Breaking the Silence of Tadmor Military Prison

by R. Shareah Taleghani
published in MER275

In 2001, following a general amnesty for several hundred political prisoners, the Syrian government reportedly closed its most infamous detention center—the Tadmor military prison. Human rights organizations, both local and international, had made Tadmor the subject of intense scrutiny from the 1980s onward. Amnesty International described the prison as “synonymous with suffering,” citing inmates’ daily exposure to torture, deliberate humiliation and degradation, and dangerous physical conditions, as well as the risk of summary execution. [1] In 1980, Tadmor was the site of a massacre, when the regime ordered the execution of 600 to 1,000 alleged members of the Society of Muslim Brothers in reprisal for an assassination attempt against President Hafiz al-Asad.

Called the “kingdom of death and madness” by poet Faraj Bayraqdar, Tadmor occupies a special place in contemporary Syrian and Arabic prison literature. Several former prisoners of conscience have written harrowing memoirs of their detention. More recently, writers and other cultural producers have focused on the military prison in novels, poetry and documentary film, such as Hala Muhammad’s Rihla ila al-Dhakira (Return to Memory), which was aired as part of Al Jazeera’s series on prison literature. These accounts provide a stark contrast to the Syrian government’s steadfast denial of human rights violations in the prison. Breaking the silence imposed by the Asad regime over more than four decades, such works reconstruct the trauma of detention in Tadmor and challenge the limits imposed by the state on Syrian collective memory.

“Absolute Prison”

The dissident Yasin al-Hajj Salih spent 16 years in detention at various facilities. In his writing and interviews on prison life, he asserts the importance of a political detainee reconciling himself to incarceration and learning how to be productive and thus “tame” time. Not in Tadmor, however, which he calls the “absolute prison”

Let us imagine a prison without visits, without books and pens, without means of entertainment and without “tools of production” of any sort, without domestic facilities—kitchen fixtures, stoves—without hot water…just a closed place that doesn’t open up except [for one] to receive food…and punishment. That is Tadmor prison: the Syrian shame that is indelible. In this prison, time does not pass. It accumulates over the prisoners and suffocates them. [2]

For al-Hajj Salih, Tadmor represents not just the disgrace of the Syrian regime, but an exception to the rules of how to survive detention and even adapt to it for personal benefit.

Tadmor is situated in the Homs desert near the ancient site of Palmyra. French Mandate authorities ordered the construction of the complex as a military outpost. After Syrian independence, it functioned as a prison for members of the military who had committed ordinary crimes, but according to some reports, as early as 1966, the state began using Tadmor to incarcerate a number of political detainees, particularly those accused of association with the Muslim Brothers. In the 1970s, under the rule of Hafiz al-Asad, the state expanded the prison with the addition of new buildings. According to a 2001 Amnesty International report, the military prison was “designed to inflict the maximum suffering, fear and humiliation on prisoners and to keep them under the strictest control by breaking their spirit.” Prisoners were isolated from the outside world and forbidden to communicate with each other; death could come at any time.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, much of the prison’s population consisted of those charged with political crimes. Between 1980 and 1990, again according to Amnesty International, the regime imprisoned an estimated 20,000 people in Tadmor. The state’s crackdown on opposition movements during that period resulted in severe overcrowding in the communal or dormitory cells of the prison; at times, the cells were so jammed that prisoners had to take turns standing while others slept. The vast majority of these detainees were Muslim Brothers, but there were also members of the Communist Action Party and Communist Party Political Bureau, the pro-Iraq faction of the Baath Party, and other outlawed leftist parties. Because Tadmor was the most punitive site in the archipelago of Syrian prisons, the security apparatus often sent detainees there as a form of additional retribution if they refused to confess or sign loyalty oaths. [3] In some cases, such as that of al-Hajj Salih, prisoners were transferred to Tadmor after their original sentences had expired.

