Keeping the Death Count in Syria
Since the start of the Syrian Revolution, Syrian activists, armed with camera’s, pencils and paper, count the death, map tortures and other human rights violations. Journalist Ignacio Delgado spoke with some of them, the so called dead counters.
‘Documenting under bombings and shelling is very difficult. In some wars, there are places that are at least a bit safe, but nowhere in Syria is safe. It does not matter where you are. Ghouta, for example, is not safe at all… When I think of our field researchers inside Syria, I sometimes have the feeling that they are just waiting for their death’, admits Bassam al-Ahmad, the spokesman for VDC (Violations Documentation Center) in Syria, and head of its research and reporting department.
‘When I think of our field researchers inside Syria, I sometimes have the feeling that they are just waiting for their death’
Field researchers are the first link in the VDC’s documentation chain. Working inside Syria, they are the first to arrive in the sites of airstrikes to take testimonies from eyewitnesses and survivors. They also gather information from different sources - ranging from paramedics, members of the Civil Defense and defectors to media activists, families, field hospitals and cemeteries - and take pictures and shoot video to document what has happened as accurately as possible. Arrests, kidnappings, missing persons, and instances of torture are documented, too.
‘I usually tell our employees, a team of 30 activists working inside Syria and abroad, that accurate information is the first and most important step, because without accurate information you cannot do anything else. You cannot do advocacy or talk to the media. We need people to document exactly what happened without any sort of bias. Our philosophy at VDC is to document the issue as is’, explains Bassam.
The nature of a field researcher’s job is dangerous and so are the circumstances under which they do it. Thaer, a VDC field researcher who prefers to use an alias for security reasons, points to the relentless shelling of eastern Ghouta, an agricultural and industrial area on the outskirts of Damascus, by Syrian government forces and the targeting of civilians as the main difficulties he encounters in doing his job.
‘We are under constant threat, because we monitor and document violations committed by all the parties to the conflict. Armed groups threaten us and hinder our work. We are exposed to arrest, prosecution, kidnapping, and assault on an ongoing basis’, says Thaer.
Like some of his colleagues at VDC, Thaer was a student at the University of Damascus before 2011. He attended law school and was interested in international law and international relations. When the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, he began to take part in peaceful demonstrations. Soon enough he was collecting the names of protesters who were either arrested or shot dead by the Syrian government forces during peaceful demonstrations.
Although he had been gaining experience as a human rights researcher at a local council’s monitoring and documentation office, Thaer wanted to get further training in human rights. In June 2013, he met human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh and decided to join the VDC office in Ghouta because of its reputation in monitoring human rights violations.
‘I do this work because we need to document violations and collect evidence in order to bring the perpetrators to justice and hold them accountable for their crimes.’
However, living conditions in Ghouta, especially in the eastern part, which has been shelled by Syrian government forces since it fell into rebel hands in 2012, have become dire. There is little access to food, water, medicines, fuel or electrical power. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), some parts have been under siege since 2013. The rebel groups operating in the area, such as Jaysh al-Islam or Al-Nusra Front, have inflated the price of food and basic necessities and restricted the movement of civilians. Yet Thaer carries on.
‘I do this work because we need to document violations and collect evidence in order to bring the perpetrators to justice and hold them accountable for their crimes. The hardest part is the restrictions of movement and the threats we are facing. I am afraid of these threats. I have been harassed and interrogated by the state security about my work in the field of human rights. Furthermore, there have been precedents of abduction of VDC members,’ he explains.
He refers to the so-called ‘Douma four,’ the four human rights activists who were abducted from the VDC office in Douma by unknown armed assailants on 9 December 2013, and especially to Razan Zaitouneh, a pivotal figure in the human rights movement in Syria and founder of the VDC.
Eloquent and outspoken as she was in interviews and articles, Razan Zaitouneh’s actions always managed to speak louder than her words. Her engagement in human rights work had begun long before the beginning of the 2011 uprising. As if waging a war of attrition with the Syrian regime to open up space for civil society, Razan, a lawyer by trade, defended political prisoners and supported their families, co-founded the Human Rights Association in Syria in 2001, and founded the Syrian Human Rights Information Link (ShRIL) in 2005 to document human rights violations in Syria. Her activism cost her countless threats, travel bans, and arrests. However, she remained undeterred.
