Saydnaya prison, Damascus, Syria
Nancy Lindisfarne writes:
For forty-six years the Assad regime has ruled Syria with murderous brutality. A measure of this brutality was the quelling of a popular uprising against the regime in the city of Hama in 1982. Assad (the father) bombed and killed some 20,000 Syrian citizens. Or perhaps 40,000 – the violence was so comprehensive and effective that it has never been possible to establish exactly how many perished.
The massacre in Hama and the violence of the Assads’ secret prisons served to terrify the population and kept people quiescent. Until 2011. In the Arab Spring hope was contagious. Syrians rose up to rid themselves of a tyrannical regime.
Internationally, the massacre and prisons were well known. But they were ignored by the US, the Russians and the other international players who found that the Middle Eastern dictatorships served them well. 
Horrific photographic evidence of the extent and horror of Assad’s prisons came out in 2015. A former Syrian military photographer known only as Caesar had copied thousands of photographs of the tortured, starved and burnt bodies of prisoners held in Bashar al Assad’s jails. The photographs, the results of Caesar’s heroism, got widespread coverage, including Garance le Caise’s Long Read in The Guardian in October 2015.
What happened then was extraordinary. The photographs – there were thousands of them – were shown to the EU, to US congressmen, and to the UN Human Rights Council, but they were quickly forgotten by the politicians and the mainstream media. Others – outright regime loyalists, and even Bashar al-Assad himself in a long interview published in January 2015 in the American magazine Foreign Affairs, dismissed the photographs as fakes. This tale was spun by others too, like the ‘radical’ magazine Counterpunch, which supported the Russian military intervention on the side of the regime.
Indeed, at a time when the United States, and Russia, the Brits and others, all in their different ways, were supporting the Assad regime, the heart-stopping photographs of dead Syrian torture victims were just plain inconvenient. As Caesar himself commented, ‘The politicians want to turn the page and negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. How did we get to that point?’
Two years further on, after six years of civil war, Aleppo has been destroyed. Close to half a million people have died, the majority killed by Assad’s forces and Russian and American bombers. Among the living, five million are refugees abroad, and many more have been driven from their homes but remain inside Syria. Now, Caesar’s photographs have been rediscovered, and other humanitarian voices are again allowed to be heard.
As Garance le Caisne wrote when Caesar’s photographs were published, ‘When Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, ruled Syria, more than 17,000 detainees disappeared in the late 1970s and the early 80s. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimates that more than 215,000 people have been detained since the start of the civil war, and that in almost half of the cases, none of their relatives have the slightest information about them. By December 2014, the SNHR had succeeded in drawing up a list of 110,000 names.’
The latest ghastly news is from Amnesty International: ‘As many as 13,000 opponents of Bashar al-Assad were secretly hanged in one of Syria’s most infamous prisons in the first five years of the country’s civil war as part of an extermination policy ordered by the highest levels of the Syrian government … Many thousands more people held in Saydnaya prison have been killed through torture and starvation.’
As Caesar said earlier, ‘Before the uprising, the regime tortured prisoners to get information; now they were torturing to kill.’
In 1997, Mamdouh Adwan, the Syrian poet and playwright translated into Arabic a collection of short stories I hd written after my year of fieldwork in Damascus. Al Raqs fi Dimasq was published in Syria before an English version, Dancing in Damascus, came out in 2000.
From day one in Damascus I saw the tyranny of the regime. But I knew the whole time I was in Syria, and then again when I tried out the stories on friends in Damascus, that for their sake, I could only hint at the fear everyone felt. As you can see here, the most politically explicit of the stories, ‘Fresh Apricots’, is little more than a bare whisper about a prisoner who has been fortunate enough to be released from the same Saydnaya prison that is in the news now. But though a bare whisper, I also knew every Syrian reader would absolutely understand what I was trying to say.
Caesar’s comment speaks to that fear: ‘Before the civil war, there had been torture in Syrian prisons. Prisoners talked about it after their release. The regime intended these accounts to be told and retold; they wanted them to serve as a warning, so that terror would seep into every household.’ Here is the story: Continue reading