The darker side of Syria's Palmyra

The darker side of Syria's Palmyra
Islamic State extremists are reported to be in full control of Palmyra famed for its archaeological treasures, but the Syrian desert city has another, more sinister side.
5 min read
The Syrian regime refuse to grant entry to any human rights groups. (Google Maps)

On June 26 1980, a grenade landed near then President Hafez al-Assad's feet. He reacted swiftly and kicked it away. Another grenade killed his bodyguard as he threw himself to save the president.

At that time, Hafez al-Assad was facing a full-scale revolt led by Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. The assassination attempt was allegedly carried out by a faction of the Brotherhood.

The following morning, on June 27, Hafez's brother, Rifaat al-Assad, commander of the Paramilitary Defence Brigades, sent some 60 soldiers to Tadmur Prison which housed at that time hundreds of members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The soldiers were divided into squads, tasked to shoot every inmate in sight.

Hundreds of prisoners were massacred, with no records of those who were killed or imprisoned.

History of Tadmur Prison

Tadmur Prison consists of two parts. The first part was initially built by the French mandate after World War I to be used as military baracks. But when it was handed over to the Syrian authority, it was turned into a prison.

According to the testimony of former prisoners, the French part, the old building, held civilian political prisoners while the new facility held criminal suspects. The old building contains 42 dormitories and seven small cells, each situated next to a courtyard.

The prison is in a desert city. The city of Tadmur is is located nearly 215 km northeast of Damascus. At that time, the long distance made it almost impossible for familiies to visit relatives in prison.

The prison is known as one of the most repressive prisons in the world. Its reputation of horror comes from the use of medieval methods. Prisoners were dragged to death, killed with axes, and cut into pieces. The Baathist regime also improvised ways of torture, whispered about and rumoured in Syria.

The inmates who were known or suspected to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood were singled out of the crowd. When those inmates were dragged out of their dormitories, they would never know if they would make it back alive.

Testimonies from Tadmur

Some prisoners' reports were smuggled out of Syria in 1990 to Amnesty International. In one of the reports, a prisoner pondered, "when death is a daily occurrence, lurking in torture, random beatings, eye-gouging, broken limbs, and crushed fingers... [when] death stares you in the face and is only avoided by sheer chance... wouldn't you welcome the merciful release of a bullet?"

As for new inmates, they would be brought to one of the courtyards where they would be brutally beaten with pieces of wood or large metal pipes. The "reception" of prisoners in Tadmur prison has been documented by a former inmate in the 1980s:

"The bus [of new inmates] arrived at Tadmur Prison where the military awaited us. The warders pulled us off the bus, whipping us mercilessly and brutally until we were all out. They removed handcuffs and blindfolds, and then we were taken into a courtyard overlooked by prison officers, where our names were registered. All the while were being whipped from all sides. Then we were dragged to the so-called 'torture courtyard'. One by one, we were put into the 'tyre', and each person was beaten between 200 and 400 times on his feet. After beating us, they lined us up in single file. Holding on to eachothers' clothes, blindfolded and with our heads lowered, we walked into the prison. We continued to be whipped from every direction until the cell door was closed. Everyone was in a bad condition, their legs bleeding and covered with wounds, as well as other parts of their bodies. Some of the prisoners died during the 'reception'..."

Describing the horror, a former prisoner in Tadmur from 1996 to 1999 recalled in a smuggled report how he used to hear the movement of the "torture team":

"The sound of iron bars and tyres being dropped on the ground, whips and cables being tried on the walls, and the shouts of the guards instructing inmates. Soon after we begin to hear the screams of our colleagues, mixed up with sounds of the lashes".

Death and disappearance in Tadmur

Numerous inmates died in Tadmur as a result of intolerable torture, hard conditions or serious illness. An Amnesty International report on prisoners in 1998 narrates the story of Zahi Abbadi, a Syrian doctor from Aleppo who reportedly died in Tadmur Prison in 1990.

Abbadi was arrested along with over a hundred medical staff professionals in 1980 following a one-day strike by the medical association. The Syrian doctor used to examine, and whenever possible, treat fellow inmates in prison.

Not only Syrians suffered in Tadmur. Lebanese, as well as Palestinian, Jordanian, and Iraqi political prisoners had a share of Baathist brutality in prison. Hundreds of Lebanese are thought to have disappeared in Syrian cells.

Tadmur Prison closed and reopened

All testimonies agree that the 1980s witnessed the most brutal and horrific scenes of torture and the deaths of perhaps hundreds of prisoners. However, reports suggest that the 1990s saw a gradual but significant reduction in torture. In the second half of 1991, torture temporarily stopped when several thousand political prisoners were released as a result of a presidential amnesty issued by the late President Hafez al-Assad.

The treatment of prisoners in Tadmur Prison seemed to change depending on shifts of emphasis in political situations and the state's policies towards various categories of its political opponents.

The prison was closed in 2001, at the beginning of Hafez's son, Bashar al-Assad's presidency. Bashar's move was seen as an attempt to end one of his father bloodiest chapters.

On the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Tadmur massacre in 2011, the prison gates were reopened to welcome hundreds of people who had participated in the Syrian uprising.

With IS approaching the prison, local Syrian activists reported on Twitter that the regime had evacuated a large number of detainees from the facility and moved them to the Military Security Headquarters.