on Sunday, the Times published an exhaustively reported and harrowing story about Bashar al-Assad’s secret network of prisons, which also serve as torture sites and execution centers. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group, nearly a hundred and twenty-eight thousand people are presumed to have been killed in the prisons or are being held there in custody—and nearly fourteen thousand have been killed by torture. Many prisoners die from conditions so dire that a United Nations investigation labelled the process “extermination.”
Eight years into the Syrian civil war, with Assad’s regime quickly gaining ground, Anne Barnard, of the Times, tells the stories of numerous survivors of the prison system, including details of the torture, sexual violence, and dehumanization that they faced there. Former prisoners recalled a guard who went by the name Hitler, who forced them “to act the roles of dogs, donkeys and cats, beating those who failed to bark or bray correctly.” Mariam Khlief and six other women were held in a basement cell, where they were beaten, tortured, and repeatedly raped. Survivors recalled blood from violent rapes staining the floor, guards stuffing excrement in the mouths of prisoners, and “a man who doubled as a nurse and a guard and called himself Azrael,” the angel of death, who murdered prisoners at night. It is almost impossible to do justice to the depth of Barnard’s reporting and the evil it describes.