Witness by Amnesty International: Episode 1 - The Party

Amnesty International has launched a brand new podcast series ‘Witness from Amnesty International’. The series introduces listeners to the organization’s Research and Crisis Response teams – whose investigations take them to some of the most dangerous and volatile places on earth.

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TANYA: There’s a knock at the door one day. Unexpected. The police have come to take away someone you love. You’re not sure why and you’re not told either. Father, mother, spouse… child… one minute they’re there… the next they’re not. You try to keep track of them to begin with, but it’s impossible… they vanish into the black hole of the Syrian prison system.

NICOLETTE: Almost everybody who is arrested in Syria by the government is disappeared…. That’s their modus operandi… is to arrest and then completely cut off contact. And I felt like there almost wasn’t a family that we sat down with, even randomly sitting at a café or refugee camp, who didn’t know someone who had been disappeared. 

TANYA: It’s usually a magic trick, isn’t it? To make someone ‘disappear’. But in human rights terms, it means you’ve been snatched from your home or the streets and imprisoned or killed without judicial process. It’s a favourite tool of dictators and oppressive regimes… and it’s rife in Syria.

NICOLETTE: The Syrian government was using detention as a weapon on the war to spread fear among the civilian population. So, anybody who was perceived to be somehow aligned with the revolution in Syrian would be arrested, completely cut off from their friends and their family. No one knows where they are. And then put into this labyrinth of prisons throughout Syria. The vast majority were civilians and some of their most common profiles were human rights demonstrators, journalists, lawyers…. really the fabric of Syrian civil society.

TANYA: The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates 95,000 citizens were disappeared there between 2011 and 2018.

NICOLETTE: People had been executed, tortured and put in terrible conditions before the war started, but then in 2011 basically these practices escalated massively so the number of people who were detained and then also the practices became much worse, the abuses became much worse. A massive uptick in degree and number of people involved.

TANYA: I’m Tanya O’Carroll, part of the research department at Amnesty International and this is Witness, a podcast that goes behind the scenes on investigations that made some of the biggest headlines for human rights. Stories about what it takes to uncover the truth when there are people who would prefer the truth to stay buried. In this episode, we are following the work of researcher Nicolette Waldman as she investigates the fate of  the ‘disappeared’ in Syria.

NICOLETTE: I just became so drive to find out, okay all of these (usually) men have been disappeared – what happened to them? Where have they gone?

Because of the constraints, because people weren’t reaching these prisons because they weren’t allowed to go into Syria, I felt like it was a story that the international community was missing. As well as perhaps international human rights community because it was so piece-y to get to the detainees and it was arduous to find a witness and then to get to them.

TANYA: Nicolette Waldman. American by birth, raised northern in Minnesota by two high school teachers... funny and brave, though she’d probably rather I didn’t say that. Back in 2015, she’d just begun working on the problem of forced disappearances in Syria. It’s a particularly tough issue to investigate because Amnesty - like most human rights organisations - is banned from the country… so Nicolette started by going to Turkey to talk to Syrian refugees.

NICOLETTE: These interviews just kind of lodged in my heart a bit. They almost felt like a mix of an interview and then a memorial for the person.

TANYA: She sat down with families whose loved ones had been picked up by the Syrian police and never seen again.

NICOLETTE: I guess the family that that first comes to mind is one where they were living in a very very simple place in a village on the border with Syria and Turkey. They just had this massive shrine built up to their son who had been disappeared. Those were the interviews that sometimes we’d get in the car and just sob afterward, drive away and sob. Just this crime of disappearance…. leaving the family with always just a sense that perhaps the person is alive and they know probably that's not the case but ….perhaps.

TANYA: It’s hard to imagine what that’s like on a daily basis… to live with ‘perhaps’.

Perhaps your father’s alive… your husband… your son.

One place kept coming up in Nicolette’s interviews with these families. A prison called Saydnaya.

NICOLETTE: Saydnaya, I think it's been notorious for Syrian’s for decades and people have known that if your friend or a family member has been sent to Saydnaya it's very bad news so it has almost a folklore that it evokes for Syrians. The worst place you could be sent. A place of last resort and I remember an official telling me that Saydnaya is the end of humanity. 

