Ex-in­mates re­gret de­struc­tion of no­to­ri­ous Syr­ian pri­son


For decades, just men­tion­ing the name Tad­mur Pri­son was enough to send chills down the spine of Syr­i­ans.

The no­to­ri­ous fa­cil­ity in the desert of cen­tral Syria was where thou­sands of dis­si­dents were re­ported to have been beaten, hu­mil­i­ated and sys­tem­at­i­cally tor­tured for op­pos­ing the As­sad fam­ily’s rule.

This week­end, it was de­mol­ished by the Is­lamic State group, which took over the site near the an­cient town of Palmyra last month, bring­ing mixed emo­tions from many Syr­i­ans who wanted it to re­main stand­ing so fu­ture gen­er­a­tions would know its hor­rors.

“They de­stroyed our mem­o­ries, our catas­tro­phe and the walls that we leaned on and told our sto­ries to,” said Ali Aboudehn, a Le­banese who spent four har­row­ing years in Tad­mur. “They de­stroyed the land that ab­sorbed our blood be­cause of tor­ture.”

The sprawl­ing pri­son — once one of Syria’s dark­est se­crets — is lo­cated a few miles east of Palmyra, a desert oa­sis fa­mous for its Ro­man- era colon­nades, tem­ples and ar­ti­facts. There were fears that the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants might de­stroy the 2,000- year- old her­itage site.

In­stead, over the week­end, they fo­cused their de­struc­tive ef­forts on Tad­mur Pri­son.

The ex­trem­ists re­leased pho­tos that showed men car­ry­ing plas­tic con­tain­ers ap­par­ently filled with ex­plo­sives. A video showed parts of the pri­son in rub­ble.

Osama al- Khatib, a Syr­ian op­po­si­tion ac­tivist who fled Palmyra for Turkey three weeks ago, said the mil­i­tants de­stroyed only the part of the pri­son that held mem­bers of the mil­i­tary, in­clud­ing army de­fec­tors. He said the fa­cil­ity where po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers were held is still in­tact. His re­port could not be in­de­pen­dently ver­i­fied.

Lo­cated about 250 kilo­me­ters north­east of Da­m­as­cus, Tad­mur Pri­son is part of a walled- off mil­i­tary com­plex that in­cludes mil­i­tary and civil­ian units as well as an air base. For­mer pris­on­ers say it could hold up to 7,000 in­mates, although the num­ber fell in re­cent years. By the time IS swept into Palmyra last month, the in­mates had been moved else­where and the pri­son was empty.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s fa­ther and pre­de­ces­sor, Hafez As­sad, the pri­son held mostly mem­bers of the outlawed Mus­lim Brotherhood, proSad­dam Hus­sein Baathists and loy­al­ists of the late Pales­tinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The blood­i­est in­ci­dent in Tad­mur’s his­tory came in June 1980, a day af­ter mem­bers of the Mus­lim Brotherhood staged a failed as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt against Hafez As­sad. In re­tal­i­a­tion, troops be­long­ing to As­sad’s brother Ri­faat re­port­edly en­tered the pri­son and shot up to 1,000 pris­on­ers who be­longed to the Brotherhood.

Al- Khatib, who was not born at the time, said his par­ents told him about the in­ci­dent, re­call- ing that they heard shoot­ing for much of that night. Af­ter­ward, the gov­ern­ment took bull­doz­ers from Palmyra to dig mass graves in the nearby Oweimer Moun­tain just north of the town, he said.

“Peo­ple would pass by the pri­son, but no one dared look in­side,” al- Khatib said.

Aboudehn re­calls the first day he en­tered Tad­mur in 1988, nearly a year af­ter he was de­tained in Da­m­as­cus for al­legedly hav­ing con­tacts with Is­rael, Syria’s arch­en­emy.

‘ God is pro­hib­ited from

en­ter­ing the jail’

He had to walk blind­folded and hand­cuffed be­tween two rows of men who kicked, pushed and beat him with clubs and metal rods. His nose was bro­ken and he bled pro­fusely.

Aboudehn showed the tor­ture marks on both his legs, as well as his per­ma­nently dis­lo­cated right arm.

He re­calls the war­den telling a gath­er­ing of de­tainees shortly af­ter they ar­rived: “You have come to your end, there is no mercy here. God is pro­hib­ited from en­ter­ing the jail. We are God. We de­cide if you live or die.”

