[Published here on May 17, 2017]
Standing outside the UN’s headquarters in Geneva, Amina Kholani chokes back tears as she relives the nightmare of visiting relatives in Saydnaya, one of Syria’s most notorious prisons.
The infamous centre was back in the spotlight this week after US claims that Damascus built a crematorium there to cover up thousands of prisoner deaths.
The charges, based on satellite imagery released by the US State Department, have cast a shadow over peace talks hosted by the United Nations in Geneva.
Relatives of detainees in Saydnaya and other government prisons protested outside the UN headquarters on Wednesday, demanding that the negotiations prioritise prisoner releases.
Holding portraits of detained friends and relatives, they tearfully scribbled their names on two long strips of paper in brightly-coloured markers.
“Those on the outside think a Syrian detainee is just living in a locked room with a bed and food — but he’s living in a coffin. He’s a corpse, but he’s breathing,” Kholani, 42, told AFP.
The plump woman in a white headscarf is lobbying to free three relatives still held in Saydnaya, and her husband was held there for a year before Syria’s uprising started in 2011.
Squinting in the sun, she described the exhausting month-long process of paying bribes and calling in favours before finally getting authorisation to visit Saydnaya.
“Even when you are inside, it’s not a direct visit. There’s a metal fence, and you stand on one side with a guard,” she said.
Her voice broke as she described the two occasions she saw her husband during his time in prison, dragged into the visiting room by two prison guards.
“Sometimes he’d come out unable to walk from the lack of food, or from the torture and the blows,” Kholani said.
– ‘You just sit and cry’ –
“You don’t recognise him until the last minute. You don’t believe that the person coming is your husband, or your son or brother,” Kholani said.
Conversations that extended beyond simple “how are yous” were immediately met with beatings, so instead, “you just stop asking. You just each sit there and cry.”
Thousands of prisoners are held at the military-run complex, 30 kilometres (18 miles) north of Damascus and it is one of Syria’s largest detention centres.
Amnesty International has accused Syria’s government of carrying out a “policy of extermination” there by repeatedly torturing detainees and withholding food, water and medical care.
In February, it said Syria’s government had killed up to 13,000 people over five years in gruesome weekly hangings.
And on Monday, the US said its satellite images showed melting snow on a rooftop and heavy-duty ventilation systems attached to the military complex, apparently supporting claims by rights groups that Saydnaya is an execution center.
Syria’s opposition has long called for the release of all prisoners held by the regime, a demand they made again as they met UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura in Geneva this week.
De Mistura has said a deal on detainees was “almost finalised” without giving details.
But Kholani was not very optimistic.
“We don’t have a lot of hope left in politicians or statements. A prisoner is worse off than a corpse,” she told AFP.
And HNC spokesman Yehya al-Aridi, who bent down to write the name of one of his own relatives outside the UN, said progress on the issue was being blocked by Russia.
“The Russians are still talking about this as a prisoner swap. How can you swap? You have between 5 and 10,000 prisoners (held by non-regime groups) compared to 80,000 detainees with the regime,” he said.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, some 200,000 people have been detained by the government throughout the six-year conflict.
“Those with the regime are in living coffins — and the definitive proof is the presence of crematoriums for the prisoners,” Aridi added.