Dr. Uğur Ümit Üngör is a professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Amsterdam and the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies. Dr; Üngör’s main areas of interest are genocide and mass violence, with a particular focus on the modern and contemporary Middle East. He is also an editor for the Journal of Perpetrator Research, and coordinator of the Syrian Oral History Project.
From 2014 to 2019, Dr. Üngör coordinated a Dutch Research Council-funded research project on paramilitarism, which led to the monograph Paramilitarism: Mass Violence in the Shadow of the State (Oxford University Press, 2020). He is currently working on his follow-up monograph Assad’s Militias and Mass Violence in Syria (Cambridge University Press, 2023, forthcoming). He is also co-author of Syrian Gulag: Assad’s Prisons, 1970-2020 (Boom).
SYRIAWISE spent time getting acquainted with Dr. Üngör from his home in Amsterdam.
It has been said that it is the victors who write history. Bashar Assad has been claiming victory in Syria for several years now. We know that the academic institutions in Syria have been perverting history to serve the regime’s agenda for 50 years and that will not change as long as Assad is allowed to remain in power. As an academic living in Holland, you have an inside view of what is being taught in Europe. Can you tell us if the truth about Syria in being taught where you are? Or has academia been as apathetic about the Syrian crisis as the international media has?
No. Actually, it is on the contrary. The interesting thing is that the media and academia are actually in an inverse relationship. Take the example of when a bomb falls somewhere, or a war starts and escalates quickly, as in Syria in the second half of 2012 when there was the worst escalation of violence, and in 2013 when it turned into an absolute bloodbath. In the second half of 2012, the media outlets were all over the place. They sent their correspondents and did a lot of reports, etc. Then after mid-2013, there was Syria fatigue and they ebbed away until ISIS appeared and, in the end, they started reducing Syria to ISIS.
In academia, it was the exact opposite. At the time the media attention decreased, that’s exactly when the academics got involved and said we have to study what impact this incredible violence had on ordinary Syrians. So, from those people who fled from that violence, there were the first waves in Turkey. I remember when they established the Syrian Students Association at Gaziantep University and those were the first settled refugees, basically people from Jisr al-Shughour, Homs, Dier ez-Zor and Raqqa. Those kids who ended up in Gaziantep started activism and a lot of advocacies. But this is exactly what the academics focus on in that period. When the media attention ebbs away, and when it dissipates, that is when the academics come in because that’s when we are able to study the conflict, to gather data and conduct interviews.
This leads us to a subsequent question. As an academic, how is your approach to a crisis like Syria for example different from a person working in the media?
Let’s take this example. In Yugoslavia, with the Dayton Accords in 1996, for most people, the war was over. For academics, it was when it started. We have seen it in the publications, the biggest of which were from the late 1990s till the late 2000s. So, it peaked later for us. That’s the thing with academics; when the media comes and stays, superficially there’s a couple of shots, a couple of interviews here and there, then they’re off to the next crisis whether it’s Ukraine or Myanmar or whatever, but we stay. The academics stay. They are committed. And that’s why when the Al-Tadamun massacre came out, a lot of people were wondering: “Who is this guy? We never heard of him.” Because they were using a number of pundits and academics who speak in the media and tweet, and I wasn’t one of them. And that’s because I was a little bit more on the down low and patiently gathering information and data and coming up with a research strategy that would reap rewards and have a more effective impact later on.
The Al-Tadamun massacre is an example of that. We could immediately in 2019 have started screaming: “Oh my God! Look at this video! it’s terrible!” But this wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted to dig deeper, to actually put something down that nobody else has done and I think we managed to do that.
Could you please tell us about your first real encounter with the Syrians and what were the first pieces of information you got from them?
Some people who fled Syria had taken videos in the first hard drives showing massacres of people in demonstrations that went out of the country and it was the first time we saw something like that. And it was also in 2011 from the first detainees who described how horrible it was. The first Amnesty and Human Rights reports in 2012 were pretty clear about what was happening in prisons. But we have to do a little bit more. You know, I’m not Syrian. I had to learn Arabic from scratch. I started learning in 2011 and the goal is to be able to talk to Syrians in their mother tongue.
The youth born in the late 1980s and 1990s are the generation of the revolution. Their lives were profoundly disrupted. Many of them suffered from detention, bombs, sexual violence, and other forms of torture.Dr. Uğur Ümit Üngör
While studying Syria, you came to know some Syrians in person, especially young men and women who belong to the generation that brought about the Syrian Revolution. You also did some important work with them. How do you see them and what can you tell us about your impressions?
The youth born in the late 1980s and 1990s are the generation of the revolution. Their lives were profoundly disrupted. Many of them suffered from detention, bombs, sexual violence, and other forms of torture. Some of them were committed to studying this crisis and this regime. That is heroic in my opinion. That was something that for half a century was not allowed inside Syria, or even outside Syria for those planning to return back.
So, it’s the unseen, the deeper impact on academic literature, and the impact on the research world. All of that is what’s really important. That’s why what I try to do is to support that generation. I can do a lot but what’s more important is to plant the seeds and let those people do it for themselves.
My co-authors of both books about Syria are of that generation. I kept encouraging Jaber, telling him: “I know it seems like nobody’s noticing us. Why are we writing this book when no one is paying attention? But the rewards are going to come later and they’re often going to be unseen. They’re not going to be caught in sound bites. They’re going to be much more profound. This is the first-ever book of the prison system of Hafez and Bashar Assad in the entire 50 years that the regime has existed so far and that is an unprecedented contribution. And you did it!”
What, if any, does this generation of Syrian researchers remind you of in history?
