Saydnaya : Inside a Syrian Torture Prison

1 Sep, 22

In 2016, Forensic Architecture was commissioned by Amnesty international to help reconstruct the architecture of Saydnaya, a secret Syrian detention center, from the memory of several of its survivors, now refugees in Turkey.[1]

[1] For Forensic Architecture: Eyal Weizman, Christina Varvia, Bania Jamal, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Ana Naomi de Sousa, Gochan Yildirim -1635film-istanbul, Stefan Laxness, Pierre-Francois Gerard, Samaneh Moafi, Hana Rizvanolli, Simone Rowat, George Clipp, Yamen Albadin, Hala Makhlouf, Mihai Meirosu, Yamen Albadin, Hala Makhlouf, Ghias Aljundi, and Nestor Rubio.

[2] Amnesty International, “‘It Breaks the Human’: Torture, Disease and Death in Syria’s Prisons,” August 17, 2016, http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/%E2%8o%98it-breaks-the-human -torture-disease-and-death-in-syria-s-prisons.

Since 2011, Saydnaya has become the final destination for many prisoners who have already passed through a series of other interrogation and detention centers. In it, prisoners no longer face interrogations. Torture is widely and brutally used not to obtain information, but in order to terrorize and often kill detainees.
The Syrian government does not provide information about prisoners’ where- abouts and often denies that detainees have ever been arrested. People are simply “disappeared” – killed or dying in secret. In recent years, no visits from independent journalists or monitoring groups that report publically have been permitted to the prison. As there are no recent photographs of its interior spaces, the memories of Saydnaya survivors are the only resource with which to recreate the spaces, conditions of incarceration, and incidents that take place inside.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians, including protestors, students, bloggers, university professors, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and others suspected of opposing the Assad government have disap- peared into a secret network of prisons and detention centers. Amnesty International researchers estimated that 17,723 people have died in custody in Syria since the cri- sis began in March 2011.[2] Saydnaya, located some twenty-five kilometers north of Damascus in an East German-designed building dating from the 1970s, is one of the most notoriously brutal of these places.

In April 2016, a team of Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture researchers traveled to Turkey to meet a group of survivors who have come forward because they wanted to let the world know about Saydnaya. Our aim was to help them reconstruct and model the spaces of the prison and some of the events and incidents that took place there. Every witness left with us several deposits of memory that they wanted recorded in detail. However, the process of recollection and reconstruction was not straightforward. In Saydnaya, witnesses were kept in a state of constant disorienting sensory deprivation. Their experience of the prison was at the threshold of both vision and sound: prisoners were blindfolded or forced to press their hands against their eyes while being led into the dark cells. They were forbidden to utter any sound, to whisper, speak, or scream. Because both vision and sound were at liminal states, prisoners’ spatial perception was undertaken through detection of differences in temperature, moisture, light, vibrations, and echoes. The modeling process sought to interrogate these sensory thresholds when all memories are conditioned by a state of extreme deprivation.

During the process, the relation between architectural modeling and memory was twofold. On the one hand, the model was a product of memory, a representation of the spaces of the prison as witnesses remembered and described them to us. This model and the description of events within it can potentially become a piece of evidence in a subsequent trial if one ever takes place. On the other hand, the model-building process helped induce further recollections . As they measured rooms; located windows, doors, and objects in their places; experienced the virtual environment of their cells at eye level; and reconstructed the acoustic properties of the building, witnesses had some recollection of events otherwise obscured by violence and trauma. Architectural modeling thus bridged the otherwise separate and distinct functions of testimony and evidence and captured the space between sound and vision.

Memories of violence are rarely straightforward records or internalized representations that are stored in an orderly manner and easily retrieved. Memory, like matter, is plastic, continuously morphing, and affected by violence. Recall could be inaccurate, prone to distortions, and vulnerable to memory contamination. Our colleagues in the Forensic Psychology Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, advised us that recollections of horrifying experiences might emerge as a result of an indeterminate cognitive process that is triggered by momentary, unpredictable relations-a distributed process that includes bodies, spaces, sounds, and objects. The model as we have conceived it, based on this advice, created the possibility for some of these relations and for recall to occur in a virtual space.

