Syria; Detainees released from Sednaya Prison describe the horrors of ‘salt rooms’

9 mins read
Syria; Detainees released from Sednaya Prison describe the horrors of 'salt rooms'
Beirut/Sharq al-Awsat 

When Syrian prisoner Abdo was thrown into a dimly lit cell by a guard in the winter of 2017, he was surprised to find himself ankle-deep in what appeared to be salt.

A two-year prisoner in Sednaya, the largest and most notorious prison in war-torn Syria, Abdo had been deprived of salt in his meager meals since he entered the prison.

A few minutes later, Abdo saw an emaciated corpse in the room, buried in salt.

A few seconds later, Abdo realized that there were two more bodies lying on the floor in the room, as he told AFP about his life in the prison, which former detainees described as a ‘tomb’ and a ‘death camp’.

Abdo had been thrown into what Syrian prisoners call ‘salt rooms’, primitive morgues designed to preserve corpses in the absence of cold morgues.

The Association of Detainees and Missing Persons in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) has documented in a forthcoming report the ‘salt chambers’ that first served as morgues during the conflict that erupted in 2011.

Research and interviews with former prisoners revealed that there are at least two such salt rooms in Sednaya, where bodies are placed until it is time to transfer them.

Abdo, who requested anonymity for fear of harm to his family members living in regime-controlled areas of Syria, described his experience as follows;

“When I entered the room, I first asked myself why they had so much salt and didn’t add it to our food. Then I stepped on something cold. It was someone’s leg. Then I saw the other bodies lying on the salt and I froze with fear. I thought this would be my fate too. I couldn’t move anymore, so I sat next to the wall and started reading the Quran while crying.”

Abdo, who now lives in Lebanon, said he sat in the room for about an hour and a half without moving, describing the moment as “the hardest thing he had ever seen in Sednaya because of the feeling that his life would soon be over.

Abdo described the salt room on the first floor of the red building as roughly six meters by eight meters, with a primitive toilet in one corner.

Abdo breathed a sigh of relief when the guard returned to take him to court. But as he left the room, he was saddened again when he saw a pile of body bags near the door.

Abdo, who was released in 2020, said, “My heart died in Sednaya. Nothing affects me anymore. Even if someone tells me that my brother is dead, that would be normal for me. Thanks to the torture, beatings and deaths I suffered, everything is back to normal.”

AFP spoke to another former prisoner, Mutasim Abdulsatir, at his home in Reyhanlı, who recounted a similar experience in 2014.

Abdulsatir said he learned on April 27, 2014 that he was to be released, said goodbye to his fellow prisoners and happily walked behind his guard.

On the day of his release, however, Abdulsatır was taken into the salt room and was surprised to stand on a 20-30 centimeter layer of salt used to de-ice roads in winter.

Abdulsatir said he saw four or five dead bodies in the room and said, “As for the reason I was put there on the day I was released, I think they wanted to scare us.”

Abdulsatir said he stayed in the room for three or four hours and the salt under his feet melted because he was sweating so much.

Out of fear, Abdulsatyr urinated in the room and quickly covered it with salt so that the guard would not notice.

Weighing 98 kilograms when he entered prison in 2011, Abdulsatir weighed 42 kilograms when he was released.

It is not known whether these rooms still exist.

Based on testimonies from detainees and former prison staff, ADMSP believes the first salt chamber was discovered in the second half of 2013.

“We found that there were at least two salt rooms used for the bodies of those who died under torture, from disease or starvation,” ADMSP co-founder Diab Serriya said in an interview in Gaziantep.

Serriya said the salt chambers were meant to preserve the corpses, control bad odor and protect guards and prison staff from bacteria and infections.

“The bodies were then kept in the salt chambers for two to five days in cells with the prisoners as a form of punishment before being transferred to the salt chambers,” Serriya said, adding that the bodies were then kept in the salt chambers for two days before being transferred to a military hospital for death certificates and then to mass graves.

“It was also difficult to transport the bodies out of the prison every day, especially during the period of intense fighting between regime forces and opposition groups between 2013 and 2017,” Serriya said, adding that despite the high number of deaths in Sednaya, there was no morgue.

Joy Balta, a professor of anatomy at Point Loma Nazarene University in the US who has done extensive research on techniques to preserve the human body, explained how salt can be used as a simple and cheap alternative to cold rooms.

“Salt has the ability to dry out any living tissue and can therefore be used to significantly slow down the decomposition process,” Balta told AFP. Although it will change the surface anatomy, a body can remain intact in salt for longer than in a purpose-built refrigerator,” Balta told AFP.

Ancient Egyptians are known to have used the mummification process, which involved immersing the body in a salt solution called natron.

The tons of rock salt used in Sednaya are believed to have come from Lake Jabbul, Syria’s largest salt flats, in Aleppo province.

The ADMSP report, based on interviews with 10 former detainees and 21 members of the regime’s security and military services, will be the first and most detailed study to date on the prison’s administrative structure, working mechanisms and organizational relations.

“The regime wants Sednaya to be a black hole, no one is allowed to know anything about it. If there is a political transition in Syria, we want Sednaya to be turned into a museum like Auschwitz.”

Aside from torture and disease, detainees who spoke to AFP recalled starvation as their worst torture.

The ADMSP estimates that 30,000 people have entered Sednaya since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, of whom only 6,000 have been released, while most of the rest are considered missing, especially as families are rarely informed of their deaths.

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