As the Syrian regime watches the West debate a military strike, the detainees of Aleppo Central Prison languish in dark cells, unsure if and when they will see the light of day.
On April 1, several Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades and Islamic factions launched what they called the Battle to Release the Prisoners. Now their Islamist bedfellows, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, have taken the lead. Their goal is to free the inmates and take over the structure.
The prison is on a major highway that connects Aleppo’s rural north (the rebels’ stronghold) to the city, making it a prized location for the FSA. It was converted into a military headquarters shortly after the rebel assault began, and the infantry school and police station nearby were forced to evacuate.
Since then, it has been used as a launch pad for the Syrian army to shell surrounding areas and vehicles. The prison also contains military hardware and ammunition sought by the rebels. Inside, there are believed to be three tanks, in addition to more than 500 personnel.
While the complex has militarized as a base, its original inhabitants remain in their cells, overlooked. It houses over 4,000 detainees, including “prisoners of conscience,” women and children. The prisoners can also serve as pawns in stemming the rebel attacks. Opposition forces say that when clashes intensify around the jail, regime forces have responded by executing choice inmates, often political prisoners, to pressure the rebels to retreat.
Aid Workers in the Middle
Efforts to provide aid to those inside the prison are risky, and are often turned back.
Three Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers were wounded when an unknown party shot at their vehicle during a recent mission. But the organization was eventually able to enter the prison on July 13, bringing in 5,000 food rations and rescuing 10 prisoners who had completed their sentences.
In spite of a significant improvement following 15 successful missions by the Red Crescent, the fate of thousands remains unknown.
There are currently 1,000 prisoners slated for release. But the process is gratingly slow because the prison administration allows only 10 prisoners to be released at a time, and only when the Red Crescent has entered to distribute food rations and medicine.
After a recent trip, one Red Crescent member who requested to remain anonymous gave a grim picture of the prison. “Everything surrounding us was completely destroyed,” the worker said. “It was a ghost town, and more than half of the external prison fence was destroyed.”
According to Ahrar al-Sham’s communications director, the rebels are involved in the process of ensuring safe passage for the Red Crescent missions.
“Food has been provided for prisoners, through coordination between Ahrar al-Sham and the Red Crescent. A number of prisoners, who have completed their sentences, were released, and there are talks with other organizations to get food inside the prison,” he said. “The prison is surrounded and we working on liberating it taking into account the fact that there are prisoners inside and [we are] developing sound plans to storm [the prison] while suffering minimal losses of lives.”
Rebels say they have offered the Syrian army safe exit from the prison under the supervision of neutral parties in exchange for handing over the structure and its occupants. They say the regime has refused.
A Graveyard in a Prison
In the shadow of Aleppo’s military stalemate, the humanitarian situation inside the prison is deteriorating, worsened when electricity was lost after shelling in the vicinity hurt its power grid. The power outage has caused damage to the water system; showers and basic hygiene are a luxury.
Overcrowding, malnutrition, lack of medicine and the deteriorating hygiene situation within the prison has led to the spread of many diseases among the inmates, including tuberculosis, scabies, typhoid and diarrhea. According to sources from within the prison, at least 13 people have died from disease.
Those who have contracted tuberculosis have been confined to a single room as so not to infect the other inmates. They wait to die, in the absence of care and medicine.
Food rations have begun to run out, with prisoners not always receiving their daily ration of a cup of water and 150 grams of raw flour.
The increasing number of dead, either due to the clashes or disease, led prisoners to set up a temporary graveyard in the prison. Released inmates talked about digging a mass grave in its eastern courtyard, where bodies of Syrian army soldiers and prisoners are buried en masse.
Farah, one and a half years old, was was the youngest inmate to have been released. Born in jail, it was the first time in her life she saw the sun.
Her mother, who has yet to complete her sentence for petty theft, was forced to let her daughter go. Farah stays with her grandmother while she awaits her mother’s return.
This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.