AMMAN/IDLIB/BERLIN (Reuters) — Some families say it is better to know and mourn. Others say finally learning what happened is worse than dying themselves.
Hundreds of victims of Syria’s torture chambers are only now being discovered, thanks to a new effort to identify bodies from tens of thousands of photos smuggled out of Damascus seven years ago. For their families, an image of a broken body with a number tag is all that lies at the end of the quest.
“They died starved and naked,” said Um Munzer Yaseen, 58, who, after sifting through countless photos of emaciated corpses, finally found her son, Jamil, last month.
A computer engineer, Jamil had been missing since one night in June, 2011, when he was taken by secret police from the family flat in Damascus. In the picture his mother found of his body, his eyes had been gouged out and his legs were broken.
“If they had shot my son it would have been better to die with a bullet than go through this hell,” she said in Amman, where she and her husband have found sanctuary since fleeing Syria in 2013.
Her husband, a doctor, said: “They killed us twice: when they arrested him and took him, and the second time when we saw the pictures.” He asked: “Are we not human?”
Jamil’s image was among 53,275 photos smuggled on discs and thumb drives out of Syria by a former Syrian army photographer, codenamed Caesar, who fled in August 2013. It was his job to record the deaths in military prisons.
Caesar in hiding in an undisclosed country out of fear of reprisals against him and his family, some friends said. Reuters could not immediately reach him for comment.
Now, years after Caesar’s photos first came to public attention, they are back in the spotlight. The toughest US sanctions yet came into force in June for alleged war crimes against the civilian population, under a law named after Caesar.
President Bashar al-Assad has not commented directly on the Caesar photographs since a 2015 interview, when he dismissed them as “allegations without evidence”.
The Syrian information ministry and the Syrian UN mission did not respond to Reuters emailed requests for comment about the Caesar photographs and evidence of systematic torture.
Human rights groups believe Caesar’s photos contain images of 6,785 detainees, most tortured to death by the Syrian authorities in the early months of the uprising that evolved into Syria’s civil war, now in its ninth year.
The state of the tortured, mutilated and starved bodies makes it hard to identify them, said Fadel Abdel Ghani, the Doha-based chairman of a group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which says it has identified 900 victims so far.
With the renewed attention, campaigners have launched a new push to identify the dead.
The images first came to light in 2014, the year after Caesar defected, but after the sanctions were imposed they have been re-released on activists’ social media platforms, giving families a fresh chance to find missing loved ones.
We mourned him again
For Syrian artist and teacher Fida Al Waer, whose 19-year-old brother Mohammad Mukhtar was taken at a checkpoint in Homs in 2012, finding his photo ended hope the family had of seeing him alive.
“I would see him in my dreams alive and that he would return,” said the young artist, who now lives in a flat in the Lebanese capital. “We mourned him again when the photo was found. We always had hope he would be released.”
She recalls how the family had implored the young man not to go to an area of the city where demonstrators were protesting against Assad’s rule, in the early days of the uprising when security forces were arresting youths at random at checkpoints.
“For them, he is just a number. A number is on his forehead. He was just a number.”
After nine years of war that killed more than half a million people and made more than half the population homeless, Assad’s government, backed in recent years by Russia and Iran, has recaptured most territory once held by rebel fighters.
Assad and his allies argue that the war has largely been won, and it is time for the world to allow Syria to rebuild. The new US sanctions, which apply to any countries doing business with Damascus, make that difficult if not impossible.
Sara Kayyali, a lawyer and Syria expert at US-based Human Rights Watch who has researched the photos, says they make it impossible to deny the systematic use of torture in the Syrian security prison system.
“They have shown us irrefutable proof the Syrian government had truly detained and tortured thousands who disappeared — and denied they exist — and that it has tortured them to death,” Kayyali said in Amman.
For Mariam Alhallak, identifying the photo of her son, Ayham, 25, a postgraduate dentistry student abducted on the campus of Damascus University in November 2012, ended years of doubt. She had spent more than 17 months knocking at the doors of every government bureau looking for a certificate of death.
“Thank God he died early and did not get […] starved until he became a skeleton,” said Mariam from her flat in Berlin.
A faculty colleague detained with her son and later released told her Ayham was tortured for at least two hours before losing consciousness after being hit on the head with a metal bar, after which the torture stopped.
He died five days after his arrest, in his colleague’s arms. In Caesar’s photograph of his corpse there was a sticker on his forehead that read: “corpse 320 belonging to detention facility 215”.
In a camp for displaced people in opposition-held Idlib, 74-year-old Jouriya Ali finally found an image of her son Jumaa, who was taken off a public bus near Qutaifa on the edge of Damascus on his way to work in the capital.
“I wish I had died and not seen this picture. There is no one who was more caring than him,” the mother said. Every day since he disappeared eight years ago she would glance at the door in fleeting hope he would one day show up.
“God deprive them of their youth, as they have deprived my son of his youth.”
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Khalil Ashawi, Joseph Nasr
Additional reporting by Imad Creidi in Beirut; Editing by Peter Graff
Image: Fida Al Waer, a Syrian artist and teacher living in Beirut, poses as she holds a mobile phone that displays pictures of her brother she says was identified among thousands of images, smuggled out of Syria by a former Syrian military photographer code-named Caesar, that show bodies of dead detainees in Syrian government detention facilities, in Beirut, Lebanon July 22, 2020. (REUTERS/Stringer)