Inside a Syrian Torture Prison

Since 2011 thousands have died in Syria’s prisons and detention facilities. With anyone perceived to be opposed to the Syrian government at risk, tens of thousands of people have been tortured and ill-treated in violation of international law.

In April 2016, Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture travelled to Istanbul to meet five survivors from Saydnaya Prison, near Damascus. In recent years, no journalists or monitoring groups which report publicly have been able to visit the prison or speak with prisoners.

As there are no images of Saydnaya the researchers were dependent on the memories of survivors to recreate what is happening inside.

Using architectural and acoustic modelling, 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 modelling software. The witnesses added objects they remembered, from torture tools to blankets and furniture, to areas where they recalled them being used. The recollections sparked more memories as the model developed.

With next to no daylight, in particular in the solitary cells underground, the prisoners in Saydnaya develop an acute experience of sound. Detainees were made to cover their eyes with their hands whenever a guard entered the room and speaking was prohibited, so prisoners became attuned to the smallest noises.

To capture these auditory memories, researchers developed techniques to solicit “ear-witness testimony” and reconstruct the prison’s architecture through sound.

Witnesses listened to tones of different decibel levels, and were then asked to match them to the levels of specific incidents inside the prison. “Echo profiling” helped to determine the size of spaces such as cells, stairwells and corridors (this involved playing different reverberations and asking witnesses to match them with sounds they remembered hearing in the prison) while “sound artefacts” simulated the noise of doors, locks and footsteps, helping generate further acoustic memories.

Detainees at Saydnaya are generally transferred to the facility after spending months or even years in detention elsewhere. Such transfers often take place following unfair trials at secret military courts. Others arrive at the prison without having seen a judge and do not know the alleged charges against them or how long they will be detained.

The Saydnaya project is part of a wider campaign led by Amnesty International calling on the Syrian government to allow independent monitors into its brutal detention centres. Amnesty is urging Russia and the US “to use their global influence to ensure that independent monitors are allowed in to investigate conditions in Syria’s torture prisons”.

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Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (principal investigator)
  • Christina Varvia (project coordinator)
  • Ana Naomi de Sousa (video filming, co-directing, co-production)
  • Lawrence Abu Hamdan (interviews, acoustic investigation, sound design)
  • Hania Jamal (interviews, 3D modelling)
  • Nestor Rubio (website design)
  • Stefan Laxness (3D modelling, animation)
  • Pierre-Francois Gerard (3D modelling, 3D panoramas)
  • Simone Rowat (video editing)
  • George Clipp (video editing)
  • Gochan Yildirim (camera)
  • Mihai Meirosu (sound mixing)
  • Yamen Albadin (translation, assistant video editing)
  • Hala Makhlouf (Translation, assistant video editing)
  • Ghias Aljundi (translation)
  • Samaneh Moafi (3D texturing)
  • Hana Rizvanolli (project assistance)
  • Susan Schuppli (advisor)
  • Francesco Sebregondi (advisor)
  • Franc Camps Febrer (design technologist)

Collaborating Organizations & Individuals

  • Amnesty International
  • 1635film-istanbul
  • Vasif Kortun/SALT Galata
  • Fiona Gabbert/Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London
  • Department of Computing, Goldsmiths, University of London

Introduction Video  
The Road to Saydnaya
Jamal Abdou describes the arrival into Saydnaya prison. © Forensic Architecture
The Architecture of Sound
Four former detainees describe their experiences of living in Saydnaya prison through the sounds that they had heard. 
© Forensic Architecture 

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