Sunday, April 2, 2023

In Syria, the terror of the “salty room” in the Sednaya prison

When his jailer pushes him into a dark room in Sednaya Prison, Abdo is surprised to find that he is ankle deep in salt. On this winter’s day in 2017, the young man has already spent two years in Syria’s most notorious prison.

The establishment’s meager ration is being cooked without salt, it is a pleasure Abdo brings to his mouth a handful of white crystals. Moments later comes a second, less pleasant surprise: while carefully searching the room, barefoot in the dark, he stumbles upon a corpse.

The body has become emaciated and half buried in salt. Soon, he discovers two more dead bodies.

Abdo is what the prisoners called “Saloir”, a rudimentary morgue that stored corpses in the absence of cold rooms.

Already known in ancient Egypt, this technique was adopted to respond to the rhythm of killings in the prisons of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

These “salt chambers” will be described for the first time in a report published soon by the Association of Inmates and Disappeared of Sednaya Prisons (ADMSP).

During extensive research and interviews with former detainees, AFP found that at least two salt chambers had been built in Sednaya.

Since 2011, more than 100,000 people have died in Syrian regime prisons, including torture, according to a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH).

Now 30, Abdo, who survived the hell of Sednaya, chose a fictitious name out of fear of retribution. Originally from Homs, he now lives in eastern Lebanon where he rents an apartment.

Abdo vividly remembers the day he was thrown into a tub of salt while waiting to appear before a military tribunal that sometimes served as a cell.

“My first thought was: God damn them! They have all this salt but don’t put it in our food!” they say. “Then I stepped on something cool. It was someone’s foot.”

– “my heart is dead” –

“I thought I was going to be killed,” continued Abdo, who cried in a corner of the salt chamber and recited verses from the Quran.

Eventually a guard came to pick him up to bring him to trial. When he left the room, he saw a pile of body bags near the door.

Abdo, who was lucky enough to escape the horrors of Sednaya, describes a room on the first floor of the prison as about eight by six meters with a rudimentary toilet in a corner.

The young man was detained for terrorism, a blanket charge used by the regime to imprison thousands of men. He was released in 2020, but his captivity left him life-threatening.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve experienced,” admits Abdo. “My heart died in Sednaya. If someone told me about my brother’s death today, I would not have felt anything.”

Some 30,000 people have reportedly been detained in Sednaya prison alone since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Only 6,000 of them have been released.

Most of the other detainees are officially considered missing, with their death certificates rarely reaching their families unless their relatives pay exorbitant bribes, as part of a wider racketeering.

AFP interviewed another former prisoner, Moatsem Abdel Seter, who had a similar experience in 2014 in another cell on the first floor of the prison, without a toilet, about four by five metres.

The 42-year-old, who lives in Rehanli, Turkey, said he found himself standing on a thick layer of salt like salt on the roads in winter.

“I looked to my right and saw four or five bodies. They looked just like me,” recalls Moatsem Abdel Sutter, recounting how their skeletal parts and itchy skin reminded them of their own emaciated bodies. Dila: “It looked like they had been mummified.”

Moatsem Abdel Sater admitted that he did not know why he was taken to a temporary morgue on the day of his release on May 27, 2014. “It might just be to scare us,” he says.

– black hole –

According to the ADMSP, the first salt chamber in Sednaya dates back to 2013, one of the bloodiest years of the Syrian conflict.

“We found that there were at least two salt chambers to preserve the corpses of those who died of torture, disease or starvation,” the association’s co-founder Diab Ceria said during the interview. An interview in the Turkish city of Gaziantep.

It is not known whether the two chambers existed at the same time and whether they are still operational.

Ceria said that when a prisoner dies, his body is usually taken inside the cell for two to five days in a salt chamber.

The corpses were then placed in saline tubs until there was enough to fill a truck. The military hospital then issued death certificates, often stating that a “heart attack” had caused the death before the mass funeral.

“The salt chambers are there to preserve the body, prevent stink … and protect the guards and prison staff from bacteria and infection,” says Ceria.

US-based anatomy professor Joy Balta, who has published extensively on techniques for preserving the human body, explains how simple and cheap salt can be used as an alternative to cold storage.

“Salt has the ability to dry out any living tissue by reducing the water content (…) and can therefore be used to slow down the process of decomposition,” he told AFP.

A body can be preserved in salt longer than a cold room, “although this technology changes the anatomy of the surface,” Balta continues.

In ancient Egypt, a saline solution called natron was used to mummify the body of the deceased.

The salt used in Sednaya is said to come from Sabkhat al-Jaboul, Syria’s largest salt flat in the province of Aleppo.

The ADMSP report is the most in-depth study to date of the structure of Sednaya Prison, providing detailed diagrams of the installation and distribution of functions among the various military units and guards.

“The regime wants Sednaya to be a black hole. No one is allowed to know anything about it,” Ceria said. “Our report prevents them from achieving that goal.”

– morbid irony –

The intensity of fighting in Syria has diminished over the past three years, but Bashar al-Assad and the Sednaya prison, which has become a symbol of the bloody regime, still exist.

New aspects of the horrors of war continue to be uncovered as survivors abroad share their stories and investigations into the regime’s crimes by foreign courts fuel a campaign for accountability.

“If there is ever a political change in Syria, we want Sednaya to be turned into a museum, like Auschwitz,” Seria said.

The prisoners remember that hunger was their greatest pain apart from torture and disease.

Moatsem Abdel Sater says that when he went to prison in 2011, he had increased from 98 kg to 42 kg when he was released from prison.

Former prisoners also find it a blatant irony that the salt they so desperately needed was part of the killing machine that was destroying them.

Sometimes the wheat, rice and potatoes that they were fed were always cooked without salt or sodium chloride, the absence of which could have serious consequences for the human body.

Low levels of sodium in the blood can cause nausea, dizziness and convulsions and eventually coma and death.

Prisoners submerged olive pits for salt in their water, and spent hours sifting washing powder to remove tiny crystals, which they found to be a delicacy.

Now living in Gaziantep, former prisoner Cass Mourad tells how he was taken out of his cell to see his parents on a summer day in 2013, only to be briefly locked in another room was.

Inside, he stepped on something that looked like sand. Kneeling, his head leaning against the wall, he saw the guards throwing a dozen bodies behind him.

Later that day, when a fellow prisoner returned to the cell with his socks and pockets full of salt, Qais Mourad understood.

“Later, we always managed to wear socks and pants with pockets when we had salt,” Qais Mourad told AFP.

This former prisoner remembers how his impatient fellow prisoners ate boiled potatoes that day with their first pinch of salt in years, regardless of where it came from.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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