Middle East Studies

Book Talk | Uğur Ümit Üngör | Syrian Gulag: Inside Assad’s Prisons, 1970-2020

Syrian Gulag Event Poster

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

12:00 - 1:15 p.m.

Joukowsky Forum, 111 Thayer

About the Event
Out of a pre-war Syrian population of 24 million, at some point during the ongoing conflict, there were about 250,000 Syrians detained in its many prisons, a percentage of the population (1%) that dwarfs that of many other authoritarian regimes. Imprisonment may well be a defining characteristic of postcolonial Syrian history, and its widespread violence under especially the Assad regime since 1970 has made a profound impact on Syrian society. Yet due to the strict secrecy, censorship, and pervasive fear surrounding prisons, as well as the ‘conspiracy of silence’ between perpetrators and victims, Syrian prisons have not been examined systematically. The initiative for Syrian Gulag emerged out of a 2017 meeting between novelist, documentary filmmaker, human rights activist, researcher, and former detainee Jaber Baker, and Uğur Ümit Üngör


The book offers an examination of Syria’s prison system, using a combination of sources and methods, including published sources such as memoirs, social media data, leaked regime files, and oral history interviews. It looks into the structure and functioning of arrest, detention, and torture, discusses the identities of the perpetrators, and probes the experiences of the survivors, including how they overall fared after fleeing abroad.

Uğur Ümit Üngör is professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Amsterdam and the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies. His main area of interest is the history and sociology of mass violence, with a particular focus on the modern and contemporary Middle East. He has won several academic awards and held visiting positions in Dublin, Vancouver, Budapest, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Edinburgh. He has published books and articles on various aspects and cases of mass violence and genocide, including The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950 (Oxford University Press, 2011), Paramilitarism: Mass Violence in the Shadow of the State (Oxford University Press, 2020), and the forthcoming Assad’s Militias and Mass Violence in Syria (Cambridge University Press, 2024).

 Jaber Baker novelist, documentary filmmaker, human rights activist, researcher, and former detainee.
Jaber Baker is a novelist, documentary filmmaker, human rights activist, and the senior Syria researcher at the Center for Media and Cultural Freedom – Samir Kasir Eyes (Skeyes).  He has published several novels in Arabic, including “601: The Divine Trials” (2017) and “Bab al-Faradis - The Lost Messages of Ghaylan al-Dimashqi” (2020). Co-writer of the collective novel: "Three Generations Under the President's Bridge.” (2023).