The Mallak family were living in extreme circumstances and Ghandi says that because of this, he got involved in the Communist party, following the lead of his older brothers and sister:

“All of my siblings were involved in the Communist party, even since they were in their teens, because the structures were there. But that was completely prohibited in Syria, back in the day.”

Not only were Ghandi and his siblings defying the law, they were secretly defying their parents. Ghandi says his father and mother never wanted their children to get involved in politics, describing it as a red-line issue. His parents lived simply and diligently, scarred by earlier political experiences. They wanted their children to be law-abiding, hard-working and educated. As it is now, military service of eighteen months was compulsory for young men and Ghandi says his dad left him with no option:

“He dragged me to join the army and I was the youngest at 16 years. But during this time, I was continuing with my involvement and work with the Communist party, which was completely prohibited. You could have been shot on the spot because of that. And in the army, you couldn’t be a member of any party except for the Ba’ath party. Full-stop. But you must do your national service and you can’t just say, ‘Hey guys, I’m with the Communist party’. You would have been arrested.. tortured.. your skin would have been taken off.”

Ghandi's Syrian state documents. Pictured, as a young boy

Ghandi was now living life on the line. During the final period of his national service, he started to work as the military’s official photographer– attending ceremonies, visiting the homes of high-ranking senior members during special family celebrations, all the while remaining an active member of the Communist party.

Ghandi was living a double life. And no-one knew, or so he thought...

Listen to Ghandi's story, in his own words, by clicking the play button at the top of the page, or subscribe to Voices on iTunes.