Najah Bukai.jpeg

Podcast series: Breaking the Syrian justice impasse - Episode 4

July 6,  2022: In the fourth episode of a four-part podcast series on Syrian activists’ efforts to obtain justice by Justice Visions and Impunity Watch, we discuss the devastating consequences of the Syrian Gulag - a system of prisons spread all over the country.


The Syrian prison is the focus of the new Justice Visions and Impunity Watch podcast episode
on justice efforts for Syrians. As a central institution of the Assad’s regime’s system of
governance, the prison is aimed at destroying political subjects. Mass imprisonment has a
devastating impact on Syrian society, as Uğur Ümit Üngör and Jaber Baker demonstatre in their
publication The Syrian Gulag, Assad’s Prisons, 1970-2020.

An overview of this gulag, a system of prisons spread all over the country, was lacking so far,
despite its omnipresence. Determined to fill that gap, Uğur and Jaber looked into the intelligence
agencies that operate, according to Uğur, “like a vacuum cleaner. They penetrate into society and
extract people from it. Then they process these human beings by subjecting them to violent
treatment, to torture and other forms of interrogation, and keep them in these prisons for a
while.” As Jaber highlights, this prison system has enormous and devastating physical,
psychological, social and economic consequences. “There are hundreds of missing persons in the
darkness of this gulag and no one knows anything about them. This breaks up families.”

Imprisonment is a national trauma that has left its traces in the cultural domain, generating a huge
body of prison narratives. In her research project SYRASP, Anne-Marie McManus relates the
functions of these narratives in the domain of among others literature, cinema and visual arts to
different verbs: knowing, remembering and feeling; not only as a form of remembrance but also
as political contestation. “I think actually one of the major goals of the prison field today is to
articulate a new meaning, or a set of meanings around imprisonment and enforced

Uğur Ümit Üngör (PhD Amsterdam, 2009) is Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at
the University of Amsterdam and the NIOD Institute in Amsterdam. His main areas of interest

are mass violence, with a particular focus on the modern and contemporary Middle East. He is
author of 5 books, including De Syrische Goelag: De Gevangenissen van Assad, 1970-2020.

Jaber Baker is a researcher who specializes in the Syrian prison field and co-author of The Syrian
, Assad's prisons 1970 - 2020. He is also a filmmaker, cultural and human rights activist, and

Anne-Marie McManus is a comparative literary scholar of Arabic, English, and French literatures
in the 20th and 21st century (PhD in Comparative Literature, Yale University). She has published
on poetics, comparative and theoretical methods, and contemporary Arabic literatures and
cultures. She oversees the ERC-funded project SYRASP at the Forum Transregionale Studien in

Listen to Episode 4

Illustration by Najah al-Bukai, an artist who survived detention in Syria.