Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison
In 2016, Amnesty International teamed up with Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, to build an interactive 3D model that would recreate the horrors of Saydnaya, the Syrian torture prison near Damascus. No journalists or monitoring groups that report publicly had been able to visit the prison or speak with prisoners for years. But that April, people from the two organizations traveled to Istanbul to meet five survivors from the prison.
As there are no images of Saydnaya, the researchers were dependent on the memories of survivors to recreate what has been happening inside. Using architectural and acoustic modeling, the researchers helped witnesses reconstruct the architecture of the prison and their experiences of detention. The former detainees described the cells and other areas of the prison, including stairwells, corridors, moving doors and windows, to an architect working with 3D modeling software. The witnesses added objects they remembered, from torture tools to blankets and furniture, to areas where they recalled them being used. Inevitably, each recollection sparked more memories as the model developed.
At Saydnaya Military Prison, the Syrian authorities have quietly and methodically organized the killing of thousands of people in their custody. Amnesty International’s research shows that the murder, torture, enforced disappearance and extermination carried out at Saydnaya since 2011 have been perpetrated as part of an attack against the civilian population that has been widespread, as well as systematic, and carried out in furtherance of state policy. We therefore conclude that the Syrian authorities’ violations at Saydnaya amount to crimes against humanity. Amnesty International urgently calls for an independent and impartial investigation into crimes committed at Saydnaya.
“Working with Amnesty International, Forensic Architecture interviewed five former Saydnaya detainees in Istanbul. The researchers asked the prisoners to describe the building. Trauma unhinges memory, but architecture can provide an anchor. No detail was considered too trivial. Based on remembered smells of grease and blood, and sounds like an idling truck engine delivering new prisoners or the approaching thud of guards beating inmates, cell by cell, Forensic Architecture constructed a computer model of Saydnaya.
“‘When a state commits a crime,’ Mr. Weizman explained, ‘it cordons off an area, which is the privilege of the state. That site becomes a work of architecture, defined by the cordon. A prison by definition is architecture. You can try to break through the state cordon via leaks, media images, satellite photographs. And when they’re not available, memory is a way around the cordon.’”