DUBAI: In 2013, a total of 41 civilians were murdered in cold blood in one incident. One by one, blindfolded prisoners were taken to the edge of a newly dug pit in the Damascus suburb of Tadamon and systematically slaughtered. The bodies, piled on top of each other, were then set on fire.
The images of this massacre, perpetrated by Syrian militia members loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, were released only in April this year, following a disclosure by the British newspaper Guardian and the online magazine New Lines.
The amateur video, shot by the killers themselves, was discovered by a militia recruit in the laptop of one of his elders. The young man, disgusted by what he saw, forwarded the video to investigators, who then confronted one of the killers identified on the series.
Journalists and activists in southern Damascus, who spoke to Arab News after the video surfaced online, said the Tadamon massacre was probably not the only atrocity committed in the region during this time.
Throughout 2012 and 2013, pro-regime militias fired on random passers-by at the checkpoints of the Tadamon, Yalda and Yarmouk camps, as well as shot people in their homes. The bodies of the victims were often left behind, according to the residents.
“We heard about these massacres and the burning of corpses,” Rami al-Sayed, a photographer from the Tadamon district, told Arab News. “We knew that anyone arrested by the shabiha in Nisrine Street would be reported missing and executed in most cases.”
Chabiha is a Syrian term for Assad’s government-backed militias that carried out extrajudicial killings during the civil war that erupted after the 2011 uprising.
Nisrine Street was known as the stronghold of one such militia, which violently suppressed protests at the outset of the uprising and then began detaining and executing residents of southern Damascus.
“It is not known that all of the victims identified so far have taken part in protests or military activities against the regime,” al-Sayed said.
“The presence of a pro-regime majority in Tadamon forced most of the anti-regime people to flee the area entirely or to live in an area that was still under opposition control in 2013.”
According to Syrian human rights monitors, entire families who tried to pass checkpoints in southern Damascus disappeared in 2013, including children and the elderly. In many cases, their fate is unknown even today.
These families are only a small fraction of the 102,000 civilians who have disappeared since the uprising began in 2011, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which believes regime forces are responsible for the enforced disappearance of nearly 85% of the total number of missing Syrians. .
Most of the victims of the Tadamon massacre have not yet been publicly identified. Fearing further reprisals, their families are hesitant to come forward and acknowledge their relationship.
“Many parents are afraid to announce that they have recognized their loved one in the video for fear of being persecuted by the Syrian secret police, especially if they live in an area controlled by the regime,” Mahmoud told Arab News. from the Yarmouk camp.
Residents of southern Damascus expect neither the perpetrators of this particular massacre, nor those who oversaw countless others, will be held accountable for the foreseeable future, despite the incriminating video evidence.
“This is not the first time such clear evidence of the involvement of members of the Syrian regime in genocides has been exposed,” Zaghmout said. “But the regime remains protected by the Russians, allowing it to escape any responsibility.”
When images of the massacre first appeared online, families of Syrians and Palestinians who disappeared in 2013 frantically scanned the video looking for clues to the whereabouts of their loved ones.
While the horrifying images confirmed their worst fears, they could at least find some semblance of closure that would end the uncertainty surrounding the loss of their loved one and allow them to grieve.
Families suffered the same trauma while browsing thousands of photos smuggled from Syria in 2013 by an army deserter codenamed Caesar. These images contain horrific evidence of rape, torture and extrajudicial killings in the regime’s prisons.
Evidence from Caesar was used to prosecute Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian intelligence officer, who was sentenced to life in prison by a German court in January for the horrific abuse he inflicted on the detainees.
The Koblenz trial offered a glimmer of hope to Syrians who want to see their executioners brought to justice. Despite this small victory, Tadamon’s families doubt that the militiamen who murdered their loved ones will ever show up.
The parents of Wassim Siyam, a Palestinian living in Yarmouk camp who was 33 years old when he disappeared, watched these horrific images.
“I watched the footage several times, then the way a man was running caught my attention. He was my son. That’s how he always walked. I knew it was him,” Wassim’s father said Arabic news†
Many families still had hopes that their children were still alive somewhere in the regime’s prison system and that they would one day be released through one of the government’s occasional amnesty measures.
On May 2, about 60 prisoners were released by the regime under a new presidential decree granting amnesty to Syrians who had committed “terrorist crimes” – a term often used by authorities to refer to those arrested arbitrarily.
Some had spent more than a decade in facilities described by human rights group Amnesty International as “human slaughterhouses”.
Crowds gathered in Damascus in the days following the amnesty, hoping to find their loved ones. Some held up photos of their missing relatives and asked released inmates if they’d seen them alive in prison.
Wassim’s mother has long hoped that her son, nearly ten years after his disappearance, is still alive. “I kept my faith in God. I thought he was probably detained but still alive,” she reportedly said.
“I don’t know how they could do this to the civilians. A normal person avoids running over an ant while walking, if they can. How could they do this? †
She added: “My son was valued by the community. We have never hurt anyone to be hurt that way. I expected him to get out of prison – skinny, tortured, maybe missing an eye – but I didn’t expect that.”
A video of the Tadamon massacre ruled out the possibility that Wassim and the other men were still alive.
“The hopes they had, however small, are gone,” Hazem Youness, a Palestinian-Syrian researcher and former diplomat who interviewed several families, told Arab News.
The daughter of one of the victims told Youness that since her father disappeared, “every time I heard a knock on the door, I hoped it would be my father. Now I can’t hope anymore.”
Some families were aware of the cruel and inhumane conditions in the regime’s prisons and admitted they were relieved to see their loved ones in the video. At least, they reasoned, their loved ones had not long suffered.
“It’s better that way,” Youness says, citing one of the families. “We were reassured to know that he was not tortured. It was harder for us when we kept thinking, ‘What is he doing? Is he being tortured now? What does he eat? How is he doing ? Is he ill? Where is he ?’ †
The broadcast of the images had another important effect: it confirmed the survivors’ claims and confirmed that murders had indeed taken place in the region.
“Everyone knew there were massacres,” Youness said. “Residents of Tadamon and parts of the camp report that there was a smell of blood and then rotting corpses came out of the houses.
“But, you know, conjecture is one thing and being sure is another; you still don’t want to believe it’s true, and then you have proof of it.”
Some residents were not surprised to learn that war crimes had been committed in Tadamon. What shocked them quite a bit was the brutality and inhumanity of the militia members in the video.
“I didn’t expect it to be this terrible,” Youness said. “You can see in the video how normal what they did to them is. We see them doing it with ease, joking among themselves, as if it were routine, as if it were a game.
“They are beasts that kill in cold blood. It is even unfair to compare them to beasts, as beasts have at least some measure of compassion and empathy.
Alluding to the need to remain optimistic, Youness said: “Unfortunately, the road to justice is a long one. But no matter how long it takes, the march must go on.”
This text is the translation of an article published on Arabnews.com