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‘I still have nightmares’: Voices from inside Assad’s torture network in Syria

The satellite image shows what U.S. officials say is a prison complex modified to support a crematorium, lower right. (Reuters)

BEIRUT — The Syrian government has built a crematorium to burn the bodies of prisoners killed within its most notorious prison, the State Department said Monday. 

At least 50 prisoners a day are executed inside the Sednaya complex, some in mass hangings, said Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, citing declassified intelligence assessments and a recent Amnesty International report describing the prison as a “human slaughterhouse.”

More than 100,000 people have been arrested or forcibly disappeared in Syria since the country’s revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began, according to a list compiled by the Syrian Network for Human Rights monitoring group.

In reporting a story about the horrors experienced by inmates inside one Syrian military hospital, we spoke with dozens of former prisoners and guards. They described conditions so atrocious that inmates routinely died of torture, starvation and neglect. They also shared the terror and trauma that followed release, spending waking hours wracked with survivors' guilt and nighttime in the grip of dreams that took them back to their dark and filthy cells.

‘The hospitals were slaughterhouses’: A journey into Syria’s secret torture wards

Their stories below offer but a glimpse of what the survivors told us.

Mazen Hamada, an oil engineer from the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, was arrested in 2013 in the Damascus suburbs after attempting to smuggle baby formula to a rebel-held neighborhood under siege by government forces. He was held in at least three different detention facilities, including Sednaya:

I still remember the room. It was very small. The interrogators came and went. There were different men, different faces. I don’t remember all of them because I was so weak by that point. It's not easy to describe the pain and humiliation of torture.
First they asked for the names of the people I was working with. Then they asked me to confess that I’d been carrying heavy weapons and that I’d murdered a military officer. I was screaming that I didn’t. I was shouting that I just wanted freedom for them, for myself, for everyone. I just wanted to live in freedom. They looked at me blankly. It was like I was speaking to them from another world. So they continued, and they were merciless.
I was still holding out when they hung me from the ceiling by my wrists for an hour, feeling like my body weight was going to break my wrists. When they brought me down, they pulled out a chair and asked me to sit. That was when they pulled down my trousers and held up a sharpened metal pole and a clamp for my penis. When they started to turn the screw, I confessed everything they asked.

Mohamed Abdullah served in the Syrian army until he was arrested in 2015, accused of planning to defect. He was held in Sednaya prison for a year:

As Syrians, you grow up hearing a lot about torture. You hear things you cannot imagine even a psychopath doing. They did all those things to us and more. But in Sednaya they didn't even bother with an interrogation. It was sadism. Our cell was meant for seven men but it held almost 60. We took it in turns to lie down, and if too many of us were too weak to stand, we lay on each other. There was no bathroom, only a hole in the floor that every man had to share. The smell has never left me.
I was one of the “service” guys. It meant we had to work for our jailers. Sometimes it was just cleaning; other times it was carrying away the bodies. They made us beat people, too. By the end, I didn't even question it. We'd get beaten for not attacking the inmates hard enough. I saw one man kicked to death because our guards didn’t think he had done a good job.

Salma, an arts student from Damascus, last saw her three brothers on a late summer night in 2014. She spoke on the condition that her surname be withheld to protect the security of her jailed relatives, if they are still alive:

The police came in the middle of the night to take my three brothers. Two of them were silent as it happened, but Abdulsalam fought like a wild cat. He thought they were going to try to take me, too, but they left me behind in the destruction of my home and all our possessions.
We asked everyone where the boys had been taken. My mother stood outside every prison, sometimes waiting so long that the sun was too much for her and we had to come and collect her. She did that outside a different place every day, just in case someone would tell her something. My father spent so much of our money, hoping the bribes would bring news from inside. A lot of people tricked us and said they had information. The wait made me empty. It was like there was a hole inside of me. We waited three years.
One day we got a call. They told us they were all dead. They were killed days after they were taken and all that waiting was for nothing. Abdulsalam was my best friend. I still have nightmares about what they did to him. But you know what? Part of me still doesn't believe it. We haven't seen the bodies; we haven't had a death certificate. I still pray for them when I go to sleep, just in case.
Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Heba Habib in Cairo contributed to this report.
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