BEIRUT: The news that the Syrian regime is systematically torturing detainees to death – as claimed by monitoring groups and highlighted in an exhibition on display at United Nations headquarters, and denied by Damascus – is different from seeing the evidence.
In recent weeks, over 200 families have received a form of closure by identifying the fate of their loved ones after poring over leaked photographs of the dead.
The Syrian Association for the Missing and of Detainees of Conscience, in coordination with other campaigns, such as Stand with Caesar, and anti-regime media outlets, such as Zaman al-Wasl, have published thousands of photos online so that families can identify their loved ones.
The photos were originally taken by a former police photographer, code-named Caesar, who fled the country and smuggled out some 55,000 images documenting the deaths of thousands of detainees.
While the campaign is being praised by some for giving names to the victims, it has also raised questions about the accuracy and privacy of the identification process.
The association said that given the uncontrollable nature of the Internet, coordination with all the groups and individuals sharing the photos would be impossible, while adding that it was ready to cooperate with any side.
“It’s a painful campaign, there’s no doubt about that,” the association said in response to questions from The Daily Star.
“Just the idea of searching for your relative among thousands of photographs is horrible, but what’s more horrible is waiting for your relative for months and years, hoping that you will meet, [only to learn that] he has died.”
After his brother-in-law was detained in 2013, Amer, a Syrian living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, began posting his photos on Facebook in the hope that someone might recognize him from prison.
Several people said they had seen him, and that he was alive. When the torture victim photos were posted last week, Amer took up the search again, but failed to make any progress.
It wasn’t until a friend sent him a photo from the Air Force Intelligence detainees’ folder that he was able to identify him.
“I recognized him immediately from the scar on his chin,” he said.
Amer was in shock. He sent the photo to the association, and asked for photos of the man’s entire body for confirmation. One photo of the body in question displayed severely burnt hands, prompting Amer to recall the day a rocket exploded next to his brother-in-law.
Choking back tears, Amer said he had yet to inform his family.
“I can’t bring myself to tell them. Our family already lost another brother-in-law in the fighting. I want to spare them the pain for a while.”
Asked about his view of the campaign, Amer said that while he disagrees with publishing photos of the martyrs’ bodies, especially due to their brutal condition, he considers it a way for families to find answers.
“People shouldn’t live on false hope. Families are waiting for their loved ones to come back, when in fact they aren’t.”
When Marianna, a Syrian researcher residing in Beirut, lost her brother, Omran, to captivity in 2013, she, along with her mother, were determined to exhaust every possible avenue to locate him.
Omran, 27, was a soldier who was hiding from the authorities in their Damascus home when he was discovered and detained. The family had been regularly updated of his location by detainees who had seen him before they were freed but they eventually lost trace of him.
“The worst thing is not knowing which prison he’s in,” Marianna said.
Their mother went to the military security center in Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, to ask if there was a dead soldier under her son’s name in the army’s records.
She was slightly reassured when she heard his name wasn’t there, but when the torture victim photos emerged, things changed.
“I was terrified while looking through the photos, my heart was pounding and all the while I was praying that my brother wouldn’t be in one of them,” she remembers.
Marianna described it as a painful and disorganized way to identify victims, arguing that a third party should at least be involved and assist the families. After the first 50 photos, she decided to stop, dreading the emotionally draining process.
“It’s very hard. You have to check closely and examine all the facial features. You have to look at a dead body in a way that a normal person isn’t supposed to. If I die I wouldn’t want anyone to look at my body in this way. It’s disrespectful of the dead,” she said.
And, she kept the news of the leaked photos from her mother.
“She’s already traumatized as it is. If I tell her there are photos, she’ll start looking through them and I don’t want that.”
Oussama Abu Zeid is a Turkey-based Syrian activist and adviser to the Fighter not Killer organization, an advocacy group that promotes adherence to humanitarian and international law in the Syria conflict. In his view, a relatively small number of cases involve family members searching for relatives on their own.
Abu Zeid for instance found that his uncle had been tortured to death when a friend sent his photograph.
“My uncle was a well-loved preacher at a mosque in Daraya. He was my idol. When I received his photo I was paralyzed for a while. I didn’t want to believe that it was him, but it clearly was.”
Abu Zeid didn’t tell his family for a whole day.
“He had small children. How could I tell them that their father is dead? But every day passes with his family looking for him. I couldn’t prolong their suffering.”
The next day, after Abu Zeid’s mother confirmed her brother’s identity, they told his wife and children.
“His 11-year-old daughter was beside herself. She refused to believe it and called me a liar. It was a devastating day.”
Abu Zeid also had misgivings about the campaign, for the traumatic effect on relatives, as well as a more personal one.
“I am an ex-detainee who underwent severe torture and the victims’ photos brought back terrible memories of that time.”
This same view is held by a leading Syrian activist group, the Violation Documentation Center, which has refrained from participating.
Spokesman Bassam al-Ahmed said accuracy was a major concern.
“After months or years of being held in dark cells and undergoing regular torture, the detainee’s features will definitely change, which makes it hard for people to be 100 percent sure of the identity of the deceased This goes against the VDC’s policy of accuracy,” he said.
“There’s a case of a woman who received three photos of different bodies from different sources, each claiming that they had found her detained husband among the martyrs’ photos.”
The woman was on the verge of a nervous breakdown until two of the bodies were confirmed as not being her husband’s, while the victim in the third photo did not resemble him.
“People have gone through a lot already and we don’t want to add unnecessary pain unless we can be certain without a doubt that we have found their loved ones,” Ahmed said.