TANYA: Detainees call it ‘the Mercedes Wheel’ after its distinctive shape… a central hub with three radiating spokes. Or the ‘Red Building’ after its colour. Since 2011, it’s housed mostly civilians, who the state believe played a role in the revolution. The ‘White Building’ nearby is L-shaped - the majority of its inmates, again since 2011, were military officers or soldiers suspected of disloyalty to the government. Together… they comprise Saydnaya Military Prison… located thirty or so kilometres north of Damascus… under the jurisdiction of the Syrian Ministry of Defence and run by the Military Police.

Nicolette decided to focus her investigation on this blackest of black sites. What was happening to Syrian citizens unlucky enough to wind up inside Saydnaya? And why did so few seem to make it out?

NICOLETTE: People said thousands of detainees were held there but yet I could almost never find detainees from Saydnaya... I always found that very eerie, very strange.

TANYA: She and her colleagues set out to find people who could bear first-hand witness to life inside the prison.

 NICOLETTE: Because there have been so many people detained inside of Syria, there are in these border towns in Turkey many former detainees or families who know somebody who has been detained and so basically we work on completely a network basis. We talk to NGOs,  local organizations, international organizations,  and then Civic organizations,  Syrian civil Society organizations.

TANYA: The NGOs on the ground - who work with detainees day in, day out - were keen to help. But even with their assistance, tracking down witnesses from Sednaya proved unusually tricky… much tougher than Nicolette’s experience of investigating other branches of the Syrian prison network.

NICOLETTE: For detainees from any branch you can sometimes go to a certain town and maybe meet with five people at once because there would be so many people have passed through certain branches. For Saydnaya, it was a different story and so we would just drive from city to city to city and often in one day we would drive for maybe eight hours going from place to place trying to find somebody who might have an idea about some person who got released a year ago. We would basically follow any lead we could get. It was that difficult.

TANYA: When they did find a detainee, the next challenge was to build trust… to somehow convince these men who had been so persecuted by their own state, often for the mildest of dissenting speech or action, to tell their stories. Nicolette frequently had to win over an intermediary… before even getting to talk to the potential witness.

NICOLETTE: Cousin or friend. People who basically that detainee would trust and then if we could build up enough trust with that person, he or she might introduce us finally to the detainee and once they saw that we weren't just trying to get a sound bite or we’re not just trying to get very crass or basic details but we actually wanted to know what it was like for them and share their story, how they wanted to, then that kind of ownership lead to then us being able to slowly slowly build out this kind of family of witnesses.

TANYA: Nicolette and her colleague, made ten or so trips to Turkey over the course of a year, driving from border town to border town to sit down with detainees... taking statements... fact-checking... corroborating stories. It was painstaking, difficult work. The detainees were kept in darkness and made to cover their eyes when they moved around, so each had a partial, fragmented sense of the prison… often based in the sounds they heard… and potentially distorted by hunger, fear and illness.

Incredibly bravely, a few of the detainees that Nicolette interviewed were willing to take an even more active role in bringing the abuses at Saydnaya to light. They agreed to participate in a ground-breaking project to reconstruct a model of the prison online. The witnesses worked with Forensic Architecture, a team based at Goldsmiths University in London, and Lawrence Abu-Hamden, an affiliated artist, to recreate the prison, brick by brick. They dug through their memories for the tiniest of details...

NICOLETTE: We didn't think people would actually want to spend hours building their cell. You think this is a terrible place - why would you want to back to this place? But actually, we had to stop people because they wanted to get it perfect and they would be like ‘no, it’s not like this. It’s like this.’ I remember, especially on the sounds, because we had a sound expert who would be asking people,you know, ‘is this right? Is this right?’ and I thought, you know, after four times they’d be like ‘no that sounds good enough’ but every time they would be like ‘no, that’s not it. Keep going.’ And you know ‘show me another one, show me another one,’ and they just wanted to get it perfect. Again, I think that was just a way of them reclaiming the experience and to be a part of that was just really really humbling.

