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“All you see is blood”: life at a death camp where Assad has slaughtered thousands

Bashar al-Assad (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Beatings. Starvation. Rape. And then death, administered quickly and with sickening efficiency.

Those are the hallmarks of Saydnaya Prison, a facility just outside of Damascus that the Assad regime has turned into a death camp. Many of the inmates are civilian dissidents, and they are mostly killed not long after their arrival. As detailed in Amnesty International’s newest report from Syria, “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison,” between 5,000 and 13,000 people have been executed there since the civil war began in 2011.

Saydnaya is not a prison, since it’s not a place where people go to live out jail sentences before being released. It is a death camp, one designed to destroy the human soul and body.

This isn’t a dark chapter from a history book. This is happening right now, and the crimes are being committed by a leader President Obama did little to oust, and whom President Trump has suggested he might actually help.

Life and death at a Syrian prison you enter but rarely leave

Amnesty’s report is exceptionally well-documented. Researchers from the advocacy group spoke to 84 people with knowledge of what happens at Saydnaya, including 31 former inmates, four former guards, and three former judges at the prison’s kangaroo courts. Their testimony, for the most part, speaks for itself.

When prisoners are brought to Saydnaya, they are greeted with what the guards call a “welcome party.” Here’s how Salam, a detainee from 2012 to 2014, describes it:

You are thrown to the ground and they use different instruments for the beatings: electric cables with exposed copper wire ends — they have little hooks so they take a part of your skin — normal electric cables, plastic water pipes of different sizes and metal bars. Also they have created what they call the “tank belt”, which is made out of tyre that has been cut into strips. ... They make a very specific sound; it sounds like a small explosion. I was blindfolded the whole time, but I would try to see somehow. All you see is blood: your own blood, the blood of others. After one hit, you lose your sense of what is happening. You’re in shock. But then the pain comes.

If you survive the welcome — some don’t, killed by blunt force trauma to the head — you are assigned to one of two buildings, either the “red” (mostly for civilian protesters) or “white” (former Syrian military soldiers who have offended the government somehow). Detainees at both prisons are subject to vicious torture.

The prisoners are stripped naked and thrown into small underground cells. Guards loyal to Assad keep the prisoners there for up to a month, a former guard explains, to break them: “We needed to make them understand that now they were prisoners. Now they were under our shoes.”

Afterward, the prisoners are transferred to crowded aboveground cells, where they are not allowed to speak. The guards force the inmates to select a shawish (leader) or select one themselves. The shawish’s job is to pick who gets tortured on a given day or else be tortured himself.

“The shawish would be told that he would have to choose five from the cell who had broken the penalty of not talking,” Jamal, an inmate, explains. “If he didn’t bring the five, then he would be tortured himself, very badly, maybe even until death.”

After that, torture becomes the rule of the day. When breakfast is delivered, the prisoners are beaten. When they go to the bathroom, they are occasionally forced to rape each other — as Omar, a high school student before his detention, details:

The guard would ask everyone to take off all their clothes and go to the bathroom one by one. As we walked to the bathroom, they would select one of the boys, someone petite or young or fair. They would ask him to stand with his face to the door and close his eyes. They would then ask a bigger prisoner to rape him. … No one will admit this happened to them, but it happened so often… I know all about it, I lived it. ... Sometimes psychological pain is worse than physical pain, and the people who were forced to do this were never the same again. I know some who died because they became so depressed they just stopped eating the little food they were offered. … If the larger prisoner would refuse to carry out the rape, he would then get beaten very badly. Once [when a man refused] they inserted something into his anus as punishment.

The food, of course, is insufficient, and there is no medicine, so many die of disease or malnutrition. This, too, gets turned into a form of torture by the guards. Hosam, another former inmate, explained:

Their most common punishment was to cut off the water. We went five days with no water — no water to drink, no water to clean, no water to flush the toilet. ... Sometimes, there was a big quantity of food, but they cut off the water, so we couldn’t use the bathroom. So they were forcing us to eat and to create waste that we couldn’t get rid of, which would create a horrible smell. We used to sometimes throw the food from the vent so that we wouldn’t be forced to live with our waste.