Circumventing the blackout imposed by the Syrian Government on media coverage of the then emerging protests, Razan used the ShRIL website to relay information to foreign media about events on the ground in Syria. As a result of her efforts to document the massacre at the Omari Mosque in the southern town of Daraa, which resulted in 37 people being killed by Syrian security forces on 23 March 2011, the Syrian authorities accused her of being a foreign agent, thus forcing her into hiding.
Living underground in Damascus, Razan founded, along with other human rights activists like Mazen Darwish, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria in April 2011. Barely a month earlier, she had founded, along with her husband Wael Hamadeh and other activists in Syria and abroad, the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella organization that brings together the local committees that have emerged in neighborhoods, cities, and villages across Syria since March 2011 to organize and document peaceful protests against the Al-Assad regime, report news and developments on the ground, promote a peaceful transition to democracy, document human rights violations, and, in some cases, even provide humanitarian, medical, and legal aid.
However, what had initially been a peaceful uprising began to turn into an all-out war by 2012. The brutal crackdown, including the use of deadly force, on protesters by Syrian government forces made it impossible for non-violent protest to continue and led factions within the Syrian opposition to arm themselves.
Far from discouraged by this turn of events, Razan and her husband doubled down on their commitment. Convinced that civilian activists still had a role to play in the revolution by monitoring the actions of armed rebels and setting up institutions for good governance in the liberated parts of the country, they moved to the liberated city of Douma, where she launched a project for women empowerment and set up a community development center. Despite the constant threats she received, Razan continued to document human rights violations and tried to train rebel fighters in international humanitarian law.
On 9 December 2013, a group of unknown armed assailants broke into the VDC office in Douma and kidnapped Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamadeh, and the activists Samira Khalil and Nazem Hamadi. Their whereabouts remain unknown, but suspicions point to the dominant militia in Douma, Jaysh al-Islam, whom Razan’s family and friends hold responsible for the abduction of the ‘Douma Four.’
‘I have been unable to gather information on Razan’s abduction so far, because the dominant faction in the city is preventing an investigation into this issue,’ concludes Thaer.
The experience of prison
‘Sometimes, when I am talking to my friends about my experience in prison, I just laugh, because I love this experience. I did not like it at that time, but it was great for me to work on documenting human rights violations, especially on detainees and torture, and become a detainee myself, because I saw everything.
‘When you become a detainee yourself and see everything… You have very clear evidence of what is going on in prison.’
Before that, when I used to interview people who had been arrested or tortured, I asked my friend, who unfortunately died under torture: do you think they are telling us the truth? Because some things sometimes are hard to believe…When you become a detainee yourself and see everything…You have very clear evidence of what is going on in prison,’ says Bassam al-Ahmad.
Bassam’s involvement in political activities goes back a long time, to 2004, when he joined a secret Kurdish political party in his hometown, Qamishli (northeastern Syria), shortly before moving to Damascus to pursue a degree in Arabic literature. In Damascus, however, he met other dissidents.
He recalls that, at that time, between 2007 and 2009, the boundaries between the different fields of activism were blurry and it was not strange for human rights activists to do journalism work or for journalists to engage in political activities. In that atmosphere, Bassam began to organize seminars for students at Damascus University on civil society and democracy. It was also around that time that he met Razan Zaitouneh and Nazem Hamadi, a friendship that would prove crucial for Bassam at a later stage.
On 5 February 2011, shortly before the outbreak of the uprising, Bassam and other activists were ready to protest before the parliament building. A large turnout was expected, but nobody showed up. A strong police presence discouraged them from taking to the streets. Things changed barely a month later, when 15 children were arrested and subjected to torture in the southern city of Daraa for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school, thus sparking protests across Syria.
‘After what happened in Daraa, we became more courageous and rented an apartment in a fancy area in Damascus, so that the security forces would think that we were a group of guys and girls trying to have fun when in fact we were holding political meetings and organizing non-violent activities and demonstrations. At that point, I wanted to become a media activist, because the regime denied what was happening. However, I eventually joined VDC, because of my friendship with Razan and Nazem,’ points out Bassam.
Two and a half months into the job as field researcher, Bassam was arrested by Syrian Government forces while he was documenting an airstrike on 16 February 2012. He was taken to the Air Force Intelligence headquarters in Mezzeh military airport, where he spent 33 days. He was subsequently transferred to the 4th division, a dreaded elite unit headed by Maher al-Assad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother.
‘When we arrived at the 4th division, we thought that the Air Force Intelligence Branch was a five-star hotel. I thought they had brought us there to die, because you simply cannot live in that place. There is nothing. It is underground. We were 85 people in a very small cell and the only thing there was the WC. A lot of people had skin diseases. The first weeks were the hardest. A lot of torture and beatings. It was very brutal. Every day and every night, they took us outside and beat us. At the Air Force Intelligence Branch, there were questionings. At the 4th Division, we were beaten and tortured for no reason,’ Bassam explains.
He stayed there for 33 days. He fell ill and requested a transfer to hospital. However, a friend of his who had been at the hospital warned him against it. At the last minute and despite feeling very sick, he decided not to go. Five people were taken to hospital on that day. None of them returned.
‘As soon as I opened the door of the toilet, I freaked out for there were three bluish bodies lying there on their underwear.’
Eyewitnesses’ testimonies of the conditions at hospitals where inmates are taken speak for themselves: ‘As soon as I opened the door of the toilet, I freaked out for there were three bluish bodies lying there on their underwear. Those bodies had long hair and beards. It seemed that they had spent a long time in detention. Their eyes had been pulled out during torture and they were piled up on top of each other. I immediately shut the door and went to the toilet to pee. However I saw two other bodies, fully dressed with long hair and beards too, yet these bodies seemed to have died recently. I closed the door again and headed to the small room where the sink was. There, I saw a young man’s body; he was about 17. He only wore underwear and traces of torture were all over his tiny body with other traces of burnings caused either by boiling water, boiling oil or other substance.’ VDC Testimony of the Detainee Mazen Besais Hamada on Military Hospital 601 in Mazzeh, Damascus. October 2013.
After 33 days at the 4th division and a short stay at a military police prison, Bassam was taken to a military court. He was facing seven charges, including receiving funding from abroad and calling for the fall of the Al-Assad regime. He denied all charges and was transferred to Adra Prison, where he spent 20 days and was eventually released.
‘After my release, I went to Qamishli and participated again in demonstrations to call for the release of six colleagues who were still in jail. I was very lucky, because some of them were released a year later; others three years later. Unfortunately, we lost a friend, Ayham Mustafa Gazoul. We were released at the same time, but he was arrested again at Damascus University, beaten, and taken to the Air Force Intelligence Branch, where he died three days later. At that time, my parents were worried about my activities and I couldn’t stay, so I left Syria,’ says Bassam.
‘Before the war started, I studied history at private university in Damascus and worked in real estate. However, when the uprising broke out in mid-March 2011, I found myself facing two choices: either to sit on the fence and avoid taking part in what was happening or join the revolution without any regard for the consequences. I chose to join the revolution,’ says Alaa Affash, researcher and auditor at VDC.
It was the first choice of many he would make in the following months and years. It was the same choice many Syrians were confronted with.
Alaa took part in his first protest in Damascus on 23 March 2011. From that moment, he decided to devote his time and efforts to the unfolding peaceful revolution. However, Syrian government forces soon began to forcibly crush demonstrations and crack down on protesters, killing many of them. With the rising violence against protesters, Alaa and five of his friends agreed to record the names of those who were killed, arrested, wounded, and abducted.
‘It was a personal effort. We had no funding to establish an organization, so we gathered information, sorted and classified it on spreadsheets, and sent it to human rights organizations. We also recorded video and took pictures of events on the ground through people scattered across various neighborhoods and cities. We used social networking sites to relay that information. In order to do so, I used the nickname Tim Damascene,’ recalls Alaa.
It was not long before he started to document the casualties of the shelling of some neighborhoods in Damascus and other areas on the outskirts of Damascus by Syrian government forces. In early 2012, he joined VDC as a field researcher.
‘Talking to witnesses and dealing with websites had become very difficult under a ban on media coverage. Furthermore, many of my friends had been arrested and killed.’
For years, Alaa visited the sites of bombings, documented them in video, and took testimonies from eyewitnesses and victims of human rights violations. However, pressure began to grow. Under constant threat of arrest, prosecution or abduction by Syrian government forces, he had to move every so often for fear of surveillance and raids.
‘I was always afraid of being arrested and prosecuted, of dying in prison without nobody knowing. Talking to witnesses and dealing with websites had become very difficult under a ban on media coverage. Furthermore, many of my friends had been arrested and killed. Many of them died under torture in Syrian prisons. I eventually had to leave Syria,’ explains Alaa.
However, he continued to work for VDC as an auditor from abroad. He had found purpose in his job, as if the choice he made on the outset of the Syrian revolution had shaped what was to come. Now, he studies political sciences and wants to continue to work in the field of human rights.
‘I am aware that the results of the job we do are not immediate, that we will see the results in the future, but I simply cannot witness murder, torture and destruction and do nothing. Some of my friends took up arms and chose the path of fighting, because they were convinced that it was the best course of action, but I do not think that is the solution. I chose non-violence and peaceful activity from the beginning of the revolution and I intend to follow that path to the end. It is a feeling inside me that drives me to do this job. My work will pay off when criminals are prosecuted in fair international courts.’
A personal toll
‘I realized that my job affects me personally a few months ago. My girlfriend told me that when I show her something about my job, she gets angry or sad, but I don´t. When I speak about my job, I laugh and smile a lot and people ask me: why don’t you have a reaction?’ says Ahmed Abu al-Hassan.
Ahmed is responsible for data entry in the VDC’s casualties section. Every day, he receives raw data on casualties from field researchers in Syria and trawls through the names of dead people, places, dates, and ages; he pieces them together, analyzes and verifies the data, and enters them into the database in the form of snippets. A casualty at a time: Lamaa Mohammad Issa: Adult female civilian. Madaya, Damascus suburbs. Date of death: 25 January 2016. Abdul Lateef Musa Arar: non-civilian adult male. Nawa, Daraa province. Date of death: 25 January 2016. These snippets build up to paint a picture with numbers: 131,140 and 63,617 documented casualties and arrests as of this writing… and counting as the war in Syria enters its fifth year.
‘Sometimes when I am working, however, I have to admit that the job takes a toll on me. What makes me angry is to document the deaths of men in his twenties and thirties, young men who had time to experience life and couldn’t because they had been fighting for the past five years. That hurts me. They had the ability and time to live, to love and be loved, but they couldn´t. They are on the frontline all the time and die single. It annoys me,’ he admits.
When he was still able to use his real name and the Syrian uprising hadn’t begun, Ahmad taught biology to high school students and pursued his master’s degree. Political activism was not yet in the radar, but, like many of his colleagues, he joined the protests at a very early stage. Soon he became member of the committee that coordinated the protests in his neighborhood in Damascus and began to carry out propaganda and awareness-raising activities. It was not long before he was arrested by Syrian government forces along with five of his colleagues. He would spend the next seven months in jail, a rough experience he recounts with humor and a bitter sense of irony.
‘After asking permission from the victims, you have to find a way to use their testimonies in a way that suits their needs without revealing their identities.’
‘Before the prison guard found out that I was studying a master’s degree, I was treated as everyone else, punched as everybody was punched. When I told him I was a university student, he began to treat me three times worse than the rest, so if everyone was beaten twice, I got beaten six times. We got beaten almost on a daily basis for no reason. For example, every time we went to the toilet, we got kicked or beaten, sometimes with bats and cables, but worse than that was the amount of people in the prison cells. We were 60 and slept on top of each other. Diseases were transmitted from person to person. Everyone had scabies. By the end of my imprisonment, I had a very strong diarrhea. Fortunately, I was released two days after getting infected in a prisoner swap. At least 300 prisoners were swapped for 11 Iranians. That tells you what we are worth,’ he points out.
A month later, Ahmed was on his way to Egypt, where he stayed for six months. It was there where he joined VDC. His roommate in Cairo had just begun to work for VDC and, based on his recommendation, he was hired by Razan Zaitouneh, who was aware of his background as an activist. However, the situation in Egypt worsened after the military coup on 3 July 2013 and Ahmed left for Turkey.
Although he was first assigned to the casualties section, he was also asked to work on women rights, taking testimonies from women who had been detained, a job he describes as tricky.
‘After asking permission from the victims, you have to find a way to use their testimonies in a way that suits their needs without revealing their identities. That is hard, especially when you cooperate with other organizations. You have to provide those organizations with plenty of information, but have to be careful not to give them names or any detail that points to the victims,’ explains Ahmed.
Anonymity is something Ahmed, who works under an alias, hasn’t yet get used to. He is well aware that he has to keep his real name secret for the sake of the safety of his family in Syria, but he struggles to strike a balance between the requirements of the job and the need for personal safety.
‘I sometimes envy people who can use their own names. I want to do my job properly, to devote myself entirely to it, but sometimes, especially when I am getting testimonies and trying to find victims and witnesses, there are cases when I can’t do my job well, because they ask me things I cannot answer and I would put my family in danger. I cannot be entirely open, because my family would suffer the consequences. I am trying to keep a balance, but this balance…is killing me,’ he concludes.