Smuggled Photos Document Thousands Of Detainee Deaths In Syria

Jul 14, 2015
Originally published on July 16, 2015 3:04 pm
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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Photos from inside Syria's brutal security state will be shown in Congress tomorrow. It's an exhibit by the Syrian opposition and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The photos are graphic. They were smuggled out of Syria by a regime photographer - a military officer - who had the job of documenting the deaths of some 11,000 detainees. Activists put the photos online, and Syrians are searching them for missing loved ones. NPR's Deborah Amos reports on the effort from Istanbul.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: On a quiet side street in a barely furnished office, a group of Syrians are documenting the horrors of a vast prison system inside their country. Dr. Mohammad Ayash inspects each photo on his computer screen. A physician, he once treated the living in Syria. Now he carefully examines the dead - thousands of high-resolution photos the police defectors smuggled out. It's a deeply disturbing task.

MOHAMMAD AYASH: I describe what I see in every picture.

AMOS: That must be very difficult to look at those pictures.

AYASH: It's very, very difficult. We have children in this picture. We have older man in this picture. Yes, I - it's came to my dream some of times.

AMOS: He shows his tallies, the many ways of death.

Seventy-eight.

AYASH: Hanging.

AMOS: Thirty-one.

AYASH: Hard torture.

AMOS: Choking.

AYASH: Seventy-eight.

AMOS: The largest number by far is death by starvation, he says, based on the photographs of thousands skeletal remains. Dr. Ayash is a volunteer at the Syrian Association for the Missing and Prisoners of Conscience. His group is preparing documentation for what they hope will be a war crimes trial. The first step - identifying the victims.

AYASH: We need the family as witnesses to say, yes, this is my father. Yes, this my brother. Their duty is to be with us in these courts.

AMOS: That's why the group took the decision to post more than 6,000 photographs online and organize private showings in refugee camps and even outside Damascus in a rebel-held neighborhood projecting the images for group viewing. The website opens with this warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This film contains shocking and horrible scenes committed by the Syrian regime.

AMOS: The images are graphic, but many Syrians press to see them, desperate for details about those who had disappeared, says Mona Jundi. A lawyer from Chicago. She's also part of the team. So far, more than 600 victims have been identified.

MONA JUNDI: There is a lot of missing Syrian people, and unfortunately, there's nothing more concrete than pictures of dead bodies. Really, the primary purpose is for families to be able to identify their loved ones.

AMOS: Charges that the Syrian regime tortures people are not new, she says. But the photographs show systematic brutality and a chilling documentation. The victims may have died in different ways, but all were catalogued with coded numbers written in ink on their bodies.

JUNDI: They've documented it in such detail.

AMOS: Jundi believes it was a way for the executioners to prove to Syria's leaders that the ordered executions were actually carried out.

JUNDI: In a highly corrupt government where you can pay people to release people, they needed the evidence to show that you told us this is what we need to do and therefore this is what we are doing.

AMOS: She says what they were doing is a war crime and the Syrians believe they can build a case. But they know that trials in an international court are likely to be blocked by Syria's allies. Dr. Imad al-Deen al-Rasheed leads the team in Istanbul and he says they are turning to European courts.

IMAD AL-DEEN AL-RASHEED: We start in Spain and U.K. It will take a long time, but we hope.

AMOS: They now hope this week's display on Capitol Hill will lead to more U.S. action - a year after a Syrian police photographer testified in Congress. The FBI is still assessing the photos. Till then, Dr. Mohammad Ayash's team continues the grim work of documenting the dead, which still brings surprises.

AYASH: This is my friend.

AMOS: When you saw that picture, did you know he was dead?

AYASH: No.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.