‘They killed us twice’: Finding loved ones at last among Syria’s tortured dead

Mariam Hallak from Syria holds a phone with a picture of her dead son Ayham, who she says was identified among thousands of images showing bodies of dead detainees in Syrian regime detention facilities. (Reuters)
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Updated 08 August 2020

‘They killed us twice’: Finding loved ones at last among Syria’s tortured dead

  • 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

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.


Ashrawi urges American Arabs to unify for Palestine

Updated 28 September 2020

Ashrawi urges American Arabs to unify for Palestine

  • Hanan Ashrawi: Arabs are not identical and we are not monolithic. We have to celebrate our diversity
  • Ashrawi: What we have to do is to mobilize to make our space in the public discourse

Hanan Ashrawi, a Ramallah-based member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee and popular English language voice for the Palestinian cause in the US, urged American Arabs to “mobilize” and set aside their differences to strengthen the voice of the Palestinian diaspora.

During a Zoom discussion Saturday with American Arab leaders, hosted by ArabAmerica.com, Ashrawi said the US Arab community faced many of the same “very difficult conditions and obstacles” that Palestinians face around the world.

But, Ashrawi said, if they could bridge their differences and unite around common principles of justice, they could become an important voice as advocates for the Palestinian cause.

She argued it was especially important as US society becomes more polarized, but argued that Palestinians and Arabs needed to respect each other in order to unify.

“You cannot antagonize others. You can’t intimidate others. You cannot insult others. You have to work with them to find common ground,” Ashrawi urged.

“Even when you challenge. I challenge a lot. I am known to be very blunt. I don’t mince words. But at the same time I don’t insult. I don’t bring other people down. What you need to do is to be able to challenge in a way that shows you respect yourself so that others will respect you. This is extremely difficult.”

Asked about how to bridge the divisions that segment Palestinians in the US and abroad, Ashrawi urged all sides to embrace their differences, saying: “Arabs are not identical and we are not monolithic. We have to celebrate our diversity.

“We are all under attack,” she said. “In the US, you are seeing the rise of identity politics … You cannot be neutral in the face of such racism … and such distortions. You must embrace your Arab identity and be proud of it. What we have to do is to mobilize to make our space in the public discourse.”

Ashrawi criticized the Arab League, calling it “a disaster” in confronting Israel’s atrocities and oppression. She acknowledged Palestinians could do a better job of communicating, but said that they were working under oppressive conditions and without major funding or backing.

“It’s difficult because what we do, we do voluntarily and there is no funding,” Ashrawi said.

“We have a problem, if you want me to be very frank with you. We have a problem with many in the leadership think that they know it all.”

Ashrawi also said that rivalries prevented there from being a clear and powerful strategic message.

“They don’t think anyone else has the ability to present the cause. We don’t have the funds. We don’t have the institutions … we try desperately to face a real assault,” Ashrawi said.

She assed it was important for Palestinians and Arabs in the US to engage in the political system as a unified voice.

“You need to speak out. You need to stand up and speak out. You need to challenge. You need to make the facts known, to get people to unlearn what they have learned because for a long time Israel was dictating the agenda,” she said.

“Work within a group. Work collectively; organize, use the system. Work with other people because it is an intersectional issue. You can work with women. You can work with African Americans. You can work with youth. You can work with indigenous people. You can work with others who feel marginalized, excluded and oppressed. The mentality of oppression is the same everywhere.”

She stressed: “You have natural allies in the state. You have to work together … Within the system you can influence political decisions. Hold your representatives accountable.”

Ashrawi defended the Palestine National Authority, adding they “do not make political decisions” unlike the PLO.

“It is unfair to say failure, failure, failure … they did many things. They built many institutions,” she said.

“You have to place it in context. The Palestinian leadership is working under extremely adverse conditions and circumstances. They have no powers. They have no rights like everyone else. Israel controls everything, the lands, the resources, the water, our lives.”

Ashrawi added that while Palestinians continued to push for action from the International Criminal Court, Israel and the US continued to obstruct that legal process.

“They are punishing the individuals who are in charge of the global judicial and accountability system,” Ashrawi said. “This is unconscionable.”