For me that generation is special. They are like the generation of Jewish intellectuals who survived the Holocaust, or just fled it, then went to the US, went to the UK, and then became the first historians of the Holocaust. For me, they’re kind of the same. Jaber is a Sednaya survivor and Ansar is from Homs, and there are many more. They are not only eyewitnesses but also experts. They went from experience to expertise and that transition is really important for historical responsibility as well. Because some Syrians or some of my Dutch friends would say: “Why would you bother people with this violence? They just survived it and now they want to forget about it.” But that’s the wrong attitude because first of all, it’s very naive to presume you can even forget about it. That’s not how you process something by the way, by just moving on and pretending it doesn’t exist then the trauma comes and hits you later. But to actually put down an academic contribution that’s incontrovertible, that’s unassailable, and that is something that really gives satisfaction to this young generation of scholars. So, academia is, in my opinion, the only way to go. There’s a lot of media attention on it, and there are NGOs that are doing fantastic work — good luck to you guys — but academia is here to stay and that research is much more important in my opinion.
What actually inspired you to write the Syrian Gulag?
The inspiration actually came from an idea of the Syrian Oral History Project which emerged in Berlin as not only a good number of Syrian intellectuals reside in it but also ordinary people. In 2015 and 2016, Berlin was buzzing with Syrians. It was like Paris in the 1920s with Russians who ran away from the Soviet Union. When I was there, I was walking down a street called Sonnenallee with a friend of mine. It used to be in East Germany before unification and was kind of a boring downtrodden place. When Syrians came, it became full of restaurants, cafes and shops.
It came to my mind that we need to start interviewing those people to get eyewitness testimonies that need to be written down as I was trying my best to convince Syrians they should write their memoirs. But writing is also a skill that wasn’t really taught under Baathism. That’s another thing I did actually. I started a writing workshop specifically for Syrians because writing skills were something for the elite people or those who went for a long time to prison. What else can you do in prison instead of writing? So, we started a Syrian Oral History Project. We started interviewing randomly. I met a friend who was a journalist from Damascus who ran away, a young woman who had landed just three days before. She went from Damascus to Beirut, flew to Berlin, got asylum, got out of the airport, and the next day I met her.
So, everything was very fresh. We sat down and talked for hours and hours. The next day the same thing happened. It was absolutely incredible — the anecdotes I mean. I said, “Wow this is a movie!” This one person’s life is a movie. Five days later, I met someone else: a young guy from an Aleppo countryside village. I talked to him for hours and hours and said to myself someone should write it down.
Those experiences were exceptionally brutal and to have a person, a human being of flesh and blood sitting across from you telling you what it meant to hang from that ceiling, being whipped, and being humiliated, in the most horrifying ways.Dr. Uğur Ümit Üngör
After meeting about 7 people, I thought the narrative of every single person I talked to was like a movie. It was absolutely incredible: the details of what you can learn about how a conflict develops, or what it means to live under a dictatorship. So, I thought if we can write down the collective biographies of all these Syrians who went through this then we can learn a lot. Intellectually and academically, we can write theories about authoritarianism or theories of violence, resistance, peaceful activism or gender. All you can think of is there. You just have to ask the right questions.
But after about 15 people were interviewed, I realized half of them were in prison because they were arrested by the mukhabarat for short or long periods, sometimes in the 1980s or 1990s and sometimes only after 2011. Those experiences were exceptionally brutal and to have a person, a human being of flesh and blood sitting across from you telling you what it meant to hang from that ceiling, being whipped, and being humiliated, in the most horrifying ways. That’s something that no historical document that I have ever read could convey.
So, when I met Jaber Baker, my co-author of the book, I asked him why is it that we don’t have an overview book? The conflict has been raging for ten years and there’s not even a short book that gives an overview of the entire prison system? This is an imprisonment regime and we still don’t have one? And he said: “You’re right.” We looked at each other and said: “Why don’t we make the book?” And then we did. Maybe we’re not even the best persons to have written this book but we did our best and it took time. And there were periods, especially during the pandemic, when there were a number of Syrians who were appearing very prominently in the news, and in the media. They were tweeting and had 30 to 40 thousand followers, doing interviews with France24, CNN, NBC, and whatnot. I told Jaber: “Maybe we are not in the news right now but what we are doing is not fleeting; it’s more than just a sound bite. We wanted to actually put something down that future generations of students and scholars could benefit from. Not to mention, the real work was done by young Syrian scholars who enlisted in relevant university programs. This really touches on the core of your question about academia.
And then one thing led to another, with Jaber we started talking, the book took different shapes, we came up with a final product, and now we are submitting it to an English publisher so the book should be coming out in English by the end of the year.
I feel sad thinking about those millions of people who may have great talents, but because of corruption or repression, those talents were not allowed to thrive.Dr. Uğur Ümit Üngör
Dr. Üngör, what is your message to the Syrians?
I know that most of you were unable to exercise a certain number of things such as expressing your political opinion, organizing a community, a center, or a political, social or cultural club, or you were unable to study certain degrees because the regime wouldn’t allow you. Being outside Syria, though a form of exile that brings a yearning for home and a sense of estrangement and cultural disempowerment — I totally understand that — is also an opportunity to actually develop and to contribute to new generations of Syrians. There’s never been a period in which Syrians were better educated than now. That’s because of the opportunities they have abroad. I feel sad thinking about those millions of people who may have great talents, but because of corruption or repression, those talents were not allowed to thrive. Now, let’s look at the bright side. I do see people thriving and that gives me pleasure and a lot of hope. So, I would just encourage people to pursue their studies. I also hope that some of those studies will be related to history, political science, sociology or anthropology and that a new body of knowledge about Syria will be built.