Remembering the known unknowns: Syria’s detained dead

In 2014, Syrian defector released thousands of images of Syrians killed in military facilities and in war. Now Human Rights Watch has identified some of the people in pictures

Courtesy of: Human Rights Watch
Courtesy of: Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch has identified some of the people in Syrian defector "Caeser's" photos

With the memory of his mother’s death still fresh, 14-year-old Ahmad al Musalmani was in a state of despair when he returned to Syria in 2012.

He’d fled Daraa after his brother was killed during the 2011 uprising against the Syrian regime.

Ahmad had been living in Lebanon, when the news of his mother’s death reached him. Ahmad set out to bury his mother in Daraa.

By then road between Daraa and Damascus had become a dangerous route. Parts of it were under attack by rebel forces, and security forces had setup checkpoints to control the flow of people.

Authorities were out to make an example of opposition activists fleeing government-controlled Damascus.

As members of the Syrian military stopped the car at a checkpoint, Ahmad still reeling from his mother’s death was in tears.

Family members told HRW that according to Ahmad’s fellow passenger, an officer from the Air Force Intelligence, who searched the car, asked Ahmad, “Why are you crying?” Ahmad answered, “I am crying because my mother died.”

The officer took Ahmad’s phone and found an anti-Assad song on the device. He then dragged Ahmad into a small room at the checkpoint. The rest of the passengers continued on without him, his family was told the day after the incident.

Ahmad is the youngest of 27 people identified from 28,000 pictures of nearly 7,000 Syrians who died in detention in Bashar al Assad’s torture cells.

The images were first released in 2014 – after a Syrian defector, known only as "Caesar," handed them over to rights groups and media outlets.

Caesar worked as a photographer for two years with the Syrian military police. His job was to document prisoners' deaths.

He smuggled out 55,000 images of emaciated and tortured Syrians killed by the regime  at military facilities across the country.

It was the first comprehensive evidence of crimes against humanity committed by Bashar al Assad’s regime following the uprising against him.

Till a Human Rights Watch investigation revealed his identity, Ahmad had remained of Syria’s 250,000 known unknowns. Those killed in Syria’s war.

These were the murdered nameless whom the power players had accepted as collateral damage of a bloody war.

People like Abduallah Arslan al Hariri, a labourer from Daraa province. The 36-year old had become a prominent anti regime protester at the time of his arrest in 2012.

His tortured face, with eyes wide open, had surfaced in Cease’s image bank with data revealing that the victim had been killed in a military intelligence unit in 2013.

The disappeared, detained and murdered were students such as 25-year-old Rehab al Allawi.

She was arrested in Damascus soon after the uprising. Caesar’s smuggled images revealed her tortured corpse from 2013.

Three photographs of Rehab were saved in a folder dated June 4, 2013. In one of the pictures, 215 Branch is written on Rehab’s forehead.

Rehab was one of the 3,530 of the 7,000 Syrians in Caesar’s photos who had been detained at "Military Intelligence branch 215," Assad’s notorious gulag for dissenters who ended up dead, as was "Military Intelligence Branch 227" where 2,043 victims were identified. As well as the notorious Air Force intelligence units, in whose custody 14-year-old Ahmad died.

"These detainees stopped being people, and became numbers" said Nadim Houri of Human Rights Watch, which had conducted the investigation into Caesar’s images. Houri said the photos bring a sense of realisation that the tortured corpse in the picture was the daughter, son or husband, that the number was a human being.

While most of the victims identified were tortured, torture itself wasn't always the cause of death. Detainees suffered from severe diarrhea and other gastrointestinal infections. Skin infections were common and often led to death. And they also led to mental distress and victims refusing a refusal to eat and drink. No medication was provided to people for chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes and asthma.

In some cases a few of the relatives of the deceased were handed death certificates years later.

But none of those people interviewed by Human Rights Watch, ever received the bodies of loved ones.

Some of Syria’s dead have been called "terrorists" by Russia, which continues to bomb civilian areas in support of the Syrian dictator. 

But Russia isn’t the only one killing Syrians. The US has funded armed opposition fighters, who kill civilians too.

So does France, UK, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, who continue to drop bombs on Syrian cities and towns in the hopes of eliminating Assad and DAESH and achieving, "peace."

Caesar’s revelations and the subsequent Human Rights Watch investigation is finally making the unknowns known once more. It reveals that Syria’s dead aren’t just numbers on an Assad torture ledger or collateral damage from French and Russian bombs, but in fact real people, who once lived normal lives. Syrians who had loved and were loved. And men, women and children who were either left to die or murdered in cold blood in torture chambers and inside their homes.

Author: Ali Mustafa