AMMAN/BERLIN: 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 7 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.
If they had shot my son it would have been better to die with a bullet than go through this hell.
Um Munzer Yaseen, a Syrian mother
Caesar is 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 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.