Several Muslim Brothers and others erroneously accused of affiliation with the Islamist group were the first to author memoirs of the hardships of Tadmor. Many of these testimonials were published informally. They are now available on the Internet and so easily circumvent the censorship of the Syrian state. These accounts include Khalid Fadil’s 1985 Fi al-Qa‘: Sanatayn fi Sijn Tadmur al-Sahrawi (In the Abyss: Two Years in the Tadmor Desert Prison), Muhammad Salim Hammad’s Tadmur: Shahid wa Mashhud (Tadmor: Witness and Witnessed) and al-Bara’ al-Sarraj’s Min Tadmur iIa Harvard (From Tadmor to Harvard), which the author also began publishing via Twitter in 2011. Lebanese detainees such as ‘Ali Abu Dahn, who were among the forcibly disappeared during the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon, have also written about their experiences in Tadmor. In chronological narrative and excruciating detail, the authors present their experiences of arrest, torture and detention at Tadmor and other interrogation centers. These memoirs not only document the authors’ personal suffering at the hands of the state, but they also bear witness for those who were killed in the prison and thus cannot speak for themselves. In addition to a number of Facebook accounts, a website, Tadmor8k.com, provides eyewitness reports of the 1980 massacre and other human rights violations committed by prison authorities. There is no information about who created Tadmor8k or who maintains it, but the website serves as a platform for dissemination of lengthier testimonials about the prison, including Hammad’s.

Words Sometimes Fail

Former detainees who have described their time at Tadmor in memoirs, poetry, fiction or other media must confront the silencing methods of the Syrian regime. And they must contend as well with the incapacity of language to capture the full extent of the cruelty and absurdity of detention. According to al-Bara’ al-Sarraj, Tadmor is a “symphony of fear” that simply cannot be described in words. [4] The combination of abject fear and concern to communicate the lived experience of imprisonment faithfully poses a challenge to many detainees who feel an ethical and political imperative to speak out about their time in prison.

The title of Faraj Bayraqdar’s prison memoir Khiyanat al-Lugha wa al-Samt (The Betrayals of Language and Silence), published in 2006, poignantly reflects the conflict between the obligation to combat regime censorship and the bleak recognition that words sometimes fail. Based on writings Bayraqdar smuggled out of prison and edited upon release, Betrayals offers a fragmented account of the poet’s detention in a number of prisons and interrogation centers in Syria over the course of 14 years. These places include Palestine Division, an interrogation headquarters of the Syrian military intelligence service where prisoners are routinely tortured, Saydnaya prison and Tadmor.

Bayraqdar recounts some of his and his fellow inmates’ experiences at the military prison in a number of chapters. In a departure from earlier Tadmor memoirs, the poet does not attempt to provide a chronological, fully detailed account of his detention. Instead, he relates his initial transfer to and arrival at the prison and then presents a series of disjointed scenes and brief anecdotes. Beginning with a chapter entitled, “To the East,” Bayraqdar recalls the prisoners’ hopes that they would not be transferred to Tadmor, their despair when they discover that they are being sent there for additional “punishment,” and the torture they suffer upon arrival. Using euphemisms particular to Tadmor and other Syrian jails, he tells of his brutal “reception” and the “hospitality” of the prison guards.

In the following chapter, entitled “Circles of Continuous Inhalation,” Bayraqdar relates the horror of witnessing prisoners killed outside the dormitory cell during what is supposed to be a “breather” in the courtyard. As described in several accounts of Tadmor, when prisoners were permitted to leave the barracks for a break, it was common for guards to torture and kill prisoners arbitrarily, sometimes by inventing new means of torment and sometimes simply by beating them to death. For Bayraqdar, this knowledge means that “the breather in the courtyard is a true cutting off of breath, and sometimes a final cutting off of breath.” A knock on the cell door means another prisoner has died or will die. The chapter closes with the gruesome story of a prisoner forced by a guard to swallow a dead mouse whole. This prisoner, the author tells us, did not die after the incident; he merely lost his sanity.

In a third chapter on Tadmor, entitled “Tadmoriyat: Beyond Surrealism,” Bayraqdar presents his reader with a series of seven numbered “portraits” of the prison using both poetry and prose. In the first vignette, he writes:

High walls of stubborn cold cement…
Observation towers…
Minefields...
Barriers and checkpoints…
Fortifications and highly trained military units…
And finally…surrounded by lessons of pure, national fear
Oh, names of God!
Even if all of Syria fell,
Surely, it would be impossible for this prison to fall.