Aboudehn said he was reg­u­larly beaten and hu­mil­i­ated dur­ing the four years and eight months he spent there. The jail­ers never re­ferred to him with his real name, call­ing him “No. 13” in­stead.

He was held in a cell with about 150 in­mates who all shared one bath­room. For food, each prisoner re­ceived three loaves of Ara­bic bread, an olive and a tea­spoon of mar­malade a day, as well as one egg that was shared among five in­mates.

Pris­on­ers were com­pletely cut off from the out­side world, Aboudehn said, re­call­ing that the first time he knew the Ber­lin Wall fell and the Soviet Union col­lapsed was in 1993, well af­ter those events hap­pened.

Aboudehn broke down when he re­called look­ing through a key­hole and see­ing a sol­dier uri­nat­ing in the food that he and those in his cell were about to eat. He re­fused to eat but didn’t have the courage to tell the oth­ers what he had seen for fear of be­ing killed by his jail­ers. In­stead, he told his fel­low in­mates that he wasn’t feel­ing well.

“I de­cided I will not say any­thing then, but one day I will go out and tell what the regime used to do with us,” said Aboudehn, burst­ing into tears. “May God curse this regime and those peo­ple who despised hu­man­ity!”

When he was moved to Sad­naya Pri­son, a fa­cil­ity near Da­m­as­cus where dis­si­dents also were known to have suf­fered mis­treat­ment, he said it was like “a five- star ho­tel” in com­par­i­son.

Aboudehn, who heads the Com­mit­tee of Le­banese in Syr­ian Prisons, re­gret­ted the de­struc­tion of Tad­mur by the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

“They de­mol­ished a his­toric sym­bol that should have stayed, be­cause in ev­ery room there were peo­ple who were killed,” he said.

A 2001 re­port by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional ti­tled “Syria: Tor­ture, De­spair and De­hu­man­iza­tion in Tad­mur Mil­i­tary Pri­son” cat­a­logued rou­tine abuses against pris­on­ers, in­clud­ing the use of iron bars, whips and ca­bles.

“Tad­mur Pri­son ap­pears to have been de­signed to in­flict the max­i­mum suf­fer­ing, hu­mil­i­a­tion and fear on pris­on­ers and to keep them un­der the strictest con­trol by break­ing their spirit,” it said.

Blow­ing up the fa­cil­ity may have been part of at­tempts by the ex­trem­ists to gain pop­u­lar­ity among those who suf­fered at the hands of the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment. But res­i­dents and for­mer pris­on­ers called it a huge mis­take.

Yassin Al Haj Saleh, who spent 16 years in Syr­ian prisons and wrote a book about his ex­pe­ri­ences, said he was sad­dened by the news, “as if they have de­stroyed my home.”

“I dreamt that I would visit it some­day. ... I had imag­ined that vis­it­ing the prisons where I spent time would serve as clo­sure,” he wrote on his Face­book page.

“The de­struc­tion of a pri­son that was the sym­bol of our slav­ery is the de­struc­tion of our free­dom as well. Of course, it’s a huge ser­vice to the As­sad regime of slav­ery,” he added.

Al- Khatib said he and his friends used to dream of en­ter­ing the pri­son one day and doc­u­ment­ing what hap­pened in­side.

“Now that Daesh de­stroyed the crime scene, it is more dif­fi­cult to know what hap­pened,” he said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for the Is­lamic State. “I am to­tally against destroying it, although it rep­re­sents a dark page of Palmyra and Syria’s his­tory. It should have stayed as a wit­ness to this dark pe­riod.”

Syr­ian op­po­si­tion fig­ure Rad­wan Zi­adeh wrote on his Face­book page that Tad­mur Pri­son “should have been kept as a mu­seum for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions as ev­i­dence of degra­da­tion of hu­man be­ings dur­ing the As­sad rule.”


(Above) This photo re­leased on Satur­day, May 30 by a mil­i­tant web­site, which has been ver­i­fied and is con­sis­tent with other AP re­port­ing, shows the rem­nants of Tad­mur Pri­son in Palmyra (Tad­mur in Ara­bic), Homs prov­ince, Syria.

(Right) This photo re­leased on Satur­day by a mil­i­tant web­site, which has been ver­i­fied and is con­sis­tent with other AP re­port­ing, shows Tad­mur Pri­son be­ing de­mol­ished.

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