The body was emaciated and half buried in salt. Soon, he discovered two more dead bodies. Abdo was in what inmates called a “saloir”, a primitive morgue used to store corpses when cold rooms were not available. Already known in ancient Egypt, this technique was adopted in response to the rhythm of executions carried out in the prisons of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
it “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 prisoners, AFP found that at least two salt chambers were created in Sednaya. Since 2011, more than 100,000 people have died in Syrian regime prisons, including from torture, reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH).
“My heart is dead”
Now 30, Abdo, who survived the hell of Sednaya, chose a name for fear of reprisal. Originally from Homs, he now lives in eastern Lebanon where he rents an apartment. Abdo clearly remembers the day he was thrown into the salt tub that sometimes served as a cell, while waiting to appear before the military tribunal.
“My first thought was: God curse them! They already have all the salt but don’t put it in our food! », he said. “Then I stepped on something cold. It was a human leg. “I thought I was going to be killed”continued Abdo, who crouched in a corner of the salt chamber as he wept and recited verses from the Koran.
My heart died in Sednaya. If someone tells me that my brother died today, I don’t feel anything.
Finally a guard came to pick him up to take him to trial. Leaving the room, he saw a pile of body bags near the door. Abdo, who was lucky to escape the horrors of Sednaya, described a room about eight by six meters with a small toilet in a corner, on the first floor of the prison.
The young man was imprisoned for terrorism, a cover charge used by the regime to imprison tens of thousands of men. He was released in 2020, but his imprisonment traumatized him for life. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced”Abdo admitted. “My heart died in Sednaya. When someone tells me about my brother’s death today, I don’t feel anything.
Officially considered missing
Around 30,000 people have reportedly been held 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 prisoners are officially considered missing, their death certificates rarely reaching their families unless their relatives pay exorbitant bribes, as part of a widespread theft.
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, based in Reyhanli in Turkey, said he found himself standing in a thick layer of the kind of salt used to salt roads in winter.
They looked like they were mummified.
“I looked to my right and I saw four or five bodies. They are a bit like me”recalls Moatassem Abdel Sater, describing how their skeletons and scabies skin reminded him of his own emaciated body: “They seem to be mummified. » Moatassem Abdel Sater admitted that he did not know why he was taken to the makeshift morgue on the day of his release, May 27, 2014. “Maybe just to scare us”he shouted.
A black hole
According to ADMSP, the first salt chamber in Sednaya started in 2013, one of the bloodiest years of the Syrian conflict.
“We discovered that there are at least two salt chambers used to preserve the remains of those who died from torture, disease or starvation,” said the co-founder of the association, Diab Serriya, during an interview in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. It is not known if the two rooms existed at the same time and if they are still functioning.
Preserving bodies, with odors…and protecting prison guards and staff from bacteria and infection.
When a prisoner dies, his body is usually left in the cell for two to five days before being taken to a salt chamber, said Diab Serriya. The carcasses are then placed in salting tubs until there are enough to fill a truck. The military hospital immediately issues death certificates, which usually show that a “heart attack” was the cause of death, before the funerals.
Salt chambers are intended for “preserve bodies, hide odors … and protect prison guards and staff from bacteria and infection,” explained Diab Serriya. US-based anatomy professor Joy Balta, who has published extensively on human body preservation techniques, explains how simple and cheap salt can be used as an alternative to cold storage.
“Salt has the ability to dry out any living tissue by reducing its water content. […] and therefore can be used to greatly slow down the decay process”, he explained. A body can be preserved in salt longer than in a cold room, “Although this technique changes the anatomy of the face”continued by 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 Aleppo province. The ADMSP report is the most in-depth study to date of the Sednaya prison structure, providing detailed diagrams of the installation and distribution of tasks between the various army units and guards. .
“The regime wants to turn Sednaya into a black hole. No one is allowed to know about it,” Joy Serriya says: “Our report prevents them from achieving this goal. »
The intensity of the fighting in Syria has decreased in the last three years, but Bashar al-Assad and the Sednaya prison, which has become a symbol of the bloody regime, are still in place. New aspects of the war’s horrors continue to be discovered as survivors abroad share their stories and investigations into the regime’s crimes in foreign courts encourage accountability.
From 98 kg, when he was imprisoned in 2011, to 42 kg when he was released from prison.
“If a political transition happens in Syria, we want Sednaya to become a museum, like Auschwitz”, by Joy Serriya. The prisoners remember that apart from torture and pain, hunger was their biggest torture. Moatassem Abdel Sater says he went from 98 kg when he was imprisoned in 2011 to 42 kg when he left prison.
Former prisoners also find it sickeningly ironic that the salt they desperately need is part of the killing machine that destroys them. The wheat, rice and potatoes that they sometimes eat are always cooked without salt or sodium chloride, the absence of which can have serious consequences for the human body.
Low sodium levels in the blood can cause nausea, dizziness and cramps and eventually coma and death. Prisoners used to dip olive pits in their water to salt it, and spent hours sifting through washing powder to remove the tiny crystals they considered a delicacy.
Now based in Gaziantep, former prisoner Qais Mourad recounts how one day in the summer of 2013 he was taken from his cell to see his parents, but was 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 the guards throwing a dozen bodies behind him. Later that day, when a fellow prisoner returned to the cell with socks and pockets full of salt, Qais Mourad understood.
“Then, we can always wear socks and pants with pockets when we have guests, when we find salt”, said Qais Mourad. This former prisoner recalled how his impatient fellow prisoners ate a boiled potato that day with their first plate of salt in years, not caring where it came from.