TANYA: Sound was a particularly important part of the reconstruction.

NICOLETTE: It’s another thing that makes Saydnaya unique in the prison system in Syria. People are not allowed to speak and they're told that right from the beginning and so even when they're being tortured they're told I can't scream and they are told they can’t even make a sound of impact. It meant that people became very attuned to sounds. It was a way of survival.

TANYA: Forensic Architecture built the prison’s sound-world based on the witnesses’ testimony… recreating everything from the fizz of the electric lights to the dull thwack of a tyre used as a torture instrument.

NICOLETTE: There is something called the ‘Welcome Party’ when people arrive. Just this extreme beating to show you’ve arrived and this is what you’re going to go through and just the different sounds of the people in that first initial beating, people being beat, but then being told “you cannot speak.”

DETAINEE: Then they shut the door... No one dared lift his head, because we thought one of the guards might be in there. A long time passed before we started to communicate, first by touching... and eventually we had the courage to look. We saw that we were alone, in this small space. There were no sounds at all, total silence. Only the sound of water dripping. Eventually we started to see each other’s faces. They had deliberately shaved our heads haphazardly and we were all naked. We started to whisper to each other, trying to sense where we were. Asking each other “where are we?”. And then they said, “we are in Saydnaya.”

TANYA: One witness recalled being held in a cell designed for solitary prisoners, less than four square metres in size. He shared it with nine other prisoners – taking it in turns to sit down. “You feel like you’re in a matchbox,” he said.

NICOLETTE: Any time a guard would approach, the prisoners would have to run to the back of the cell and kneel in a certain position and cover their eyes with the palms of their hands and if you were not in that position you would get beat. So, they would use the sounds of the steps of the guards as they were approaching, they would sometimes have one person listening for that sound so then they could immediately make the signal and immediately run and assume the position.

They actually listened to the sound of the pigeons that would sit on the window ledges outside the prison because if they flew away that meant somebody was coming.

DETAINEE: If I want to speak to my friend, I would nudge him and whisper. Where are you hurt? Did he hit you a lot? Where did he hit you the most?

TANYA: The detainees were regularly starved of food and water. “Our t-shirts became so big that we looked like children wearing our father’s clothes”, one said. When there was food, it was shoved through a small hatch at the bottom of the cell door, a foot or so up from the floor.

DETAINEE: Once the guard came and asked why is your cell dirty? We said: we are dirty, we have no water and now way to clean the cell. He said: put your head out. I didn’t understand. I asked him, how? I told him it didn’t fit in the hatch. And he said it could, sideways. And actually, it could, horizontally. Then he straightened my head, so my throat was pressed against the edge. And he jumped with all his weight on my head. I couldn’t breathe.. the whole world was spinning. He stamped on me several times. I tried to pull my head back but my cheek got stuck. Then he started jumping and stomping, jumping and kicking. Blood started flowing all over the floor. The pain and the humiliation was unbearable.

TANYA: Detail by detail, a picture emerged of a nightmarish world designed to systematically degrade and dehumanise... where beatings and sexual violence were common. What more could there be to unearth?

NICOLETTE:     February 26th 2016, we met with a witness who was a former detainee and he went through his experience at Saydnaya. And at the very end he said Look, from my cell there would be people who were called out for transfer to civilian prisons and I expected when I was released I would find these people because once you get into a civilian prison in Syria you might survive and it basically stuck in his mind that this happened every Monday.

TANYA: Nicolette made a note of this last-minute thought but didn’t think too much about it. She said goodbye and headed back to the car. She had a four-hour drive to meet up with another new witness. The venue... a shopping mall cafe with noisy Turkish pop music in the background.