The model-building process also turned the witnesses into active participants in the project. They described in minute detail the cells and other areas of the prison, including stairwells, corridors, gates, doors, windows, bars, and hatches, to an Arabic- speaking architect on our team – Hania Jamal – who constructed computer models of these spaces and elements while they described them to her. They also reviewed and corrected their own and their peers’ models. Witnesses then further located and put into relation different elements and characters, such as guards and fellow prisoners, and objects, such as floor tiles, blankets, food bowls, bars, and torture instruments, inside the model as they recreated specific incidents. As the model became increasingly detailed, it was rendered to give an eye-level impression of the spaces, and witnesses could locate themselves virtually within it; experiencing spaces and zooming into elements in them induced further recollections.

As I mentioned, vision was extremely restricted. There was little natural light, and prisoners were made to cover their eyes whenever a guard entered their cell. Most of their movement through the prison was undertaken while blindfolded. Some detainees saw only the floor tiles through a thin sliver under sacks pulled over their heads or noticed only the contrast between darkness and light as they were moved past windows. Furthermore, sound was also restricted: speaking was prohibited, including inside the cells, and prisoners were even forbidden to shout in pain when being beaten and tortured. Detainees in Saydnaya thus developed an acute sensitivity to minute variations and nuances in vision and sound.

[3] Abu Hamdan, quoted in Oliver Wainwright, “‘The Worst Place on Earth’: Inside Assad’s Brutal Saydnaya Prison,” Guardian, August 18, 2016, https:/www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016 /aug/18/saydnaya-prison-syria-assad-amnesty-reconstruction.

To capture their auditory memories, we solicited “ear-witness testimony” and reconstructed elements of the prison’s architecture through sound. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, a sound artist and audio investigator on our team, reconstructed ambient and contextual background sounds as another gateway to recollection. Echo and reverberation modeling helped confirm the size of spaces such as cells, stairwells, and corridors, as well as to reconstruct some incidents within them. Abu Hamdan explained that just like a sonar, 0 the sounds of the beatings illuminated the spaces around them.” Witnesses described the way water pipes and air vents amplified and transported sound across the building and said that the guards sometimes tortured people next to these infrastructural systems for the sound of the beatings to flow throughout the building without anyone knowing where it came from. Sound was the guards’ weapon of torture, because they knew that 0 one person being tortured is like everyone being tortured.”[3] The guards, he explained, were the masters of sound and controlled the acoustics of the space.

We cross-referenced the individual spatial and audio testimonies to construct an overall model of the building. Whenever we identified potential errors or contradictions between different accounts, we carefully tried to resolve them, but we also made a note and modeled what we knew to be divergences. Errors, contradictions, and lacunas are enriched with information, because they reveal something of the experience of a detainee and their psychological condition. Such distortions thus contain more information than a measured architectural rendering and could themselves be considered as evidence in their own right.
Each witness had “blanked out” different parts of the building. Some of them described certain spaces as being much larger, corridors as longer, staircases as higher, sounds louder, and the building as having more floors than we knew it to have. The number of certain architectural elements, such as metal gates and doors, also multiplied. The sounds made by cars and tracks, and bread boxes thrown about the corridor, were amplified due to fear and hunger.
The model thus emerged not as a reductive synthesis, but as a description of both the building as we know it to be and also of the unresolvable spatial distortions, blank spaces, and gaps that recorded prisoners’ experiences.

Witness accounts were almost always narrated to us as autonomous and self-contained moments outside a coherent narrative and the flow of time. This sense of timelessness, familiar to all prisoners, made us turn away from describing the prison experience as a diary of incarceration. Rather, we chose several moments- “memory objects” -from the interviews we had conducted and edited them into short videos that we later located within an interactive model of the prison building. The interactive model thus became an archive in which testimonies were placed within the spaces they described. This archive will grow as more testimonies are collected.
During our work toward reconstructing something of the events, spaces, and incidents endured in Saydnaya, we realized that the building functioned not only as a space where incarceration, surveillance, and torture regularly take place, but that it is, itself, an architectural instrument of spatial and acoustic torture, and as such, one of the most extreme manifestations of architecture.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s sound piece of the work: