Cesar: Routine becomes nightmare in Syria torture cells

Cesar: Routine becomes nightmare in Syria torture cells
Feature: The second instalment of extracts from an explosive new book featuring the testimony of a defected Syrian regime torture photographer tells of the new banality of evil.
6 min read
01 October, 2015
Al-Araby al-Jadeed is publishing translated excerpts from four chapters of Operation Cesar, written originally in French, about the dissident photographer known by the codename "Cesar", who worked for the Syrian regime's military police before defecting.

He leaked and published 45,000 photos of the regime's torture victims. The book, written by Garance Le Caisne, will be released in Paris on 7 October by publisher Stock.

Chapter three of Operation Caesar - In The Heart of the Syrian Killing Machine details the horrific daily experience of photographing the dead bodies of torture victims 400 metres away from Bashar al-Assad's palace.

Al-Araby is sharing excerpts of Cesar's first-hand testimony, which the French judicial system has recently decided to use as criminal evidence of war crimes against the Assad regime.

Catch up with the first excerpt - "Occupation: Photographer of corpses" - here

Chapter III

Routine becomes nightmare

"For a while, I was sending corpses to the military hospital in al-Mezzeh, which is larger than Tishreen Hospital.

"Tishreen Hospital was five minutes away by car from our office and al-Mezzeh was ten kilometres away, or about half hour by car.

"Photographing corpses in Tishreen was easier because there were no sun or lights in the morgue and the hallways when it was full. In al-Mezzeh, the corpses were left outside on the ground or in the garages, where the cars were repaired.
     The corpses were left outside onthe ground or in the garages, where the cars were repaired

"The hospital was at the bottom of a hill where there was a Republican Guard post.

"In some of the pictures, you can see the hill, the guard's post and the trees which mark the perimeter of the building. Behind it, to the top, you can see the presidential palace.

"We saw corpses of Christians and Alawis, I saw one with a tattoo of Assad's face on his chest as a sign of loyalty. My colleagues and I did not only have to take pictures of the corpses, but also create files on them. We had to print pictures, sort them according to [ministry] section, stick them on the files and then arrange them.

"It was methodological work - one person printed the pictures, then someone would stick or attach them to the files, and a third would write a report. Our bosses would sign the reports, then send them to the military courts.

"Before the revolution, we used to do this with soldiers' bodies - and after it, we continued, but with the bodies of civilians. It was a routine.

"The numbers increased, especially in 2012, but we didn't stop working. The officers in charge of our department would insult us and tell us: 'Why have you not finished yet? The bodies are piling up! Come on, faster.'

"They thought we were messing around but we could not work faster than we were. The bodies were always increasing and the staff decreasing, because of dissenting soldiers. We were under so much pressure that, in the end, the bodies would stick together in al-Mezzeh's garage by the time we could photograph them.

"There in the sun and heat, the bodies were preserved badly, especially if they were there for more than two days. Even the soldiers would refuse to touch them; they would move them around disrespectfully with their shoes."
Read more from Operation Cesar
Chapter II - Occupation: Photographer of corpses
Chapter III - Routine becomes nightmare
Chapter VII - Families seek Cesar's help
Chapter VIII - The duty of leaving

The smell of corpses 

"They would rot. One time we saw a bird pecking the eye of one of the corpses, other times insects would infest their skin.

"It smelled there, but not in Tishreen where the bodies were kept inside - unlike al-Mezzeh's outdoor garages. In the beginning we could not seem to rid of the smell and it would drive us crazy. But we eventually got used to it, and it became a part of our daily lives.

"We used to work from 8am until 2pm then we would rest until 6 or 7pm, then go back to the office until 10pm.

"The days were long, but we knew that we had to finish by the end of the evening, so we would not be held back - because more bodies would be waiting for us the next day for us to photograph."

A file for each dead person

"Such as in every old Eastern Bloc county, Syria records and archives all information. States which even doubt their loyalists love to file everything so they can avoid making mistakes. In Syria, in the heart of the state's apparatus, no one trusts anyone else. Everyone who takes orders has to prove that they have carried them out to the fullest extent.

"Officers ask for news and gossip from their subordinates who are quick to provide it out of fear they will be classified as disloyal or cowardly - accusations that can lead to being imprisoned without trial.

"Do detainees die from hunger or under torture in the intelligence service's detention centres? That is top-secret, but they are recorded on faked death certificates that declare the cause of the death to be natural.

"In the courtyard of the military hospital in al-Mezzeh, downtown Damascus, two conscripts dumped dozens of naked corpses out of a moving vehicle. 'Throw these bastards there,' they yelled.

"Before then, the corpses were in military detention centres. 'How am I supposed to carry this?' yelled a reserve conscript in panic. He could not bring himself to touch the meagre remains. 'You do it,' he told his fellow conscript. Eventually, the two young men had no choice but to move the corpses into storage.

"Just like anyone whose existence is threatened, Assad overlooks everything from above. When the conscripts look up to the top of the al-Mezzeh hills, only 400 metres away, they can see Assad's palace, surrounded by trees. Also known as the 'people's palace', the presidential palace overlooks the capital."
     New corpses arrived almost every day in the shadow of the presidential palace

Assad's neighbourhood

"New corpses arrived almost every day in the shadow of the presidential palace. The coroner would arrive at around 7am, with a notebook in his hands, the pages of which were divided into three columns.

"He would move around from one corpse to another, looking at two numbers written on each corpse's skin, or on a piece of paper attached to it. The first was the prisoner's identification number, and the second would refer to the intelligence branch the deceased prisoner had been held at.

"For his medical report, the coroner would write down a third number on a piece of cardboard, which he then would place on or near the corpse, after which a photographer would take a picture, before the coroner returned with his notebook to organise the three numbers in the correct columns.

"The coroner would be accompanied by a 'witness' conscript, who would describe the corpse for him. In the first column, they would write down the corpse's approximate age, height, skin and hair colour, tattoos if found, bullet wounds as well as the cause of death, which would always be a 'heart attack' or 'respiratory condition'.

"Of course, the description would never mention any signs of torture."


When they would finish taking pictures, Cesar and his colleagues would return to their military police office to write their reports, addressed to the military courts.

These documents, later found to be from the forensic photography department of Syria's military police, carry pre-printed titles: "intended for justice", "notes on the pictures", and "notes on the incident".

After classifying the documents under "death", officers at the forensic photography department must fill each one out using a pen.

Read our next excerpt - "Families seek Cesar's help" - here