What's It Like to Be a Prisoner in a Syrian Torture Prison: A Virtual Experience

An interactive website lets users travel through Assad's Saydnaya prison, where 18,000 inmates have died since 2011 due to hunger and abuse.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A screengrab of the saydnaya.amnesty.org website, showing a virtual representation of Sadnaya Prison.
A screengrab of the saydnaya.amnesty.org website, showing a virtual representation of Sadnaya Prison.Credit: saydnaya.amnesty.org
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“A little bit faster.”

“Like this or even faster?”

“Faster, as if he’s walking on coals,” says the person giving the instructions, finally satisfied. There, that’s exactly how he remembers the sounds.

For a moment it seems as if the two men – a sound technician who's speeding up the echoes of footsteps, and Samer, a former prisoner at the infamous Saydnaya prison in Syria – are producing a documentary about prison life. In fact, they are busy with an unusual project, different than probably any other in its essence and format. It involves recreating the sights and sounds of life inside and the physical structure of Saydnaya, which have never been photographed from the inside.

The initiators of this project, carried out in collaboration with Amnesty International, are associated with the Forensic Architecture research agency at Goldsmiths, University of London. They have created an interactive site in which one can "wander" through the prison, listen to the testimony of former prisoners, and hear about the torture they endured.

It is a chilling and upsetting experience, based on dozens of hours of testimony gathered last April, during which ex-inmates outlined in great detail their daily lives, characterized by routine torture and meager food rations, describing mainly the sounds of Saydnaya. The prisoners sit next to the interviewers, facing a sophisticated computer screen on which the prison's structure is reconstructed line by line.

Some 18,000 prisoners have died from hunger or torture in the facility – built by the Syrian regime in 1987, based on an East German model – since 2011. Since the outbreak of Syrian unrest that year, in addition to thousands of civilian political inmates, more than 2,000 officers and soldiers have been imprisoned there.

According to testimonies, prisoners are generally not permitted to talk, look their guards in the eyes, approach the door of their cells or even lean on the walls.

Clicking the mouse and navigating among the testimonies on the website leads one from cell to cell, along the corridors, highlighting the horrors described by the ex-inmates. Their power lies in the fact that they sound as if they are giving dry factual briefings, almost devoid of emotion, with the sole purpose of achieving some sort of architectural accuracy.

Thus, for example, one man was asked about the size of the opening through which food was passed to prisoners. The former inmate could not give data in centimeters, but used a different scale: “It was slightly larger than my head,” he said. “How do you know?” he was asked. “One day the guard asked me to stick my head through it so he could understand what I was saying. I barely managed to get my head through the opening and then it became stuck, with my throat lying on the frame surrounding the opening. The guard stepped on my head and hit me until I bled profusely.”

Prisoners’ eyes are covered most of the time in Saydnaya, but their ears are open. Thus, for example, they can identify the sounds of “fresh meat” arriving in trucks intended for transporting refrigerated meat, along with the screams and sounds of the breaking of bones of the new prisoners who were experiencing what the speakers called “welcoming parties.”

Over time they say they learned to distinguish between the different sounds made by instruments of torture, such as the rubber-coated club or the tire cut into the shape of a sword, or the grinding of a wheel on which prisoners were placed, with guards stretching their bodies.

In an introduction to the visual presentation on the site, the producers write that the building itself was part and parcel of the torture regimen. Former inmates testify how the entire prison hears the sounds of those undergoing torture due to the way the ventilation shafts, pipes and peepholes are constructed. What appears to be a dark dining hall is nothing but a torture room in which inmates are forced to run over tables and benches all night long. They can’t see where they are stepping so that by the end of such a night of running many end up with broken bones. They can’t cry out in pain since this will result in further punishment.

In 2012, a former Syrian Army officer, Ma’an Daham al-Khader, who had been convicted of contacting Iraqi defectors and jailed in Saydnaya, gave detailed testimony about daily life there. His main testimony related to the amount of food prisoners received: “One potato a day, with two to three pita breads and two to nine tablespoons of rice for 20 people, an egg a day except on Wednesdays, a small piece of meat every third day, one piece of fruit three times a week, a tomato or cucumber twice a week, five to 10 olives three times a week.”

More recent accounts also stress the terrible daily hunger pangs felt by prisoners, “to the point at which they forget their families and their past, only thinking about the next meal.”

Forensic Architecture aims to help human rights organizations by presenting a spatial and cultural context for actions that violate human rights across the world. This is a new approach which seeks, among other things, to resolve contradictions in interpreting facts and to overcome the control the media may have when describing these facts. The theory and practice that characterize this project, which combines architecture and forensic investigation, is yielding exceptional and fascinating results, as well as providing an important tool that helps victims of regimes that violate human rights.

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