DUBAI: A total of forty-one civilians were murdered in a single cold-blooded incident in 2013. One by one, blindfolded detainees were brought to the edge of a freshly dug pit on the outskirts of Damascus in Tadamon and systematically slaughtered. The bodies, piled on top of each other, were then set on fire.
Footage of the massacre, carried out by Syrian militia members loyal to President Bashar Assad, was only released in April this year following a revelation by British newspaper Guardian and online magazine New Lines.
The amateur video, taken by the killers themselves, was discovered by a militia recruit in the laptop of one of his elders. Sickened by what he had seen, the rookie passed the video on to researchers, who then confronted one of the killers identified in the footage.
Journalists and activists in southern Damascus, speaking to Arab News after the video surfaced online, said it was unlikely the Tadamon massacre was the only atrocity committed in the region during this period.
Throughout 2012 and 2013, pro-regime militias fired at random passers-by at Tadamon, Yalda and Yarmouk camp checkpoints, and also shot people in their homes. The bodies of the victims were often left to rot, according to local residents.
“We would hear about these massacres and the burning of corpses,” Rami Al-Sayed, a photographer from the Tadamon neighborhood, told Arab News. “We knew that anyone arrested by the Nisreen Street shabiha would be reported missing and, in most cases, executed.”
Shabiha is a Syrian term for Assad government-sponsored militias that carried out extrajudicial executions during the civil war that erupted following the 2011 uprising.
Nisreen Street was known as the stronghold of one such militia which, at the start of the uprising, violently suppressed demonstrations and then began to detain and execute residents of southern Damascus.
“Not all of the victims identified so far are known to have participated in protests or military activities against the regime,” Al-Sayed said.
“In fact, the presence of a strong pro-regime contingent in Tadamon forced most people opposed to the regime to flee the neighborhood entirely, or to reside in an area that was still under opposition control in 2013. »
Syrian human rights monitors say entire families who tried to cross checkpoints in southern Damascus went missing in 2013, including children and the elderly. In many cases, their fate still remains unknown today.
These families constitute a small fraction of the 102,000 civilians who have disappeared since the start of the uprising in 2011, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which estimates that regime forces are responsible for the enforced disappearance of nearly 85 % of total number of Syrians missing. .
Most of the victims of the Tadamon massacre have not yet been publicly identified because their families, fearing further reprisals, are reluctant to come forward and acknowledge their relationship.
“Many relatives are afraid to announce that they have recognized their loved one in the video because they are afraid of being persecuted by the Syrian secret police, especially if they live in areas held by the regime,” he said. said Mahmoud Zaghmout, a Syrian-Palestinian from Yarmouk. camp, Arab News said.
Residents of southern Damascus expect that neither the perpetrators of this specific massacre nor those who oversaw countless others will be held accountable anytime soon, despite the incriminating video evidence.
“It is not the first time that such clear evidence of the involvement of Syrian regime personnel in crimes of genocide has come to light,” Zaghmout said. “But the regime remains protected by the Russians, which allows it to avoid any responsibility.”
When footage of the massacre first appeared online, families of Syrians and Palestinians who disappeared in 2013 frantically scanned the video for clues as to the whereabouts of their loved ones.
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Even if the gruesome images confirmed their worst fears, they could at least find some semblance of closure that would end the uncertainty about their loss and allow them to grieve properly.
Families suffered the same trauma while browsing through thousands of photographs smuggled out of Syria by a military defector named Caesar in 2013. The images contained gruesome evidence of rape, torture and extrajudicial executions in regime prisons.
Evidence provided by Caesar was used to help prosecute Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian intelligence officer, who was sentenced in January to life in prison by a German court for the horrific abuse he inflicted on detainees.
The Koblenz trial offered a glimmer of hope to Syrians who want to see their torturers brought to justice. Despite this small victory, the Tadamon families doubt that the militiamen who murdered their loved ones will ever have their day in court.
One couple who witnessed the horrifying images were the parents of Wassim Siyam, a Palestinian resident of Yarmouk camp, who was 33 when he disappeared.
“I watched it a few times and then the way a man was running caught my attention. It was my son. It’s his way of running. I knew it was him,” Wassim’s father said to journalists.
Many families had held out hope that their children might still be alive somewhere in the regime’s prison system and would one day be released under one of the government’s occasional amnesties.
On May 2, some 60 detainees were released by the regime under a new presidential decree granting amnesty to Syrians who had committed “terrorist crimes” – a term authorities often use to refer to those arbitrarily arrested. .
Some had spent more than a decade in facilities described by rights watchdog Amnesty International as “human slaughterhouses”.
Large crowds gathered in Damascus in the days following the amnesty, hoping to find their loved ones. Some held pictures of their missing relatives and asked released inmates if they had seen them alive in prison.
Wassim’s mother had long hoped that her son would still be alive, nearly a decade after his disappearance. “I kept my faith in God. I thought he was probably detained but still alive,” she said.
“I don’t know how they could do this to the civilians. We even avoid stepping on an ant while walking. How could they do this?
She added: “The community loved my son. We never hurt anyone to be hurt that way. I expected to see him come out of jail – sweet, tortured, maybe he’s missing an eye – but I didn’t.
The clip of the Tadamon massacre ruled out the possibility that Wassim and the other men were still alive.
“The hope they had, even if it was small, is gone,” Hazem Youness, a Palestinian-Syrian researcher and former diplomat who interviewed several families, told Arab News.
The daughters of one of the victims told Youness that since her father’s disappearance, “every time I heard a knock at the door, I hoped it would be my father, and now I can’t hope anymore.”
Aware of the brutal and inhumane conditions in the regime’s prisons, some families admitted they were relieved to see their loved ones in the video. At least, they reasoned, their loved ones hadn’t suffered long.
“It’s better that way,” Youness said, quoting one of the families. “We have been reassured that he is not tortured now. It was more difficult for us when we kept thinking, “What is he doing? Is he tortured now? What does he eat? How is his health? Is he sick? Where is he?'”
The release of the footage had another important effect: it validated survivors’ claims and confirmed that killings had indeed taken place in the area.
“Everyone knew massacres were happening,” Youness said. “People from Tadamon and neighborhoods in the camp said there was a smell of blood and then rotting corpses coming out of the houses.
“But, you know, it’s one thing to suspect something or know it; you still don’t want to believe it’s true, and then you have the proof.
Some local residents were not surprised to learn that war crimes had been committed in Tadamon. What they found rather shocking was the cruelty and inhumanity of the militiamen in the video.
“I didn’t expect it to be this awful,” Youness said. “You can see from the video that it’s a normal thing for them. You see that they do it easily, while joking with each other, like it’s routine, like it’s a game .
“They are beasts that kill in cold blood. It is unfair to call them beasts, because beasts have at least some degree of compassion and mercy.
Alluding to the importance of remaining optimistic, Youness said: “The road to justice, unfortunately, is a long one. But no matter how long it takes, the march must continue. »