Hospital 601: Syria’s Unexpected Slaughterhouse, And The Heroes That Emerged

The incident occurred in the early days of the uprising in Syria, when Mohsen al-Masri’s group of activists made their way through the streets of Damascus, waiting for the coast to be clear. In the evening, they opened their bags and let out a stream of color. Thousands of multicolored ping-pong balls – green, blue, pink, yellow – bounced around police officers who did everything in their power to stop them. For months residents were finding colored balls tucked in nooks and crannies: each ball was marked with one single word – Freedom!

According to the Washington Post, that single incident began Masri’s journey into hell.

Masri’s peaceful protest led to him being incarcerated in four detention facilities over a two-year period, where he was tortured and interrogated. And then he arrived at the hospital that was to become the heart of a nationwide system of brutality: Hospital 601.

It is important to point out here that Hospital 601 is not the only place of torture in Syria, but it’s certainly become the most notorious slaughterhouse.

Hospital 601 is located half a mile from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s palace, and according to Masri, former detainees and military personnel who’ve worked there, it’s here that sick and shackled prisoners are tortured as they lie in beds crammed with dying men.

Corpses are piled into outhouses, bathrooms, and anywhere else they’ll fit, then meticulously documented and trucked away for mass burial. More than a dozen Army defectors and survivors have described in interviews across Europe, Turkey, and Lebanon, the horror of Syrian military hospitals. War crimes lawyers say they struggle to find a modern parallel.

The former detainees have only one connection in common, and that is their involvement in Syria’s uprising in 2011. They come from all walks of life: working class, elite, Islamist, leftist. Some were instigators, while others said their only crime was that they had commented on the Facebook statuses of friends supporting the protests.

According to investigators, testimonies and documentation retrieved from Syria’s military hospitals provide some of the most concrete evidence to date of crimes against humanity; crimes that could well see senior government officials tried in court one day.

“We were swept into a system that was ready for us. Even the hospitals were slaughterhouses.”

Military hospitals in Syria typically set aside wards for prisoners, but since 2011, these wards have been packed with starving men; men who are already broken by their experiences. Since 2011, medicine has been used as a weapon of war, with pro-government doctors performing amputations on protesters for minor injuries.

According to a list compiled by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, more than 100,000 people have been arrested, or simply disappeared, since the revolt began.

It was the spring of 2012 when Masri was arrested on his way to a conference in Turkey. He was then transferred from one jail to another and repeatedly tortured, finally arriving at one of the most feared jails – Sednaya.

According to Amnesty International, forced starvation and torture are systematic at the prison, but Masri said that prisoners instinctively knew to keep quiet when guards asked who needed to go to the hospital.

“It didn’t matter what they did to us; we had to pretend we were fine. People rarely came back from those trips.”

But then, after months of torture and starvation, Masri’s name was added to the weekly transfer list, and in May 2012 he was chained to another man and taken to waiting trucks, where he was blindfolded.

Masri then had to endure the “welcome party” – a savage beating delivered by guards and medical staffers wearing white coats over military uniforms.

Somar Mustafa was a physics student from Damascus who was sent to Hospital 601 at the end of 2012. While he was in Hospital 601, he saw detainees chained to their beds: they were packed in so tightly that their knees were jutting into their rib cages. Prisoners defecated where they sat because there were no bathroom breaks.

“We were blindfolded with that smell all around us. You can’t shake the memory of it, even when you leave.”

According to the United Nations Commission of Enquiry, since 2011 at least five branches of the Syrian security forces have operated wards inside Hospital 601.

“Detainees, including children, have been beaten, burned with cigarettes, and subjected to torture that exploits pre-existing injuries.”

It was the commission’s opinion that many patients had been tortured to death within the facility.

One defector said that the Harasta Military Hospital in Damascus moved its ward from the first to the seventh floor to stop detainees from escaping.

“It was the only floor without an elevator, and we knew they couldn’t jump out the window.”

Both Masri and Mustafa said they saw high-ranking officers from security branches in Hospital 601, accompanying doctors on their rounds. At times the team would stop near a prisoner to discuss his treatment, and at other times the men would beat him. Service staffers wearing blue uniforms helped the doctors; many of these were former supporters of the revolt but had since been drafted by their jailers.

“Our best men had been broken by torture. If they didn’t beat us, they risked a worse fate themselves.”

To avoid identification, the guards used nicknames: the most feared was Azrael, also known as the Angel of Death. He carried a stick laced with razor blades and used this on selected prisoners for a fate he called “justice.” Execution might have been a better word.

On one occasion, Azrael took a lighter to a plastic bag and melted it, drop by drop, onto a prisoner’s face until he died. Other prisoners have told how he smashed their bedmates’ skulls using an iron rod. And they lay there where they died until morning came, which for Mustafa in the winter of 2012, meant that he shared a bed with three corpses until the sun rose the following day.

In December 2012, an order was signed by the head of Syria’s military intelligence department, instructing every security branch to send their dead to a military hospital’s morgue: each body was to be examined and logged.

A military police defector known only by his codename, Caesar, smuggled out photographs which had been taken inside Hospital 601. These photographs were published around the world in 2014, and showed the signs of torture on bodies of children as young as 11-years-old, their eyes gouged out, their limbs drilled through and burned.

Nadim Houry examined the photographs for Human Rights Watch.

“You have to realize that these were just the photographs taken by a single man during a single period, and even then, they were only a fraction of what he’d actually recorded.”

Defectors have stated how they hauled numbered bodies into transparent bags in Hospital 601 and nearby military hospitals in Harasta and Tishreen. Similar testimony has been collected by investigators from private law firms and the United Nations in the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Daraa.

The system had broken down by late 2012, and military departments were berated for failing to register their dead on time. According to Masri, those who survived were funneled back to nearby jails.

Mustafa, together with other prisoners, was released from custody by a Damascus court judge after stating that the prisoners had been tortured to make false confessions.

Masri was not quite so lucky: his discharge from Hospital 601 had him sent back to Sednaya where he was tortured for another year. His nights were spent packed in tight next to other men in the darkness.

Then, in the winter of 2014, he awoke to find a guard in his cell.

“He told me it was time to go. I cannot describe that feeling. It was too much, too big. Indescribable.”

Masri said that when he arrived home in Damascus, he couldn’t believe the raw-boned sheet-white man staring back at him in the bathroom mirror. He didn’t recognize himself.

“I started screaming.”

[Featured Image by Muhammed Muheisen/AP Images]