NICOLETTE: They had had hot chocolate I remember and I had gotten this milk drink and it was like 9.30 at night and I was so tired and when we met this guy he said ‘I was detained in the white building’. I immediately thought ‘oh no, how frustrating.’ Because we knew that the white building was normally made up of officers and soldiers who had defected and their conditions were generally much much better. So my immediate reaction was ‘oh gosh, how disappointing’.  But we went through the interview and basically spent a lot of time talking with his friend about how he didn’t like America and it was all very disorganised. But we kept going and we built trust over a good hour and I was thinking ‘okay, probably time to end the interview’ It’s been an hour or two. And he said look, there is something else I want to tell you.They would bring people over to my building in minibuses. They would bring them down to a room in the basement and they would hang them. We could hear the sounds of them being strangled, we could hear them gurgling and I remember immediately the hairs on my arms stood up because he said this always happened on Mondays. Basically it was just these two puzzle pieces coming together. They had no connection to each other, they were hours apart and I remember even at that first moment, I knew there was something to it. People had talked about Saydnaya and it was a very bad prison but no even rumours about the hangings so no it came completely out of the blue.

TANYA: Nicolette continued the slow work of tracking down and interviewing witnesses, but now with a new focus. She wanted to find out everything she could about the events that seemed to take place every Monday night at Saydnaya.

NICOLETTE: I had notes up on a wall of every piece of the process. I was always trying to figure out where did I need more, where did I need to get more information and then that would shape the next mission. Either we would go back and ask people, maybe if we’d missed something or we’d find a new witness and talk to them about these different pieces of the process. It felt absolutely like detective work.

TANYA: Amazingly, a few of the detainees had begun an investigation of their own while in prison - after hearing a strange noise they couldn’t place…

NICOLETTE: They started hearing funny sounds and it just sparked something in them and over the course of months, they basically worked together to piece together what was happening at night. They weren’t supposed to move around at night at all, so first of all they would pretend to be asleep and instead be listening. What they said, is that they heard the sound of a schonk. They didn’t know how to describe like a plate being moved, like a really big plate being moved.

TANYA: Slowly, bit by bit Nicolette began to piece together what was happening every Monday night at Saydnaya. But she still didn’t have an eye-witness account from inside the hanging room… and the only people who could give her that were members of the prison staff.

It seemed like a long shot – the team had to find someone who’d participated in the killings and was now willing to blow the whistle.

But after a lot of dead ends, they managed to track down a remarkable potential witness – a high ranking prison official who was apparently wracked with guilt and wanted to talk. His testimony was to prove essential.

NICOLETTE:  The first interview just trying to move extremely slowly and knowing what we had in our hands was the key. We’d been hearing about all of these different pieces and we had a sense of what might be happening but he gave the overarching process - the perspective of someone who saw this happening, week by week.

TANYA: Nicolette hoped the official might be willing to help her find other ex-members of staff. And he could also provide the overview of the Monday night hangings that she’d been lacking.

These were difficult and confusing sessions.

NICOLETTE: Sometimes I feel like to be a good interviewer, you almost have to see the perspective of that person. You have to empathize with that person. To empathize with this high level official, it felt terrible. I was doing it but it didn’t feel good. I almost felt that I had shuffled around my brain and created a new area that was just completely grey, where I put my work with him. And we would always have tabbouleh. He actually had delicious tabbouleh. Again, it was so strange to be having this delicious meal with him and seeing his kids who were very adorable kids. It was a very strange experience.

TANYA: It became clear from talking to the official that the hangings were conducted in great secrecy. Very few of the detainees knew what was going on… and hardly any of the prison guards. The high-ranking official had given Nicolette an overview of the process… but it would now take time, patience and luck to find more ex-members of staff who could corroborate the information.

NICOLETTE: One very big breakthrough was a guy who worked in the telecommunications office…and he basically ended up being our second-best witness.

TANYA: The telecommunications office was near the entrance to the prison - which meant this new witness saw all the comings and goings at the prison… including the arrival of the execution panel, a group of military officers, prison and medical officers, who’d visit Saydnaya each week to oversee the executions.

NICOLETTE: He would see the vehicles arrive in the middle of the night and then he would actually see the truck leave the grounds of the prison, with the bodies. And then would also see the execution panel as they called it, leaving again. So he just could corroborate these details that almost no one else would have seen. So he gave us this vantage point that we actually really needed.

TANYA: Amnesty now estimates that between 5,000 and 13,000 people were extrajudicially executed at Saydnaya between September 2011 and December 2015. They were murdered in weekly - sometimes bi-weekly - hangings, known by prison authorities as ‘the party’.