Here the poet explicitly evokes the connection between fear and physical attributes of the prison and its environs. In the subsequent vignettes, however, he presents scenes of soldiers severely abusing prisoners, featuring forms of cruelty that appear beyond his descriptive abilities. In these passages, marked by a staccato cadence, Bayraqdar tells of a jailer who orders an elderly detainee to lick his boots and then beats him. He conjures the shadows of lashes used to whip inmates, and speaks of prisoners forced into unimaginable stress positions until they collapse. In the final portrait, a guard uses a prisoner as a human trampoline, jumping up and down on the detainee, who is clearly in agony, until he finally lands on the man’s neck and kills him.

At the end of the chapter, Bayraqdar asks his readers: “Do you really want the truth?” He reminds his audience that, surreal as it may seem, what he is attempting to describe really did happen. The atrocities that readers might think impossible were in fact regular occurrences. Here, as elsewhere in the book, the poet raises the question of truth and reliability in his recollection and depiction of his experiences. This interrogation of the capacity of language to portray the worst moments of suffering of political detainees in Tadmor ultimately does not detract from the impact of his account, even while the reader recognizes that it can only be partial and piecemeal. When Bayraqdar uses the term betrayal in his title, it is not just an allusion to his own betrayal as a political detainee at the hands of the Syrian state, but to the treachery of both language and oppressive silence.

“I Do Not Want to Look Outside”

Two years after Bayraqdar’s memoir appeared, Mustafa Khalifa published his landmark novel al-Qawqa‘a (The Shell), one of the first about a detainee’s imprisonment in Tadmor. A political prisoner from 1982 to 1994, the author presents the semi-autobiographical story of a seemingly apolitical protagonist named Musa who returns to his homeland after studying film in Paris. Musa is arbitrarily arrested at the airport, brutally tortured at an interrogation center by military intelligence agents, mistakenly identified as a member of the Muslim Brothers, and then sent to the “desert prison.” He does not learn of his alleged crime until the time of his release.

Like many detainees, Musa masters the skill of oral composition—an art that allows prisoners to resist the silence imposed within the prison walls, where they are deprived of basic writing tools and barred from speaking to each other. Musa retains each diary entry in his memory. Eventually, once he is released, he is able to record them on paper. Except for the initial section, the novel is composed of these dated entries—some just a day or two apart and some separated by several months, as if the protagonist was temporarily silenced or had no desire to speak. Each entry contains parenthetical observations—editorial comments seemingly made at a later time, as if the narrator has returned to the composition again and again.

Musa never receives a trial and is detained for 12 years, mostly in the desert prison. He is, however, sentenced to silence by his fellow detainees, when he is overheard telling his torturers that he is, first, a Christian and, then, an atheist. Ostracized by the other inmates in his communal cell, Musa describes himself as withdrawing into his “shell.” The subtitle of the novel is “diary of a voyeur,” but he is not a voyeur in the traditional sexualized sense of the term. Having very little interaction with other inmates, the protagonist constantly peers out of his shell and watches those around him. Censored by the disciplinary mechanisms of prison and by other detainees, he listens attentively to everything and everyone around him, meticulously observing as both insider and outsider, and diligently recording all that he witnesses.

From the beginning of his detention, Musa’s life is threatened not only by the prison guards, who inflict torture, humiliation and degradation, but also by the Islamist extremists in his cell who believe that he should be executed as an unbeliever. For ten years, no one will speak to him because he is considered impure—mimicking the muting of thousands of political prisoners who passed through Tadmor and other sites and who are unable to tell their own stories. Nonetheless, Musa speaks through his diary in the horrifying lexicon familiar to readers of Syrian prison literature. Like Bayraqdar and al-Sarraj, he tells of the “reception” given to prisoners as soon as they arrive at the prison; each is forced to drink filthy water from a sewage drain. Those who refuse are beaten to death. Those who drink are treated to more torture or “hospitality” as the guards call it. There is no respite, and everyday activities bring arbitrary death. Musa recounts how prisoners are routinely whipped, lashed and beaten during breaks in the yard; how prisoners are not allowed to raise their eyes toward their jailers; and how the warden randomly executes 14 of his cellmates. He also methodically describes daily aspects of prison life—the baths, illicit prayers, the confining, airless dimensions of the communal cell, the secret communication between cells, the innovative treatments prisoners devise for wounded deprived of medical care, and the numerous modes of prisoner resistance.

