The body is emaciated and half buried in salt. Soon, he discovers two more corpses. Abdo is in what the detainees call a “saloir”, a rudimentary morgue used to store corpses in the absence of cold rooms. Already known in ancient Egypt, this technique was adopted to respond to the rhythm of the killings perpetrated in the prisons of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
These “salt chambers” will be described for the first time in a report published soon by the Association of Inmates and Disappeared of Sednaya Prison (ADMSP). During extensive research and interviews with former detainees, AFP found that at least two salt chambers had been created in Sednaya. Since 2011, more than 100,000 people have died in Syrian regime prisons, including under torture, reports the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH).
” My heart is dead “
Now 30, Abdo, who survived the hell of Sednaya, chose an assumed name for fear of reprisals. Originally from Homs, he now lives in eastern Lebanon where he rents an apartment. Abdo vividly remembers the day he was thrown into the salt tub that sometimes served as a cell, while waiting to appear before a military tribunal.
“My first thought was: God damn them! They have all that salt but don’t put it in our food! », he says. “Then I stepped on something cold. It was someone’s leg. “I thought I was going to be executed”continues Abdo, who had curled up in a corner of the salt chamber while he wept and recited verses from the Koran.
My heart died in Sednaya. If someone told me my brother died today, I wouldn’t feel anything.
A guard finally came to pick him up to bring him to the hearing. Leaving the room, he saw a pile of body bags near the door. Abdo, who was lucky enough to survive the horrors of Sednaya, describes a room about eight by six meters with a rudimentary toilet in one corner, on the first floor of the prison.
The young man had been detained for terrorism, a blanket charge used by the regime to imprison tens of thousands of men. He was released in 2020, but his incarceration traumatized him for life. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced”admits Abdo. “My heart died in Sednaya. If someone told me of my brother’s death today, I wouldn’t feel anything.
Officially considered missing
Around 30,000 people have reportedly been detained in Sednaya prison alone since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Only 6,000 of them have been released. Most of the other detainees are officially considered missing, their death certificates rarely reaching their families unless their relatives pay exorbitant bribes, as part of a widespread racketeering.
AFP interviewed another former prisoner, Moatassem Abdel Sater, who had a similar experience in 2014, in another cell on the first floor of the prison, about four by five meters, without a toilet. The 42-year-old, who is based in Reyhanli in Turkey, said he found himself standing on a thick layer of the type of salt used to salt the roads in winter.
They looked like they were mummified.
“I looked to my right and saw four or five bodies. They looked a bit like me”recalls Moatassem Abdel Sater, describing how their skeletal limbs and scabies skin reminded him of his own emaciated body: “It looked like they were mummified. » Moatassem Abdel Sater admits not knowing why he was taken to the makeshift morgue on the day of his release, May 27, 2014. “Maybe it was just to scare us”he blurts out.
A black hole
According to the ADMSP, the first salt chamber in Sednaya dates back to 2013, one of the bloodiest years of the Syrian conflict.
“We discovered that there were at least two salt chambers used to preserve the corpses of those who died from torture, disease or starvation,” said the association’s co-founder, Diab Serriya, during an interview in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. It is not known if the two chambers existed at the same time and if they are still operational.
Preserving the bodies, containing the stench…and protecting guards and prison staff from bacteria and infection.
When a prisoner died, his body was usually left inside the cell for two to five days before being taken to a salt chamber, says Diab Serriya. The corpses were then kept in the salting tub until there was enough to fill a truck. The military hospital then issued death certificates, often indicating that a ” heart attack ” had caused the death, before the mass burials.
The salt chambers are intended for “preserve the bodies, contain the stench…and protect guards and prison staff from bacteria and infection,” explains Diab Serriya. US-based anatomy professor Joy Balta, who has published extensively on techniques for preserving the human body, explains how simple and inexpensive salt can be used as an alternative to cold storage.
“Salt has the ability to desiccate any living tissue by reducing its water content. […] and can therefore be used to significantly slow down the decomposition process”, he explains. A body can be preserved in salt longer than in a cold room, “although this technique alters the surface anatomy”continues Joy Balta.
In ancient Egypt, a saline solution called natron was used to mummify the bodies of the deceased. The tons of salt used in Sednaya are said to come from Sabkhat al-Jabul, the largest salt flat in Syria, in the province of Aleppo. The ADMSP report is the most in-depth study to date of the structure of Sednaya prison, providing detailed diagrams of the installation and the distribution of tasks between the various army units and the guards. .
“The regime wants Sednaya to be a black hole. No one is allowed to know anything about it,” says Joy Serriya: “Our report prevents them from achieving this goal. »
The intensity of the fighting in Syria has diminished over the past three years, but Bashar al-Assad and the Sednaya prison, which has become a symbol of the bloody regime, are still in place. New facets of the horror of war continue to be uncovered as survivors abroad share their stories and investigations into the regime’s crimes by foreign courts fuel a drive for accountability.
From 98 kg, when he was imprisoned in 2011, to 42 kg on his release from prison.
“If a political transition ever happens in Syria, we want Sednaya to be turned into a museum, like Auschwitz”, says Joy Serriya. Prisoners remember that apart from torture and disease, hunger was their greatest torment. Moatassem Abdel Sater says he went from 98 kg when he was imprisoned in 2011 to 42 kg when he left prison.
Former inmates also consider it a sickening irony that the salt they so badly needed was part of the killing machine that was decimating them. The wheat, rice and potatoes they were sometimes fed with were always cooked without salt or sodium chloride, the deprivation of which can have serious consequences for the human body.
Low levels of sodium in the blood can cause nausea, dizziness and cramps and ultimately coma and death. Inmates used to dip olive pits in their water to salt it, and spent hours sifting washing powder to remove tiny crystals they considered a delicacy.
Now based in Gaziantep, former inmate Qais Mourad recounts how one summer day in 2013 he was taken out of his cell to see his parents, only to be locked in another room for a while . Inside, he stepped on something that looked like sand. Kneeling, his head tilted against the wall, he saw guards throwing a dozen bodies behind him. Later that day, when a fellow prisoner returned to the cell with his socks and pockets full of salt, Qais Mourad understood.
“Afterwards, we always managed to wear socks and pants with pockets when we had visitors, in case we found salt”, says Qais Mourad. This former prisoner remembers how his impatient fellow prisoners ate boiled potatoes that day with their first pinch of salt in years, not caring where it came from.