Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Syrian authorities under president Bashar Hafez al-Assad have quietly carried out the systematic killing and torture of thousands in its custody at Saydnaya Military Prison, located just outside of Damascus. Earlier this month, the human rights organization Amnesty International released a report that claimed as many as 13,000 people were hanged in Saydnaya over the past five years in what they termed a “policy of extermination.”
The report, which can be downloaded and read in full here, details the horrors experienced by the detainees and calls for an “independent and impartial investigation into crimes committed at Saydnaya.” To aid them with their campaign for independent monitoring of the prison, Amnesty collaborated with Forensic Architecture, a research agency at Goldsmiths, University of London that uses “architectural evidence” to work on behalf of international prosecutors, human rights organizations, and political justice groups. Together, they’ve created an interactive model of Saydnaya prison—a place completely closed off to outsiders—using only aerial satellite images and the testimonies of former detainees.
Many architects refuse to design spaces for inhumane imprisonment, killing, or torture, under the belief that it would make them complicit in those acts. For Forensic Architecture, recreating the design of one of the most inhumane prisons in the world was crucial for holding the Syrian government accountable for the atrocities being carried out there in secret. In April 2016, the architects traveled with a team from Amnesty International to Istanbul to meet five former detainees who had survived Saydnaya. The prisoners helped the architects create an interactive 3D model of the prison from memory, carefully piecing together the area of arrival, the solitary and group cells, long corridors, and spaces where the inmates were subjected to brutal torture. On the project page of Amnesty International’s website, where the model lives, users can explore the prison through a series of videos, text, and animations that detail both the prisoners’ experiences as well as the process by which they collaboratively designed the interactive.
The architects interviewed the former detainees about their memories of Saydnaya, but that methodology was complicated by the fact that, while inside, the prisoners often couldn’t see their surroundings. Many of the inmates were held in solitary confinement cells that were underground and existed in complete darkness. In the group cells above ground, when guards entered the cells, they forced inmates to kneel facing the wall with their palms over their eyes. This was to ensure that they couldn’t see the guards’ faces or the beatings that took place behind their backs. After an uprising by detainees in 2008, prisoners were no longer allowed to leave their cells except for tortuous interrogations, at which point they were typically blindfolded or told to keep their eyes closed.
Stripped of their sense of sight and prohibited from speaking or moving around, prisoners’ developed an acute sense of sound that allowed them to perceive distance, specific objects, and a sense of where they were based on what they heard. By interviewing them about their auditory memories, architects were able to use those that they termed “ear-witness testimonies,” as well as their visual memories, to build out the digital model.
A. Witnesses listened to tones of different decibel levels, and were then asked to match them to the levels of specific incidents inside the prison.
B. We used “echo profiling” 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.
C. We also used “sound artefacts” to simulate prison sounds such as doors, locks, and footsteps, which helped to generate further acoustic memories.
You can see some of these things in practice in the videos that pop up as you click around the model. Selecting on the area labeled “Arrival Truck,” for instance, takes you to two videos describing the “welcome party”—the severe beatings that the prisoners receive when they arrive at the prison. The prisoners are transferred from other detention centers in a meat truck, but are not told where they are going; if they did find out, most of them knew Saydnaya as the end of the line. In a video, a former detainee named Jamal Abdou described the journey to Saydnaya in the “meat fridge,” as the prisoners call it, which ends with them waiting fearfully for the guards to come get them, having already heard what to expect from the brutal “welcome party.” “And then we heard that depressing sound we knew from the detention centers,” he says in the video, which recreates the arrival experience in a 3D animation. “The sound that never leaves the mind of any detainee: the sound of the metal door lock. A sudden clang and then an echo.”
“You try to build an image based on the sounds you hear,” says former detainee Salam Othman, in another video. “You probably know a person by his footsteps”—prisoners learned to detect individual guards by the sounds of his gait—”you can tell food times by the sound of the bowl.”
The architects kept track of the sounds the inmates mentioned in interviews, then would replicate them using computer software. In one video, they play Abdou a clip of footsteps and ask if the guards walked faster or slower, in an effort to estimate the distance of the corridors based on the number of footsteps and the pace of the guards. They also play him an echo of water dripping—a sound that all the prisoners mention as maddening, particularly during days they were being deprived of water. The loudness of the echo depended on the number of people in the cell, Abdou replies. But by identifying the loudness of the echo and the number of people in the cell, Abdou could help the architects estimate the size of the cell that was too dark for Abdou to accurately describe.
In other interviews, inmates recount the number of tiles in their group cells, which they would count to pass the time. One interviewee, Anas Hamado, knew the exact size of the tiles because a fellow inmate once worked as a tiler. They were 33 centimeters each, meaning that three tiles were roughly one square meter. Hamada’s cell was 26 tiles long and 16 or 17 tiles wide. Hamada also described a circular central common area in the middle of the prison, which he glimpsed when he accidentally opened his eyes while being beaten in the corridor. In another interview, a former detainee estimates the dimensions of a door hatch where the food came through, based on the dimensions of his head. As a form of torture, guards would force him to stick his head through the hatch, then they would kick him.
The stories told throughout the interaction are devastating and difficult to hear, made even more so by the recreations of the sounds of the prisons that play in the background. At other moments in the interviews—which are conducted in front of a computer, with the architect simultaneously tweaking the digital model—the former detainees are so measured in tone and so focused on logistics that it could almost be any architect-client meeting over renderings. Unlike a typical client-architect process, this one is happening in reverse, with former detainees recounting their interactions with a space while they were held under conditions that are nearly impossible for outsiders to imagine. On its website, Forensic Architecture describes the interviews as not only instructive for their purposes in reconstructing the prison—they were also a way for detainees to resurface and work through traumatic memories.
For the rest of us, Forensic Architecture’s Saydnaya reconstruction is a valuable piece of information design on a prison that not only clearly violates international human rights law but that has also been purposefully kept from public view. In the interactive, the detainees’ harrowing experiences within the prison reinforce the information that they provide about its architecture, and vice versa. Together, they produce an experience that both Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture hope will convince countries around the world to pressure the Assad regime to let the prison be monitored by human rights groups.