Syria’s torture house in the desert
Al-Hasakah - The memories are all too vivid for Abu Hossam, 59, who spends sleepless nights hearing the screams of cell mates tortured during his imprisonment at Syria’s infamous Palmyra jail.
“All the bad memories are stuck to my head and will never go away because of the horror and the torture I and the other prisoners endured there,” Abu Hossam told The Arab Weekly in a telephone interview from his new home in Turkey.
The notorious Tadmur prison was captured by Islamic State (ISIS) militants, along with the nearby city and ancient ruins of Palmyra, on May 20th. The militants released photos and a video of the jail, which had been emptied of its inmates but still bore signs of the appalling conditions that prevailed for decades inside.
Officials told The Arab Weekly about 10,000 prisoners were removed from Tadmur prison three days before ISIS began its advance towards Palmyra.
Photos showed the dreadful conditions to which opponents of the Assad regime were subjected. Prisoners were held in total darkness – cells were windowless — from the moment the huge steel doors were closed.
London’s Daily Mail reported that the only thing that looked like a bathroom in the cells was a small hole in the floor. Mould was clearly visible in the corridor indicating damp.
Abu Hosam said he remembered well the overcrowded cells where more than 50 men would be crammed into one small room, sharing its cold floor to sleep without mattresses, cushions or blankets.
He recalled how he was thrown into a cell after he was arrested with a handful of others on September 20, 1980, for alleged illegal contacts with a foreign group — the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party in Iraq, a rival branch to the party ruling Syria.
The Syrians had no organisational links to Iraq’s Ba’athists but were engaged in a dialogue on the future of their nations, according to Abu Hosam, then a university senior majoring in Arabic literature. He said he was convicted and sentenced by a martial court to five years in jail but spent six more without reason until he and the others in his group were released under a December 25, 1991, presidential pardon.
“During those 11 years, I witnessed unimaginable terror and intimidation in the real sense of the word. I was tortured and beaten and all my rights were violated,” he said, preferring to use a pseudonym, citing fears over his safety, even in Turkey.
One of his worst recollections, he said, is of a loud voice from a nearby cell. It sounded like a wild animal and alternating with human screams every night.
“The voices turned out to be by Prisoner X, as he was widely known, who became deranged in jail and, thus, was placed in solitary confinement,” Abu Hosam said. He said the man’s real name was Aqel Qorban, a captain with Syrian intelligence.
Abu Hosam said the man had allegedly attended a covert meeting before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war between Israeli officers and then Syrian Defence Minister Hafez Assad, who later became president and is the father of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“He was the only witness to a secret agreement between Israel and Assad on the Golan Heights,” Abu Hosam said, referring to a strategic plateau that Syria lost to Israel in the six-day war that began on June 5, 1967.
“He later wrote a book called The Price of the Golan exposing Assad’s contacts with the Israelis and driving the president mad,” Abu Hosam said. “The president wanted him dead or alive and sent his intelligence after him to capture the man in Lebanon and throw him in jail in Palmyra.”
He said Qorban spent 17 years being tortured until he became deranged. Qorban died in 1985.
The Tadmur — Arabic for “Palmyra” — jail, is in an eastern Syrian oasis about 200 kilometres north-east of Damascus. It was known for its harsh conditions, extensive human rights abuses, torture and summary executions under the rule of Hafez Assad. Such conditions did not change when his son took power following Hafez Assad’s death in 2000. Bashar Assad reopened the jail in 2011 after it was closed in 2001 and all its detainees were transferred to other prisons in Syria. The reopening of the penitentiary, built as a military barracks by the French mandate, was meant to house those arrested in Syria’s uprising that broke out in March 2011.
During the 1980s, Tadmur prison housed up to 50,000 Syrian prisoners, both political and criminal.
The jailhouse was the site of the June 27, 1980, massacre of prisoners by Rifaat Assad, the day after a bungled attempt by the Syrian branch of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood to assassinate his brother, Hafez. Members of the Defence Brigades under Rifaat Assad’s command entered the jail and killed 900 prisoners in their cells and dormitories.
Another incident Abu Hosam witnessed involved six Syrian army officers, including a state medal winner for bravery, Major Mahmoud Shroof, who purportedly destroyed nine Israeli tanks in the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
“Years later, he was stationed on Syria’s border with Iraq. One day, he told his comrades he won’t be able to fight Arabs or Muslims,” Abu Hosam said, recollecting discussions with the major. “He told me that he was arrested in 1975, interrogated by Hafez Assad himself, and jailed for defying military orders.”
Even those who did the regime favours were jailed, Abu Hosam noted, referring to three individuals who were imprisoned in Tadmur but were treated favourably because they allegedly assassinated a wanted Syrian Army colonel in Lebanon.
“Prison wardens told us these were heroes, not prisoners, but they were being kept away from the public so that they wouldn’t expose the secret operation they executed in Lebanon,” Abu Hosam said.
In jail, he said, there was discrimination between people, depending on race, origin and religious affiliation. For example, wardens were carefully picked from among the ruling minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam to which the Assads belong. If the number of Alawites was insufficient, they would opt for other Syrians from provinces with populations known to be loyal to Assad’s regime.
ISIS has demolished the prison, much to the dismay of Syrian rebel groups, who had hoped to use evidence at Tadmur to prosecute crimes committed by the Assad regime.