Abruptly, in the twelfth year of his detention, Musa is transferred from the prison back to the military interrogation center. Through the influence of a relative he is finally freed. Musa returns to his family home, but it is no celebratory liberation. Instead, noting that he has never truly been released from prison, he describes himself as having lost the ability to communicate and carrying a grave within himself. Rather than creep out of his shell to record what is happening around him, he remarks: “I do not want to look outside. I close its holes in order to turn my gaze entirely to the inside, to me, to my self.” [5]

Throughout the novel, Musa is cast as “secretly observing” life in the desert prison. His candidly subjective account speaks for him, but also for other inmates. In stark, accessible language, The Shell depicts the experience of Tadmor while raising the question of whether or not a larger Syrian audience is already familiar with Musa’s story. The structure of the novel, with the time lapses between diary entries, also suggests, like Bayraqdar’s memoir, that offering a complete history of the horrors of Tadmor may never be possible.

Never Forget

The conclusion of The Shell is far from optimistic. The exact destiny of Mustafa Khalifa’s protagonist remains unclear, much like the fate of many of the current political detainees and forcibly disappeared in Syria, as well as the outcome of the Syrian revolution. In June 2011, just a few months after the onset of the uprising, the Asad government, according to local and international human rights groups, reopened Tadmor for the purpose of punishing defectors from the military and anti-regime activists. While a recent Human Rights Watch report casts doubt on whether the prison was ever actually closed in 2001, the now well-documented return of political detainees to Tadmor marked one tragic turning point in the events that have unfolded in Syria since March 2011.

Four years into the uprising and conflict, on May 21, 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of the city of Tadmor and the military prison there. While international media outlets and UNESCO focused on the possible destruction of the ruins at the ancient site of Palmyra, social media circulated unconfirmed reports that ISIS members had freed the detainees, including Lebanese prisoners held by the Syrian state for more than 35 years. The rumors of the prisoners’ release caused turmoil for their families and loved ones in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, but some former detainees speculated that the Asad regime had transferred the prisoners prior to the ISIS takeover. At the time of writing, the fate of those detained in Tadmor military prison since 2011 remains unknown.

Nine days after the conquest, ISIS destroyed most of Tadmor military prison with improvised explosives and issued a propaganda video of the rubble. The remnants of the structure can no longer be used as a prison. Yet the demolition caused much debate among former detainees, including those who lamented the fact that it was ISIS that blew up the prison, rather than other opposition groups, and those who accused ISIS of destroying evidence of the Asad regime’s human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Still others who had survived the notorious prison expressed regret that they would not be able to revisit the place in the future.

Perhaps, even with the somber and haunting recognition of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have lost their lives and the millions who have been displaced or forced into exile in the past four years, there will be an end to the extremely repressive measures and human rights abuses of the Syrian government, its allies and some of the groups now opposing that regime. One can hope that those who are were more recently detained in the desert prison have survived and, like their predecessors, will continue the struggle to break the silence. One can still hope that another Tadmor military prison will never be built, and that the stories of those who were imprisoned and died there, the stories of all of those who endured the worst forms of human suffering and the worst types of human cruelty, will never be forgotten.

Endnotes

[1] Amnesty International, “Syria: Torture, Death and Dehumanization in Tadmor Military Prison,” September 19, 2001.
[2] Yasin al-Hajj Salih, Bil-Khalas Ya Shabab! 16 ‘Aman fi al-Sujun al-Suriyya (Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 2012), pp. 38-39.
[3] Human Rights Watch, “Syria’s Tadmor Prison: Dissent Still Hostage to a Legacy of Terror,” April 1, 1996.
[4] As quoted in Cecily Hilleary, “Syria’s Tadmor Prison Massacre,” Voice of America/Middle East Voices, June 27, 2012.
[5] Mustafa Khalifa, al-Qawqa‘a (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2008), p. 383.