Month: June 2016

The Failure of International Aid Empathy and Innovation for Syria



Through an oculus, on the eve of the first World Humanitarian Summit, I enteredthe world of Sidra, a 12-year-old Syrian girl who lives in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp. As Sidra narrated each scene through the camp, her tent, the gym, the internet cafe, the soccer field, I turned around to carefully examine the details, searching for familiarity. When a group of little children swarmed to my invisible body, I remembered exactly what it felt like to be inside a refugee camp, how the children run up to you first. For a few precious moments in the dusty chaos, I was there among my people. Pulling the mask off my face, I reentered the fancy hotel ballroom. This is reality in the Summit world in Istanbul — the city which shelters hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees yet where Syrians were mere illusions.

For two days in May, over 9000 international figures representing 135 countries: world leaders, government officials, celebrities, CEOs, and humanitarians gathered at the WHS  — a concept initiated a few years ago by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The WHS was an effort to unite the humanitarian aid world and dedicate tangible solutions to massive global catastrophes. The global refugee crisis has spiraled in an unprecedented scale largely in part because of the Syrian tragedy — the largest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime.

Despite the devastating numbers — over 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, another million in Europe and across the world, over 6 million internally displaced (with tens of thousands of civilians currently trapped between ISIS and closed neighboring borders), thousands of drowned refugees in the Mediterranean, one million civilians held hostage in areas besieged in vast majority by the Syrian regime (where starvation is being used as a weapon of war), the frequent targeting of hospitals, schools, and marketplaces by regime and Russian aerial bombardment, and the list goes on — the Syrian humanitarian crisis that dominates the headlines was left on the margins when it should have been at the summit of the Summit.

In the world of aid, Syrians have become a virtual commodity: consumed as images, footage, infographics, maps, and data; used as case studies for testing new technologies and innovations; and repackaged as a model for “empathy production.” At some point over the last five years, it was decided that the reason no one was “saving Syria” was because the tragedy had not been humanized enough. If only one could feel what it’s like to be a refugee, to understand what it’s like to be tortured, to imagine what it’s like to watch your country being destroyed, maybe someone will be able to stop the death, displacement, and destruction. Maybe they would be able to stop the war.

So far, this empathy plan (and all other plans) have failed. Despite the well-intentioned efforts, no one knows what it’s really like to be Syrian.

Earlier that morning, I visited Jihan, a Syrian entrepreneur from Damascus. Jihan lives with her family in a suburb outside Istanbul, along with thousands of other Syrian refugees. Our organization, Karam Foundation, has been collaborating with Jihan since 2014 on artisan projects she runs with 50 women in Damascus. Last September she was detained by the Syrian regime for her humanitarian efforts. After her family was forced to pay bribes to release her, she fled with them to Istanbul.

In Jihan’s cozy home, she presented the furniture she collected piece by piece at the local market with the pride of a seasoned bargainer. She said, “People here throw away furniture in perfect condition! We never did that in Syria.”

Every floor of the apartment building is occupied by Syrians. Jihan’s sister lives across the hall with her son, a young man in his early twenties who was one of Damascus’s graffiti activists, spray painting anti-government slogans in the capital when the revolution began in 2011. He used to attend university but now finds odd jobs to make a living. Her family is scattered between countries; her older son has been imprisoned by the regime for four years, her son-in-law has disappeared, and her two daughters live in Sweden.

One of those daughters, a young mother, was detained by the regime for five months and was only released after she had publicly divorced her dissident husband. Her mother told us that when her daughter’s home was raided by regime soldiers, they snatched her wedding trousseau. They callously wore her intimate pieces over their military uniforms and paraded down the street while the neighbors watched from their windows, adding humiliation to the family’s suffering.

Jihan’s sister now protects the sliver of family she has left. She still does not know the fate of her detained son. She plans to leave to Sweden soon.

A kind, prematurely frail Syrian Kurdish woman from Afrin lives upstairs. She presents her intricately hand-crocheted table covers. She remembers her past in Aleppo when she embroidered elaborate needlepoint designs with gold thread on robes for royal families in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Now her products are folded and piled high on the table, going nowhere.

Jihan’s four children are still getting used to school in Turkey. Like thousands of Syrian children, they find much difficulty learning the language and so opt to attend Syrian refugee schools which often lack the resources needed to provide a proper education. Her daughters, 8 and 9, were shy at first but slowly warmed up to us. They showed us their precious possessions — the only toys they were able to bring from their home in Damascus: a doll and a plush dog.

The family asks our opinion about the limited options they weigh every day: should they leave to Europe? Or stay in Turkey? I face these questions from refugees wherever I go; questions I am not equipped to answer. Instead, I listen, nod, smile, and act as if these questions are a normal part of normal conversations. The only advice I repeat to mothers, “Just don’t get on a boat.” Those words sound hypocritical to my own ears — every mother would risk taking a smuggler’s leaky boat to save her children’s futures.

At lunch, Jihan covers the square table with heaping dishes that taste like home. They pluck fruits from the tree outside the window and serve them in bowls with steaming glasses of sweet tea. In this remote Turkish suburb, living with generosity, hospitality, and dignity has not been lost on these families who have lost everything.

At the summit, we seek out the rare Syrians we could find among the thousands of humanitarians. A few Syrian youth were on a panel on education. As I listen and try to tweet their comments, news of a lethal terrorist bombing in the Syrian coastal city of Tartous begins to occupy my feed. Images we are now used to, smoky destruction and charred bodies, the twisted metal of disfigured cars and dusty, wailing survivors — the images are always the same and always horrific. While journalists begin to debate how the attack is being framed in the media and the bickering on which “narrative” to accept, was it ISIS or a conspiracy, I watch the death toll grow. How many more Syrians have just been annihilated while we sit here discussing the future of education?

I look up from my phone as a young man from Yarmouk tells the story of living in a besieged area, watching his community being starved. He ends his statement, “We don’t want your sympathy. We are not here to make you feel pity. We want action.”

Later that afternoon, at the launch of a new global fund, Education Cannot Wait, a panel of very important people faced the audience. The UN Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown moderated the dignitaries’ fast-paced remarks. A young Syrian student speaking on behalf of the Malala Fund, Rawdanour, addressed the room in a strong unwavering voice, in near perfect English. She used to dream to be a doctor but now she is studying political science at a Turkish university in Gaziantep. because she “wants to be a leader.” She unknowingly echoed the man from Yarmouk’s words, “We don’t want your sympathy. We want action.”

At the WHS, action was expressed in repeated ambitious and vague commitments to “education,” to “refugees,” and to “the humanitarian crisis.” The abstract statements were divorced from the Syrian reality that spread right outside the Summit’s guarded gates across the world. The statements conveniently ignored the many months in 2011 that Syria was not a humanitarian crisis, the many months that Syrian refugees didn’t even exist, and thus avoided becoming “political.”

This forced compartmentalization of the humanitarian and the political worlds is delusional. Refugees cannot be separated from the political failures that produced them. And as we have witnessed from the back and forth negotiations between the Assad regime and the UN agencies regarding food distribution to the over one million Syrians trapped in besieged areas, political agendas and war crimes cross over to humanitarian matters all the time.

Taking Sides, the recent report released by The Syria Campaign, details exactly how the “impartial” UN aid programs are in reality. By insisting on continuing to cooperate with the Syrian regime, the result is that over 88% of UN aid serves regime-controlled areas. Even more damning, the agency’s humanitarian aid is being used by the regime as a weapon of war in their “kneel or starve” tactics against besieged populations.

Assad starvation as weapon of war in syria

While the concept of providing education for every child in the world is a noble and just cause, speaking about it in abstract without differentiating why children living in Syria are not going to school is disingenuous. Sheikha Moza bent Nasser from Qatar delivered one of the few brave and unambiguous statements on this very subject. After acknowledging that over 6000 schools have been destroyed in Syria since 2011, she said, “The destruction of schools are not just ‘accidents’ of war. . . .We must hold the perpetrators of these crimes responsible and accountable. Only when the perpetrators are shamed and punished will we deter others from attacking education. Only then, can we break this vicious cycle of building and destroying, building and destroying.”

In response to the international community’s utter failure to protect Syrian civilians and aid workers, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), decided to boycott the WHS altogether.MSF hospitals and clinics in Syria had been targeted by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies too many times and killed too many of their volunteer medics and patients. In their boycott, they too demanded action instead of talk.

Outside the official halls of the summit, the handful of attending Syrians were embraced with much compassion and enthusiasm for the work we do collectively. Under the massive UNHCR “refugee” tent set outside, we held our meetings with NGO leaders and collaborated with inspiring people truly doing innovative work in the field.

The only event dedicated to Syrian humanitarians was held on the sidelines, tucked away in a small, dark room. Syrian doctors, aid workers, and NGO leaders presented impassioned accounts about their work and the plight of the Syrian people. At the end of the panel, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was presented with “A Book of Syria’s Dead” that records the names of the first 100,000 Syrians who have been killed since March 15, 2011. The over 1000-page list ends in 2014. Ki-Moon acknowledged that well over 400,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict. He said “I have a very heavy heart. This is a totally unacceptable situation.”

Nada Hashem, my colleague and co-founder of the How Many More? project, carried the heavy volume around the summit for two days. Its physical presence caught people’s attention. They stopped to ask about it, photograph it, report on it, and we explained the book’s message over and over: this is a fraction of the weight of Syria’s loss. We watched people’s expressions of shock and grief with the cold numbness only Syrians know.

In that small way, we brought Syria to the summit, from the forgotten margins to confront the world.

SCD Leader Raed Al-Saleh recieves “A Book of Syria’s Dead”

SCD Leader Raed Al-Saleh recieves “A Book of Syria’s Dead”

On our last day, we visited the office of the Syrian Civil Defence (SCD) to deliver the book to their elected leader and spokesperson, Raed Al-Saleh. His eyes brightened when he saw the book. He said, “I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time. You don’t know what this book means to me. It holds the names of my friends, my family, my loved ones.”

Raed spoke about his frustrations as the representative of the civilian group dedicated to saving lives. They had thought the extensive documentation of their work digging through the rubble of the aftermath of bombings to pull out bodies — occasionally miraculously pulling out living ones instead of corpses — would move the world to action. Instead, they were hailed as heroes; their white helmets became symbols of inspirational courage.

While the SCD’s rescue videos went viral on social media, no efforts were made to stop the barrel bombs and missiles killing civilians (and targeting the SCD) featured in these very videos. “We don’t want people to cry,” he says, “We want them to act. We don’t want people’s empathy, we want them to work to end this.”

That evening, we met with our friend, Abd Al-Salam, a young Syrian from Aleppo who lives in Gaziantep, working as many Syrians do, in the NGO and journalism worlds, translating projects for the agencies and fixing for journalists as he applies to scholarships to continue his education abroad.

Abd Al-Salam is frustrated with the extent of corruption, waste, and inefficiencies of the hundreds of international aid agencies and organizations that have set up shop in southern Turkey. He attends an endless stream of meetings and training courses that are designed for every symptom of conflict except resolving the conflict itself.

He worries about his family caught in Azaz between YPG militias, ISIS extremists, and coalition forces, in a battle that raged on for days after we met. One mutual friend was kidnapped for a time by the Al-Qaeda affiliated group, Jabhet al-Nusra. Her sister, a doctor attending her last year of obstetrics residency, was kicked out of Aleppo’s countryside by Islamic extremists for treating patients. After she fled to Damascus, she was jailed for 14 months by the regime for her crimes: treating the wounded in opposition territories. She is still waiting to be accepted back into her residency. He said, “No one showed her mercy.”

She messages Abd Al-Salam from time to time for emotional support. She asks him, “What did I do wrong? What did I do wrong?”

He asked us, “Do you know what women like her go through?” I thought of her, Jihan, Jihan’s niece, and the thousands of women languishing silently in torture cells across Syria. “Death would have been easier for them. In those places, they die a thousand times every day.”

“But then the other day she messaged me. I asked her, “How are you doing?” She responded, “We are nurturing hope.”

The three of us sat in the familiar heavy silence only Syrians know, as we absorbed these words spoken by a woman betrayed by all and yet still holding on to hope.

We live in a world where somehow it’s become acceptable for Syrians to starve in front of UN officials who stand as silent witnesses, wringing their hands, and showing deep concern in their regime-censored reports; acceptable for a dictator to set the rules for administering aid to besieged areas where people have been cut off the world for over three years; acceptable for the minuscule aid that finally trickles in to be a mockery of the people, distributing lice shampoo and mosquito nets to starving masses.

Despite this grim reality, it seems there’s an app for all Syria’s problems: an app to feed the hungry, shelter the displaced, print out a prosthetic hand or an ancient Roman arch, teach a Syrian how to code, and even warn civilians of an impending bomb hurtling through the sky targeted at their homes. But there are no humanitarian apps or innovations dedicated to ending the war — the ultimate humanitarian goal.

The best of humanity is doing what it can. While the innovations and ideas challenge the dark reality and perhaps plant seeds for the future, they are still only bandaids of empathy placed gently over the wounds of a hemorrhaging country. The rest of humanity sits silently, glancing momentarily in shock when a Syrian toddler is washed up on a beach, but turning away quickly as their attention fades into indifference. All the while, the killers continue to kill with impunity and the war goes on.

Any fragile hope for the future exists only within the Syrians themselves. Like the young doctor, reliving her trauma by night, waiting in uncertainty by day, and still, “nurturing hope.” That’s what millions of Syrians are doing, nurturing hope while struggling in the crushing margins. They don’t want your sympathy. They want an end. They want peace. They want to go home.

It’s time to face the stark truth in front of our eyes: the towering stack of four books of the dead and counting, the millions of refugees, millions of internally displaced, and a country that has been gutted to the point beyond recognition. It’s time to recognize beyond doubt that humanity has collectively failed. It’s time to admit that the empathy building documentary films and moving photographs and groundbreaking technology and innovative projects and viral campaigns do not have the power to save Syria.

Since it’s apparently impossible for international world powers and their institutions to efficiently deliver food to the starving, or stop the boats from sinking, or stop the bombs (barrel, chemical, chlorine, phosphorus, cluster, and all the forms Syrians have learned to recognize over the years) from falling, or bring mass murderers to justice, Syrians need a drastic solution. Instead of trying to move the world with empathy, perhaps we have not been nearly innovative or creative enough.

Young Sidra watches the clouds pass over Za’atari and dreams to be carried north with those clouds across the border back to Syria. Maybe one day, some genius social entrepreneur will invent the most brilliant device for all Syrians, the technology that allows us to finally switch off this inhumane reality and replace it with a permanent virtual one that transports us back to our homes, families, and country.

Give us such an apparatus and let us disappear completely with Sidra’s clouds to a virtual Syria where people live in freedom and dignity, where there are no refugees, no summits, no hunger, no fear, no humanitarian aid, no books of the dead to write, nothing but ordinary people living in an imagined place they call home, nurturing their hopes in peace.

Give Syrians a way to live perpetually in their dreams. And then forget about us forever.

Article from:

Lina Sergie Attar is a Syrian American writer and Co-Founder/CEO of Karam Foundation. @amalhanano


They raped children right before their parent’s eyes

Regime defectors reveal | “They raped children right before their parent’s eyes”
A BILD-am-SONNTAG-Report by Katharina Windmaißer and Yasser al-Haji (text), Christian Spreitz (foto), Katrin Cremer and Philipp Blencke (layout and digital concept)


Assad War Crimes in Syria

At a time when the world is talking about terror and the spread of radical ISIS Islamists in Syria and Iraq, the daily atrocities of Syrian dictator Assad, in whose civil war ISIS first came into being, are being overlooked. Our reporters have interviewed Syrians who themselves took part in the murder machine for years. They recount how children were raped in front of their imprisoned fathers, how they were forced to issue false death certificates for victims of torture, and how Assad is still poisoning his people with chemical weapons. Why are we standing idly by doing nothing as a nation is destroyed?

Syria map



Assad regime kill doctors

As coroner Dr. Abed Tawab Shahrour (50) opens the blue rubbish bag, once again he thinks, “Please, not another child”. But contained within this makeshift body bag in the Pathology Department of the University Hospital of Aleppo lies the small body of Hadi Zahrour, lips dark purple, his face contorted in agony. Stuck to the dead boy’s forehead is a Post-It. Someone has written the number 2160 on it by hand. “Brown eyes, fair skin, under ten years old. Death caused by inhalation of toxic substances” will later appear in an eight-line report on number 2160. The dark-haired child’s file offers no further information. Here, on the tables at the morgue, there are too many victims of dictator Bashar al-Assad (49).


At that time, in 2013, Dr. Shahrour was Chief Pathologist at the University Hospital of Aleppo. He secretly took a photo of the dead child with his Nokia 5130. “I kept it so that later I could tell the world what is happening to my people”, says the doctor.

He is one of four witnesses interviewed by BILD am SONNTAG. None of them started out as revolutionaries. The only way to be awarded their posts was to be law-abiding members of Assad’s Baath Party. At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, they worked for the regime until, in the face of the atrocities they were witnessing and at the risk of their own lives, they switched sides. By doing so, they put themselves and their families at risk, lost their livelihoods and were forced to leave their homes.

We meet Dr. Shahrour in Turkey, to where he fled. The doctor tells us about 19th March two years ago, the day when Hadi ceased to be a cheerful schoolboy and became just another number in Assad’s death registers. In Khan al-Assal, a small suburb of Aleppo, a poison gas attack at seven o’ clock in the morning killed at least 13 people in addition to Hadi and injured approximately 120 others. On that spring day, seven months had passed since Barack Obama’s famous “red line” speech. In it, the US president warned of military intervention if Assad continued to use poison gas against his own people.

Dr. Abed Tawab Shahrour (50) used to be the chief pathologist at the University Hospital of Aleppo, he autopsyed more than 3,000 war victims Credit: Christian Spreitz / Bild am Sonntag

Dr. Abed Tawab Shahrour (50) used to be the chief pathologist at the University Hospital of Aleppo, he autopsyed more than 3,000 war victims
Credit: Christian Spreitz / Bild am Sonntag


Little Hadi died in a chemical-attack in Khan al-Assal. On his forehead the pathologist stuck a Post-it with the number 2160
 Credit: Private

Little Hadi died in a chemical-attack in Khan al-Assal. On his forehead the pathologist stuck a Post-it with the number 2160

Credit: Private


Five months later still, up to 1,700 people died in Ghouta in Damascus after an attack with the nerve agent sarin, and many more have followed – right up until the present day. U.N. inspectors dispatched to the scene were allegedly not able to find adequate proof of who was responsible for the attacks. Since Khan al-Assal, the delegation has not even travelled to Syria. “For security reasons”, according to the final report.

Three years after Obama’s speech, Syria lies in ruins. Every week, war crimes are still perpetrated: barrel bombs, prohibited under international law of war, continue to fall on schools, neighbourhoods and marketplaces.


Assad barrel bombs


Former Chief Pathologist Dr. Shahrour cannot understand why no one is stopping the dictator: “After I fled Syria on 14th November 2013, I was invited to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. I testified for an hour about all the massacres that I had witnessed. I have seen more than 3,000 victims of cold-blooded murder. All of them died a senseless death. In The Hague, I handed over a police report by the regime about the poison gas attack in Khan al-Assal, which I had stolen and smuggled out from Syria under my shirt. You can still see the marks left on the document by the cold sweat of my fear. In the top-secret report, the regime itself writes that on the morning of the poison gas attack, several witnesses saw fighter jets in the skies over Khan al-Assal. Only the regime has fighter jets. But no-one wanted to know who was responsible for the poison gas attack.

The U.N. just wanted to know if chemical weapons were really used. Of course they were. I’ve seen bodies turned blue, people foaming at the mouth who have died in agony, choking to death. Our nurses also suffered poisoning from handling the bodies. We had to resuscitate one of them.

I have taken soil samples in Khan al-Assal. I have collected cigarettes and a dead bird, I have analysed the corpses’ clothes. Where have these documents gone? I handed them all over to the public prosecutor’s office in Aleppo. No-one has told me how much of the Assad government’s report remains at the U.N. I doubt that my complete analyses are there, because the regime is responsible for everything I have witnessed and studied.

Assad torture

Geheimer Polizeireport über den Giftgas-Anschlag in Khan al-Assal



Near the missile impact site, the regime has a military base. Countless civilians were poisoned, but not a single Assad soldier died. Did they use gas masks? Was it just a coincidence? I saw the dead and the injured. There was not a single soldier, just men, women, and children in their pyjamas. How can that be? Why is the U.N. not interested?

Do you know how it feels when once again, a truck loaded with corpses is being unloaded in front of you and you are afraid, thinking “This time, it’s going to be my children lying there, burnt to death, with no hands, no feet, no head”? That has happened to two nurses at the university. I’ll never forget their cries as long as I live.

Some days, I get body bags with three right hands and a torso. Where are the rest of the bodies?”


The pathologist Dr. Shahrour has taken pictures of the victims with his cell phone. He risked his live in order to show the world what has happened to his people
 Credit: Private

The pathologist Dr. Shahrour has taken pictures of the victims with his cell phone. He risked his live in order to show the world what has happened to his people

Credit: Private


On his mobile phone, Dr. Shahrour shows us more images of horribly mangled bodies. Some victims have been gagged with plastic strips, others have brain tissue spilling from their heads. All have a number stuck to their foreheads.

“When I was studying, I read about what happened in World War II. Never in my life did I think that I would have to document something similar in my work. I could never have imagined that something like this would happen in the world again. I’ve seen a women who was dressed for her wedding night. Her body was intact, but her head was smashed in, just a bloody pulp. I put my jacket over her face, it was an unbearable sight. This emotional impulse alone could have cost me my head. For the last 40 years, we have paid Syrian taxes so that Assad can buy weapons. Now he is using these weapons against us. It’s a tragedy.”

Because the coroner refused to remain silent, his brothers were arrested. One spent three months in the notorious “Palestine Branch” torture prison in Damascus. Assad’s henchmen pulled out his hair and teeth, and broke the bones in his hands. Dr. Shahrour shows us a photo of his brother shortly after his release from prison. We see an elderly man in underpants. Half of his hair is missing, and his hands hang from his arms, strangely deformed.





Dr. Mohamad F. (44)* was also tortured in the same prison. He was also a pathologist at the University Hospital in Aleppo until the regime arrested him on November 12th, 2014. The accusation: he was a terrorist threat. Translated, this means that he was caught trying to escape.





“When I was released from prison, I didn’t recognise my own face in the mirror”, said the coroner. Mohamad shows us a photo taken on April 18th, 2015, two days after his mother pawned her 40-year-old engagement ring to ransom him for the equivalent of about 2,000 euros. His nose is swollen to the size of a potato, and the area under his eyes is heavily bruised. Today, his body is still covered with scars. His buttocks and legs are disfigured by burns. The torturers stubbed out countless cigarettes on his skin. In addition, he was tortured with electric shocks to his testicles. “I have suffered, but it’s nothing compared to the pain other prisoners have gone through. I have seen policemen rape women and children in front of other detainees. They rammed sticks up the prisoners’ anuses.”


Assad torture detainees

The doctors’ body is covered with burns. The torturers stubbed out innumerable cigarettes on his skin Credit: Private


Mohamad is one of the doctors who examined victims like little Hadi after the poison gas attack in Khan al-Assal. At the end of July 2013, as it became clear that Assad was going to allow U.N. inspectors into the country, Mohamad received a visit from Assad’s secret police. “They told me exactly what to say and what not to say about Khan al-Assal”, the doctor told BamS. “I was supposed to tell the inspectors that I saw a bearded man launching a rocket and that the Syrian army were trying to save people. None of that is true.” But the inspectors did not come.

“I saw such terrible things that I couldn’t go on, even if it meant risking my own life. I saw how soldiers of the Free Syrian Army were brought to us with gunshots to the head. The guns had been placed directly against their heads. I saw the bullet holes. These were not injuries of war, they were cold-blooded murders by the regime. My boss wrote “heart attack” or “renal failure” on the death certificates while the secret police stood behind us with their weapons at the ready. They allowed to us open the body bag zippers just enough to see the faces of the corpses. How could we carry out serious autopsies, or identify people? Sometimes the bodies had no face. They were buried in secret mass graves by the regime so that their families couldn’t see that their loved ones had been tortured. I saw dead bodies taken away in blue trucks. I spoke to the gravedigger. That’s the truth.


We could not afford to show any emotion when countless corpses were repeatedly carted in. Too many for our cold storage facility. We examined them in a square in front of the university. My heart pounded like crazy every time. Anyone who wept or protested risked death. Who would have thought that a profession as cold as pathology could become even icier? One day, two of my colleagues turned up on our autopsy tables. They had worked with me in the coroner’s office, and had refused to continue writing false reports. They have been starved in prison. Nobody knows about it, there are no reports about it, but in the hospital I saw with my own eyes prisoners being given blood transfusions with the wrong blood group. They died in agony. Others were given chemical injections. Then, when the families were given the bodies back, or were at least allowed to view them, they appeared outwardly intact. On the death certificate it would say: heart attack. This all happens every day in Assad’s hospitals and prisons.”

* We have changed his name, as well as dates, in order to protect him.





Someone else who can confirm the atrocities in the regime’s hospitals is Hussein Al Hassan (46). For 15 years he was a judge in Haritan, near Aleppo. He says that he questioned badly injured demonstrators in the Al-Razi University Hospital in Aleppo. “Their bodies were covered in torture marks, black and blue, they were covered with wounds. Several of them were roped together like cattle on a bed. They were shackled hand and foot to the person next to them. Some of them could barely speak, and I was supposed to hear their case when they were in that state? A farce.”


Der syrische Richter aus Aleppo Mersin/ Türkei, den 14.06.2015 Foto: Christian Spreitz

Hussein al Hassan (46) used to be a judge in Haritan near Aleppo. He received an order to send even children to prison

 Credit: Christian Spreitz / Bild am Sonntag


At the very beginning of the revolution, the judge received a written order to send all demonstrators immediately to jail.

“I was told that the accusation should always be “terrorism””. I was threatened and pressured. The problem was, even if I acquitted them, as soon as the “suspects” were released from court, the secret police would be waiting for them outside. They didn’t have a chance. From week to week I received stricter instructions on how I should proceed. Soon I was told I should also send minors from the age of 14 to jail. They wanted me to hear suspects’ cases in the secret police building. I refused. That’s not a civilian location. In early 2012, they took my nephew. When we ransomed him a few days later for the equivalent of around 400 euros, he could only walk on all fours. They had smashed his legs with metal rods. He was just an ordinary student.



My court was very small, but I still had around 50 “terrorism” cases every month. You can imagine how many there were in the big cities. Some demonstrators were brought to me with gunshot wounds, barely able to stand up.

Because I soon refused to make arbitrary judgements, they set my office on fire. My safe was stolen, everything was burnt. The secret service told me that revolutionaries were to blame. But funnily enough, the picture of Assad that hangs in every office was unharmed. That would have been the first thing the revolutionaries would have destroyed. I continued to work, but suddenly any demonstrators in my jurisdiction were sent to two other judges in Aleppo. Probably they made “better” judgements than I did. I left Syria with my wife and children on 26th January 2014. I couldn’t see a future, even although where we are now I can’t work and don’t know how we will survive. Syria has become a dark place.”





Brigadier General Zaher al-Saket (52), ex-head of the Chemical Weapons Research Centre of the 5th Division of the military subordinated to the regime in Damascus, and current head of the Aleppo Military Council, also sees no end to civilian agony in sight.



General Zaher al-Saket (52) got three orders for chemical attacks in person, since his escape, he documents other attacks with the help of co-workers in Syria Credit: Martin Lorenz


He asserts: “Assad hasn’t destroyed even half of his chemical weapons.” For many years, Al-Saket’s task was to set up Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal so that the regime could defend itself against enemies such as Israel. “That Bashar would use these weapons against his own people, I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams. Before I fled on March 11th, 2013, I was personally commissioned to carry out three chemical weapons attacks. In October 2012 on Sheik Maskeen, in December 2012 on Al Harak, and in January 2013 on Busra al-Harir, where many demonstrations against Assad had taken place. The people need to be “re-orientated”, they told me. I received an order from General Ali Hassan Amar to prepare phosgene, which at high concentrations damages the lungs within seconds after inhalation and causes death by suffocation. I didn’t want to have blood on my hands, so instead of filling the containers with lethal chemicals I used water, adding Javel water, a bleaching agent, to make it smell pungent while remaining harmless. I buried the other containers filled with poison. When the attacks didn’t have the desired devastating effect, I came under suspicion and had to leave the country.





But I have still good contacts in Syria. Until a year ago I had an informant in the secret service, but suddenly he stopped answering. I hope they let him live. He also confirmed to me the repeated use of sarin by the regime.

The command to use nerve gas can only be given by the head of the army, and that’s Assad. How can it be, then, that he denies ever having used chemical weapons? I know how much material we had at the beginning of the revolution. In Syria there were at least 45 chemical weapons research centres, while the government initially indicated to the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) that there were 23. No-one saw the most important fact, which was that these were not research centres, but production centres for weapons intended for military use. For example, there is one in the region around Mountain Atta, in Adra and Tadmor. Assad hides chemical weapons in heavily fortified military installations in the mountains. When Assad agreed to the 2013 U.N. resolution requiring him to destroy his chemical weapons, 1,300 tonnes were destroyed, but I know that we had at least 3000 tonnes, some of which had already been installed in warheads. Assad continues to have mustard gas and VX gas. Before the visit by U.N. inspectors, many other chemicals which can be used to fabricate chemical weapons were moved to areas controlled by the regime, for example the province of Tartus, the 45 Brigade Rais al-Shaara, the Al Shabiba school in Masyaf, Humaymin Airport in Jableh and the Jabburin region west of Homs. Together with doctors and on-site helpers, I still document any poison gas attacks on FSA areas. I often travel to Syria myself to visit the locations where attacks have taken place, to gather soil samples, photograph the dead and injured and, where possible, the missiles used to launch the chemicals. I send my results to the OPCW.




To my knowledge, the regime continues to use chlorine gas and chloroacetophenone. Their use can be sanctioned by all senior local commanders. Bashar doesn’t even have to sign off on it any more. Because I wouldn’t remain silent, they tortured my brother Khaled (55) in prison. They broke several of his vertebrae and tortured him with electric shocks to the head, hands and feet. He paid $ 60,000 for his release and fled to Germany. He is now receiving medical treatment in Germany.”

Regular attacks on civilians in Free Syrian Army areas attest to the fact that the dictator obviously still has a stockpile of weapons. One of the latest attacks occurred in Sarmin near Idlib on March 16th, 2015 at around 22.30. Six people died.


The ruins of the Taleb family’s house. On March 16, 2015 the whole family died, as a missile with chlorine hit their kitchen Credit: Private

The ruins of the Taleb family’s house. On March 16, 2015 the whole family died, as a missile with chlorine hit their kitchen
Credit: Private


A whole family was wiped out, including three small children: father, electrician Waref Taleb (33), his wife Alaeh (22), his mother Aiosh (58), his daughters Sarah (1), Aisha (2) and his son Mohamad (11 months). Videos show the doctors’ desperate struggle to revive the tiny Mohamad. Even an injection directly into his heart was unsuccessful. Foam bubbles from the children’s noses, their eyes are contorted, their lips purple.


General Zaher himself travelled to the site of the attack, took soil samples and talked to the doctors. According to their findings, chlorine gas was used.

Ten days earlier, on March 6th, 2015, the U.N. adopted Resolution No. 2209, which strictly condemns the use of chlorine gas as a chemical weapon. Samantha Power (44), US Ambassador to the United Nations: “Only the Bashar al-Assad regime could have stored chlorine gas to use as a chemical weapon, and it must be held accountable for this violation of international law.”

Nevertheless, at the beginning of August, the U.N. decided to put together a team of experts to identify the perpetrators of the poison gas attacks.

Are these once again just words, which are not followed up by deeds? Will those responsible be punished? How can they be stopped? Until now, no resolution has been able to prevent pathologists in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria having to open body bags containing the bodies of innocent children, identified by just a number, a Post-It.




During our research, three family members of our colleague Yasser Al Haji died. Abdullah and Rashid Al Haji were killed by ISIS near the northern Syrian city of Marea. They were 18 and 23 years old. Allah Al Haji (17) was killed by a bullet from Assad’s soldiers in Aleppo as he tried to escape arrest at a checkpoint. This narrative is dedicated to them.

During our research, three family members of our colleague died: Rashid (23), Abdullah (18) and Allah (17) Credit: Private

During our research, three family members of our colleague died: Rashid (23), Abdullah (18) and Allah (17)
Credit: Private

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Syrian Soldiers Torture Prisoner into Calling Assad God

Syrian Soldiers Torture A Prisoner into Calling Assad ‘God’!
Syrian Civilians living a ‘life worse than death’!

Published on Sep 16, 2012

This footage, uploaded by Syrian democracy activists on July 4, 2012, depicts a group of soldiers loyal to Bashar al-Assad brutally beating a prisoner detained for unknown offenses. It’s location could not be independently verified.

Although his body is already covered in severe bruises, his interrogators continue to subject him to intense physical abuse. They taunt him by asking him if “this is the freedom you want” and repeatedly beat him into praising Bashar al-Assad as “his God”.


Uploaded on Dec 13, 2011

Inside Assad’s Torture Chambers, 2011 – Syria’s military stand accused of large scale torturing, here are some first hand accounts of such acts.

For downloads and more information visit:

This shocking report exposes the routine and sadistic torture the Syrian military has used on prisoners despite Assad refuting claims that his government is waging a brutal crackdown.

Despite the UN accusing the Syrian government forces of crimes against humanity, Assad defiantly refuses to acknowledge the torture and killings taking place under his command. The testimonies of those involved tell a different story. One man who served for a decade in Syria’s much-feared Military Intelligence gives a terrifying account of the torture that he and Assad’s other enforcers would use on children as well as adults. A 13-year-old speaks boy speaks about how he was electrocuted and the “ultimate pain” of having his big toe nail ripped out with pliers by Assad’s thugs. In another account, an illiterate farmer speaks eloquently about how he endured a month of torture and Kafka-esque interrogation,leaving him with permanent damage.

Syria’s Bodies: The Stench Was Unfathomable

Syrian civilians were tortured to death by Assad regime in prison

By Christoph Reuter and Christoph Scheuermann
January 27, 2014

He says he was never witness to executions, nor did he see torture taking place. That wasn’t his job. His task was that of taking photos of the corpses afterwards. He would snap four or five images per body — of the face and other parts of the person — documenting the cause of death, insofar as it was possible to determine. He did so tens of thousands of times between March 2011 and August 2013 — when he finally fled Syria, taking some 55,000 photos with him on a USB stick. The images are of starved, strangled and tortured men, primarily young and mostly naked. Some have no eyes. The defector, who has been cited under the alias “Caesar,” worked for Syrian security, and says that he and his colleagues were called on up to 50 times a day to photograph corpses, each of which was given a number for documentation purposes.

Caesar provided his testimony and photographic evidence to lawyers and forensic experts at a British law firm. Together, says Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, the defector’s evidence shows the “industrial scale” of the killing perpetrated by the Syrian regime. In addition, the photos provide a horrifying explanation for what might have happened to the 50,000 or more missing people in Syria — those who were abducted by the regime of the course of the past two years. They are not included in the casualty figures, which assume a total of some 130,000 killed in the civil war. But prior to last week, there had been no clear indication as to where they might be.

The British experts randomly chose 5,500 photos for analysis. More than half of them depicted emaciated corpses, many of them showing signs of torture. By extrapolation, the images that Caesar brought with him could document the murders of some 11,000 people. The three prominent attorneys involved believe both the testimony and the photographic evidence to be authentic. In a report, they said there is “clear evidence … of systematic torture and killing of detained persons.” The report notes that “such evidence could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime.”

The investigation and report undertaken by the British law firm was financed by Qatar, which likely explains the fact that it was made public concurrently with last week’s Syria conference in Geneva. Qatar backs the Syrian rebels, but the country’s stance does little to take away from the power of the images provided.

Consistent with Witness Accounts

Caesar was likely but a small cog in the bureaucratic machine of death. But his photographs could be decisive in proving potential crimes against humanity committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They provide visual evidence to back up previous claims made by other witnesses.