On the day, the victims are taken from their cells in the red building in the afternoon. They’re told they’re being transferred to a civilian prison. But instead, they’re taken to a cell in the basement of the red building where they’re severely beaten over the course of two or three hours. In the middle of the night, they are blindfolded and transferred to the white building in minibuses. They’re then taken into a room in the basement and hanged, 20 to 50 people at a time.

The shomphf noise that the detective detainees heard was the platform being dropped out from beneath the victims’ feet.

NICOLETTE: I know people do terrible things to each other. I work on violations during conflict so I’m not a naive person but something about Saydnaya in particular, and I think just the purposiveness of it, is what is so disturbing to me. Because usually war is terrible but usually it’s through callousness or achieving military ends without worrying about civilians. It’s not so diabolical. And there is something that’s not just evil about this it’s beyond evil. It’s almost knowing how to recreate what is evil and just doing it again and again and again. It’s almost like industrial scale evil that must just have reverberations for the whole world.

TANYA: The next job for Nicolette and her colleagues was to write the report for publication - a forensic account of everything the witnesses had told her…

NICOLETTE: I’ve never felt such a weight because it was this pressure. What if something happens to me and I’m not able to release this? What if this doesn’t come out?

TANYA:  It meant spending time reading and re-reading the testimonies…

NICOLETTE:. It seemed so in bad taste to say oh, it was bad for me, because compared to what the detainees went through it is nothing. It is just nothing. But it was hard for me, definitely. And to not admit that is not very honest either. And yes, I had a lot of nightmares and there were just some of the details you’ll never forget.

After they would hang for ten or fifteen minutes, the lighter ones sometimes they wouldn’t die and so someone from the hospital would be there and they would yank them down. And that was something I just had many dreams about.

TANYA: Amnesty International’s report was published in February 2017 under the title ‘Human Slaughterhouse’. Governments around the world issued statements condemning the hangings… and even the leader of the Syrian regime, President Assad, was forced to comment…

NICOLETTE: Somebody put the report in his hands and waved it at him and said ‘what do you say to this?’ and he said it was fake news. It’s now referenced as one of the times that dictators are starting to use fake news as a tool.

TANYA: The Saydnaya report broke all of Amnesty’s records for media coverage. It generated more than four and a half thousand headlines about the prison globally and was downloaded 39,000 times in two weeks. It seemed impossible that the killings could continue in the light so much publicity.

But two years on… what’s changed?  

NICOLETTE:  I’ve been told by people on the inside, whether former detainees or others,  that the violations are not as bad as they were once, at least in terms of denial of food and water and medicine and the terrible diseases that were going around, you know tuberculosis, that perhaps there was a message sent that we shouldn’t be doing to that degree. But just the other day there was a Washington Post story talking about bodies they could see by satellite in the yard of the prison. And honestly, the way the international community has done so little, I would think that even if these violations had stopped at Saydnaya they will perhaps just move them somewhere else. 

TANYA: For all the words, the international community hasn’t put pressure on the Syrian regime to stop the killings at Saydnaya. That’s  difficult for Nicolette and the team of witnesses to understand…

NICOLETTE: What do you need to know? What else did we need to go through for governments not to care about this? Because it seems to me like its very similar to other things in the past that now we characterise as repulsive like concentration camps.

TANYA: But it is a hard reality of human rights work that change doesn’t often happen quickly… if at all…

NICOLETTE: I do think that with most conflict research and a lot of human rights research actually you can’t get attached to exactly what’s going to happen.  Instead your role is just to share the truth and get as much of the story out as you can so that at least when the leaders are making their decisions they know what the situation is. You can’t say now that the world didn’t know.

TANYA: Amnesty is calling on the Syrian government to disclose the fate and whereabouts of tens of thousands of people who have disappeared in Syria. If you’d like to help, visit tensofthousands.amnesty.org

Amnesty’s Witness is hosted by me, Tanya O’Carroll. This episode was produced by Cathy FitzGerald with original music by Stephen Coates. Special thanks to Nicolette Waldman