Ibrahim and Radwan look like a bigger and a smaller version of the same person. Radwan grew up with his mother; he was just over 1 year old when his father Ibrahim was arrested in Syria.

It was on 28 January 2011, only two months before the beginning of the revolution that then turned into a Civil War causing more than 300 thousand deaths and, according to the latest estimates of the UNHCR, almost 5 million officially registered refugees. Agents of Assad’s regime took Ibrahim from his house on charges of selling pharmaceutical products without a license. Ibrahim was at the top of his professional career; he ran his own gym and was a mountain of muscles weighing more than 100 kg with tens of recognitions gained over 20 years of hard sacrifice as a bodybuilder. Torture goes on mercilessly day after day. The ruthless physical torture, consisting of beatings, blows using iron bars and burns and, then, the psychological variety such as sleep deprivation. At the very top of the suffering list: starvation. «My mind became frozen – Ibrahim claims in our interview – I forgot about everything, my family, my son: I only longed to eat». Ibrahim, like other prisoners, had merely a loaf of bread and two liters of water a month. After two years and a half, his weight went down to about 60 kg. Most of the inmates died from the violence they suffered, either from starvation or hardship; he managed to endure his suffering for so long thanks to his physical fitness and athletic preparation. «One day – Ibrahim recalls – while I was in the infirmary to dress the wounds the prison guards had inflicted on me, I managed to steal a mobile phone from a soldier». Before the battery died, Ibrahim looked at the pictures on the soldier’s phone only to discover photos and videos of himself while being tortured by a prison guard. Thanks to an exchange of prisoners organized by the Red Crescent and mediated between the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s government, 7 detainees including Ibrahim, were released in exchange for 3 Syrian officials on 10 July 2013. At that time, before leaving the cell, Ibrahim concealed the SIM card in his mouth and managed to get pictures of himself sprawled on the ground, beaten, wounded and sore, with a soldier’s boot on his back, out of there. Since 2013, Ibrahim has had 8 operations on his back and 2 on his head; he will still have to undergo surgery on his nose and the lower part of his spinal cord. He is trying to heal his wounded soul, by rebuilding his body at the gym and coaching a young Syrian men’s team: together they want to compete in international bodybuilding contests. It has not been easy to start over: Ibrahim Shehabi, who is now 39 years old, had to start from scratch. «I was four-time national bodybuilding champion in Syria but, once I got out of prison, I couldn’t even lift 1 kg – he says incredulously -. My friend Hassan and my brother Mahmood looked at me and cried; they just didn’t recognize me». So he and his friends started taking anabolic steroids, renowned and widespread in the bodybuilding world, as well as proteins and other dietary supplements. According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research (Cesar) of the University of Maryland «estimates show that there are more than $400 million worth of black-market sales of steroids per year». Ibrahim doesn’t hide the fact; he wants to start winning again at all costs and to demonstrate to his son Radwan, who follows him to the gym too, that his dad is the strongest, the man to beat. On his back, so thankfully wide and able to bear all that he must leave behind, are still impressed the indelible marks of his past, those scars that are witness to the suffering experienced in prison. His front is a chiseled and impressive body, a surge of strength by which he hopes to rebuild a normal life. Two sides of the same coin for all Syrian people, torn between suffering and hope for revival in the future.

BODYREBUILDING (2016)