'Ear-witness testimony': Detainees' memories used to map out a notorious Syrian prison

A research group called Forensic Architecture has recreated a prison in Syria, a place no outsider has had access to since the beginning of the war. Former detainee testimony is used to construct an interactive model.

Sound artists and architects constructed a 3D model of Saydnaya prison

A detainee works with Forensic Architecture researchers to recreate elements of the Saydnaya prison in April 2016. (Forensic Architecture)
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For Salam Othman, a former detainee of one of Syria's most notorious prisons, the haunting quiet became a way to focus on details he could hear outside his dark cell.

The silence also played a significant role in helping architects and sound artists create an interactive model of a place no outsider has had access to since the beginning of the war in Syria. 

INTERACTIVE | Forensic Architecture's reconstruction of Salam's solitary cell

"In Saydnaya, silence is the master ... this enables you to hear everything," Othman explained.

In 2016, a team from a group called Forensic Architecture (based out of Goldsmiths University in London) went to Istanbul to speak with five former prisoners from Saydnaya, Syria. Through their testimony, researchers were able to create an interactive model of the prison. The reconstruction project is part of a human rights investigation led by Amnesty International.

There are no images of Saydnaya, a prison north of Damascus beyond this satellite photo. Researchers from Forensic Architecture depended on memories of detainees to recreate what happened inside. (Amnesty International/Google)

"Saydnya prison is one of the worst places on earth. It is a place where human rights abuses are happening every day … there are very few people who survive," said Christina Varvia, deputy director of Forensic Architecture who led the Saydnaya prison project.

Political prisoners are tortured as soon as the day they arrive, Varvia told The Current's guest host Connie Walker.

"It's an extermination camp, it's not just the prison. And this is how the Syrian government with political opposition," she said, adding that prisoners live under conditions of starvation and disease.

'Ear-witness testimony'

Researchers didn't have a lot to work with as there are no public images of the Saydnaya's interior, just a single satellite image of the prison from above.

Saydnaya prison is under a regime of silence. Prisoners are not allowed to speak or scream when tortured. (Forensic Architecture, 2016)

All they had to go on were survivors' memories to help build 3D models of the prison and experiences of detention.

"What we were trying to figure out was what is life like in this place where no one can really see what's going on and what it's like to really be under this regime of silence," Varia explained.

The Forensic Architecture team captured what they refer to as "ear-witness testimony" to build an image of the prison's interior.

Artist and acoustic investigator Lawrence Abu Hamdan asked former prisoners critical questions to help them recall critical details of their detention.

"No one is allowed to speak. No one is allowed to even scream when they are being beaten. And so what this creates is this really strange environment where there is absolute silence," Varia said.

Christina Varvia explains a technique used by the team to gain the details needed fo the Saydnaya prison reconstruction project. 2:17

"Every prisoner becomes incredibly acute to different sounds so they develop a new skill."

Often guards would try to sneak up on prisoners, Varia described, but prisoners started to recognize the smallest of sounds to recognize when footsteps were approaching.

"These were the techniques that would help them survive."

Trapped in a timeless space

Boredom is not a condition you would think of when someone is being tortured daily, Varia told Walker, but it is a feeling that she says "slowly takes away from your humanity."

 Varia said the day-to-day life for a prisoner sitting in an empty cell, trapped in a space of timelessness, creates a craving for information.

Witnesses were asked to describe architectural details, such as dimensions and textures, and these recollections solicited further memories of the prison and experiences had within. (Forensic Architecture, 2016)

"The detainees started to look at the little details of the space and almost hallucinate through them. They would remember every little crack and they would remember how the stones would sit against each other," she explained.

Architects, spatial practitioners ... artists and filmmakers have a way of working, have an understanding of space, of image, of media that can be appropriated for the purposes of human rights investigations.- Christina Varvia  

International agencies are typically involved in investigations into crimes of war and human rights abuses but Varia argued architects and other tradespeople can also make a valuable contribution — especially since contemporary warfare often takes place in urban environments.

"Architects, spatial practitioners but also artists and filmmakers have a way of working, have an understanding of space, of image, of media that can be appropriated for the purposes of human rights investigations," she said.

"Now people mostly die in buildings, in their homes. And the building itself is often … the weapon of destruction."

Christina Varvia is an architect, researcher, and the Deputy Director of Forensic Architecture. (Forensic Architecture)

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Jessica Linzey.

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