The Syrian station Radio Damascus had a regular program on Saturday night for years, Our children around the world† Fathers and mothers summoned presenter Amal al-Daqqaq to share their grief over their children abroad. Mustafa was in Canada, Tawfiq in France for his studies, how would they be?
What not everyone realized was that the program had a different function: some children had never moved, they fell ill in one of Syria’s countless torture cells. Communication was virtually impossible, so family members came up with the idea of addressing the sender in code language. One day a woman from the city of Hama called. She could not help but talk about her eldest, who ‘was in the UK to become an engineer’. To her son: ‘I have sent you a woolen scarf. It’s cold, my son, please take care of yourself. ‘ On the other side of the radio, dozens of inmates cried along with the elderly mother, unaware that her son had been executed years earlier.
IN The Syrian Gulag, an extensive book by UvA professor of Holocaust and genocide studies Ugur Ümit Üngör and the previously arrested Jaber Baker, there are several such gripping stories. The authors reconstruct how the Assad dynasty (first Hafiz al-Assad, then his son Bashar) was able to build one of the world’s most horrific tools of oppression in fifty years. They quote from memoirs and eyewitness accounts and interviewed nearly a hundred Syrians at home and abroad, primarily former prisoners and eyewitnesses, but also a few perpetrators.
Discipline and eradication
The word ‘gulag’ comes from the Soviet Union, where it was a synonym for the many hundreds of concentration camps. The Syrian counterpart that the authors show may be smaller, but it is not or hardly inferior to that in terms of murderousness.
Syrians can be arrested for liking a message on Facebook, or because a distant relative happens to be politically active. They are imprisoned without trial and disappear to a place ‘behind the sun’, where they are stripped, tortured and starved, often to death. In the harshest prisons, of the intelligence services and the military, the goal is not only discipline but also extermination. Do you know where you are, an officer asked a prisoner in 2012. No, the man said. “You are in hell (…) and we are angels of misery.”
There are no official figures on the exact number of prisoners. The book makes a conservative estimate that about 300,000 people have been detained (or died in prison) since the Syrian uprising broke out. If true, Syria has the highest prison population per capita. population in the world with 1,200 for every 100,000 people (leading in absolute numbers, the United States, with just over half). ‘The Gulag has become an inherent part of the Syrian identity,’ the authors write, ‘similar to how the struggle against the sea is an aspect of the Dutch identity.’
Before dealing with Syria, the lead author Üngör published on paramilitarism and the Armenian genocide. In April, he made headlines around the world with the revelation of a mass execution of one of Assad’s militias in Tadamon, a suburb of Damascus. The video footage from 2013 was made by the perpetrators, who are laughing out loud. Üngör has handed over the material to the judiciary; it can serve as evidence in future lawsuits.
Index of Torture Methods
The Syrian Gulag sounds at times like a police report, so careful are the authors on their pages long descriptions of torture (at the back is an index of the most commonly used methods). Women are raped, men have their nails pulled out, they are electrocuted by their genitals or hung ‘like a barbecue chicken’. Victims are skillfully promoted to perpetrators: each dormitory has one shawish (cell head), a sadistic extension of the guards.
Why is the regime doing this? What is the function of gulag? The aim is to eradicate any form of “sincere politics” outside the sphere of the ruling Ba’ath party, Üngör and Baker claim. The Gulag is an integral part of Assad’s strategy to “mold and shape” society. Torture or other orders of violence are not required; competition between security services is sufficient. Killing and torture is a ‘form of relationship management: the more you torture, the more you show others that you support Assad’.
In the chapter on Mezze, a notorious prison until its closure in 2000, speaks a man who had been imprisoned for nine years. With a nail he found in his solitary cell, he wrote to his daughter: ‘The days go by. Rotting executioners. The day is darker than the night. More information is always requested. (…) That whip is ruthless, my dear daughter. The executioner does not understand Arabic, he does not believe in God or people. ‘
It is such testimonies that, in addition to being a major contribution to the study of totalitarian regimes, make this book a monument to the survivors. It is hoped for an early translation into English and Arabic.
Ugur Ümit Üngör and Jaber Baker: The Syrian Gulag – Assad’s Prisons 1970-2020. Wood, 408 pages, € 34.90.