The images are also consistent — down to the details — with previously unpublished witness accounts provided to SPIEGEL during the past 20 months of reporting. Those accounts indicate that the vast military hospitals in Homs and Harasta, outside Damascus, became transfer points for the victims of Syria’s military and of the various secret services and militias. The dead, the witness accounts indicate, are centrally registered, photographed and then taken to mass graves in the desert regions in the eastern part of the country, which are still controlled by the regime.

When 19-year-old soldier Ahmed J., from Aleppo, reported for duty at the Homs military hospital on March 11, 2012, he saw a hip-high pile of corpses in the inner courtyard near the mortuary. The pile, Ahmed J. said, “was dozens of meters long and two or three layers high.” Ahmed J. was responsible for packing the corpses into white plastic bags after they had been photographed. Many of them were bloated and mostly unrecognizable. “And sometimes there were just body parts. We tried to make sure that we put a head, two arms and two legs in each sack,” he said. “Others were still dressed and still had mobile phones or money with them. I didn’t think about what I was doing and hardly slept at the beginning, but later I started talking in my sleep, saying to the others: ‘Hey, give me that head there! Take this leg!’ The same things that I said during the day.”

“They had a good camera,” he said, before remembering one more detail: “The stench was unfathomable.”

Each corpse, Ahmed J. said, was photographed three or four times. “Every bullet hole was documented,” he said, adding that he was part of a team of 15 who worked in two shifts. “One fainted on the first day and was beaten. Others plundered the corpses and made jokes.” Their superior was a military doctor, Ahmed J. said. “He left every half an hour, saying he had a headache. He said he had never seen such a thing in his 30-year career.”

Every day, several deliveries arrived, “most of them from different quarters and suburbs of Homs, like Bab Sbaa or Houla,” Ahmed J. said. Twice a week, a large, refrigerated truck with no license plate picked up the white body bags. He says he doesn’t know where they were taken. “We weren’t allowed to ask questions.” Ahmed J.’s assignment ended on March 23 and he defected two months later. He now lives in Turkey.

White Body Bags

A military doctor from the city of Rastan who defected later likewise had an assignment in the Homs military hospital in mid-March, 2012. He too provided details from the corpse collection site, which he saw in the exact same hospital courtyard. “I was there only briefly, but there were hundreds. They could hardly have all died or been killed in the hospital,” he said. He wasn’t witness to a corpse removal operation, saying he only saw soldiers packing the dead in white body bags.

Why would a regime, which kills thousands of its own citizens, collects them in a discrete location and buries them in hidden mass graves, photograph and number the dead?

Caesar says that one reason is so that death certificates could be issued. But why document bullet holes and signs of strangulation given the interest in concealing the true cause of death? The second reason mentioned by Caesar seems more important. The regime wanted to make a record of which security service was responsible for what death, he said according to the report. A kind of performance report for brutality.

Until deep into 2012, the military security agency, the air force secret service, the state security apparatus and other agencies often worked at cross purposes. Some of those wanted by the authorities could escape as a result — because, for example, he was on one agency’s list but not on that of another. Given the confusion, documenting who killed whom perhaps became more important than covering up the whole operation.

Beginning in February 2012, thousands of Homs residents disappeared in the wake of the 4th Division’s attack on the rebellious quarters of the city. Whether the victims belonged to the opposition or not was irrelevant for the subsequent death sentences — the wrong address was often enough. But the men whose corpses the soldier and the military doctor later saw in the inner courtyard of the Homs military hospital did not yet show indications of systemic starvation, as is evident in many of the images provided by Caesar.

That began later. Starting in 2013, severely emaciated corpses and released prisoners began appearing. The British doctor Abbas Khan, who arrived in Syria at the end of 2012 to help treat the wounded in hospitals, was also taken into custody by the army and tortured to death in a prison belonging to the military security agency. For an entire year, his family sought his release; his mother travelled to Damascus and even managed to visit her son with the help of diplomats, lawyers and middlemen. She said later he had been tortured with burning cigarettes and electric shocks and was clearly suffering from starvation, weighing just over 30 kilograms (66 pounds). “He was like a skeleton,” she said.

The Search for Number 417

A British parliamentarian promised to travel to Syria to seek his release and the family was hopeful. But then, on Dec. 17, came official word that Abbas Khan had hanged himself in his cell. His sister Sara, noting that he had become increasingly hopeful that he would soon be released, has said she doesn’t believe the suicide story.

Corpse collection points such as that in Homs were established in Damascus as well. It was a mistake that led to a real estate agent spending five days in the heart of the apocalypse there during his search for his brother. He had been killed, apparently in error, in November 2012.

“We had connections very high up, we knew the head of the air force secret service,” the real estate agent said during a meeting last April. “So I received official assistance in the search for his body.” First, he went to secret service division 601 west of Damascus and then to the military hospital in Harasta, east of the city. “The dead were lying on top of each other in eight or nine layers. They were in the basement, in the courtyard, in the hallways, everywhere, and new ones kept coming. All services brought their corpses there.”

Military security provided 10 soldiers to help the real estate agent in his search. “For five days, they heaved corpses from one pile to the next,” in the search for his brother, number 417. “But he was already gone.”

He was told he could also look at photos of the 1,550 people from in and around Damascus that had been killed in the last two months. “But, they said apologetically, they were only the ones from their service. They didn’t have the others.” But number 417 was not among them.

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley

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