The only relief, barring a few rare prisoner releases, is death. The execution process begins with a pantomime of a court process, lasting one to three minutes. A former judge tasked with “presiding” over the hearing describes the procedures:

This is the court where they send the people who they see as posing a real risk to the regime. The people [tried] there are charged with crimes against the state. You can be sent there even if there is no evidence against you. … The Field Court is the most dangerous for detainees. Even if there is no evidence against you, or just a confession from an intelligence branch, they can execute you according to that confession. … [The Military Field Court is] not obligated to follow the Syrian legal system at all. It’s outside of the rules. … The detainees spend a very short time there — one or two minutes — and then they are sent out. The judge will ask the name of the detainee and whether he committed the crime. Whether the answer is yes or no, he will be convicted. … This court has no relation with the rule of law. This is not a court.

About once or twice a week, between 20 and 50 detainees who have been convicted are taken to the basement of the white building in the middle of the night. They are told they’re going to a good place, and blindfolded. Then they are all hung at once.

“They would line them up and get them ready for the execution. They would wait until all of the spaces were full before they put the nooses on,” a former guard familiar with the execution procedures explains. “Then they would put the nooses on and push them or drop them immediately, so they didn’t know what was happening until the very last moment.”

According to Amnesty, the room was actually enlarged in 2012 to make it easier to execute more people at once.

If Trump partners with Assad, this is who he partners with

Assad protest 2012 (John Cantlie/Getty Images)

The point of reviewing all of this, in all of its gory detail, is not to titillate or indulge in a kind of sick voyeurism. It’s to lay plain the reality of the Syrian conflict, something so often buried amid headlines describing the latest military development or US diplomacy with Russia.

The true axis of Syria’s conflict is very simple. In 2011, large numbers of people began demonstrating against a regime that had been repressing them for decades. The Assad regime launched a brutal crackdown on the protesters designed to stamp out resistance to the strongman’s continued rule. Assad’s basic bet was that he could better withstand an armed revolt than a mass civil uprising.

This has proven correct. The civil war has been fertile breeding ground for jihadists, ISIS and al-Qaeda alike, making it very difficult for the West to intervene in Syria without a serious risk of making things worse. Military support from Russia and Iran, longtime Assad allies, has helped his tottering regime maintain control over large swaths of the country.

It also means that the Assad regime has become the principal threat to its own citizens. Statistics from Syria aren’t very reliable but, by one detailed count covering the month of December 2014, 76 percent of civilian casualties were caused by Assad’s forces. Overall, roughly 500,000 people have been killed during the conflict, though it’s hard to tell how many are civilians. Executing on a deliberate campaign of repression through force necessitates extreme brutality; prisons like Saydnaya are not outliers, but rather core to the Assad regime’s survival strategy.

President Obama overruled the advice of his war cabinet and refused to provide arms to the Syrian opposition at a time when Assad was losing ground on the battlefield. He ignored his own red line after Assad gassed his own people. And he did little to counter Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Syria, which has helped Assad beat back the rebels and steadily reclaim lost territory (at the expense of mass civilian casualties, which neither Moscow nor Damascus cares about).

If Obama did little to oust Assad, Trump seems willing to literally partner with him. The new US president has repeatedly suggested that the US should work with Russia, and by extension Assad, in fighting ISIS.

"I would have stayed out of Syria and wouldn't have fought so much for Assad, against Assad because I thought that was a whole thing," Trump said in a May 2016 interview. “We're supposed to fight ISIS, who is fighting Assad. [We have] bigger problems than Assad.”

When Trump says things like this, it’s important to remember Saydnaya. That is the true face of the Syrian regime — and partnering with Assad to fight ISIS would, in effect, be giving the dictator and his henchmen the green light to get away with it.