The duty of leaving: Cesar's escape, smuggling torture archive

The duty of leaving: Cesar's escape, smuggling torture archive
Feature: The defected photographer talks about the critical days before leaving Syria with millions of documents and pictures in one of the FSA's most successful operations.
13 min read
01 October, 2015

Al-Araby al-Jadeed today publishes translated excerpts from four chapters of the explosive new book 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 the publisher Stock.

In chapter eight of Cesar's testimony, which French prosecutors will use as evidence to try Bashar al-Assad's regime on charges of committing war crimes, Cesar talks about the critical hours before finally fleeing Syria.

Catch up with the earlier extracts here:

Chapter two - Occupation: Photographer of corpses
Chapter three - Routine becomes nightmare in torture cells
Chapter seven - Families of the 'disappeared' seek Cesar's help

Chapter VIII

Leaving Syria as a duty

"We wanted to publish the pictures, so relatives of detainees in regime prisons would know that their loved ones had died. Those people needed to know what was happening in prisons and detention centres, because when Bashar al-Assad is eventually toppled, the regime will certainly destroy all the evidence that incriminates it.

"However, why does the regime keep these pictures? I had often asked myself this question. Why does the regime document the victims of torture and keep their pictures?

"I am a simple person who is not political, and my answer is simple: The intelligence agencies do not coordinate between themselves, and each agency works alone according to its own interests without knowing what other agencies are doing.

"This is the case with the military court and the intelligence agencies."

Institutional memory

"For 50 years, the military police has been documenting the evidence in incidents of soldier deaths for the military courts.

"The regime documents everything in order not to forget anything, which is why it documents its victims. The pictures help judges and investigators and they are essential to complete cases. If judges decide to reopen a certain case they will need the pictures.

"After the eruption of the revolution and during the war, they merely continued this practice, however the regime never thought that its pictures could be used against it.

     Security officers and personnel do not believe that they will, one day, be held accountable for their actions
- Cesar

"The Syrian security agencies believe that they enjoy complete impunity. Security officers and personnel do not believe that they will, one day, be held accountable for their actions.

"They know that major powers support the regime and they never imagined that these pictures would come out and be published.

"In reality, I wonder whether the heads of security agencies are dumber than we think, as they are busy repressing protesters and robbing and killing the population while forgetting that their violations are well documented.

"Look at the Ghouta chemical attack, which officials knew would leave evidence that would incriminate them - but they still targeted the area.

"However, only the regime can accurately answer why it photographs all of these bodies that were tortured to death. I am sure that the regime continues to photograph bodies despite the pictures that I leaked and published. I am also sure that regime leaders still think that protesters and rebels from the Free Syrian Army are 'terrorists' and paid foreign agents who are destroying Syria.

"At the start of the revolution, most military personnel used to think that - but they later realised that it was not true, but only after a large amount of blood was spilled.

"I clearly remember when the regime released 'jihadis' who had fought in the Iraq war against the Americans, after the regime had arrested them upon their return from Iraq to Syria.

"At the time, the people in my security agency were wondering why they were being released. I did not personally speak to any of those detainees, but they were brought to the military police headquarters.

"The detainees would be brought to our military police base in caged buses and they would be gathered in the yard of the base and the military prison for between 24 and 48 hours - before being sent to stand before a judge who would issue the order for their release."

The release of Iraq fighters

"The police officers charged with watching the detainees used to wonder among themselves about why the regime would release people who had fought in Iraq. They did not understand the reason.

"For the two years in which I copied the pictures, I was in fear for the lives of my family and for my own life - however, I had started a journey that I could not abandon. I had to finish what I had started.

"I was sure that one day I would stop doing this work - but I did not know when exactly. I used to always postpone the date, but things had to move forward and I had to leave.

     It never occurred to me that I would one day be forced to leave my country.

"One day I felt that I was in increasing danger. The danger made me more determined in my decision to leave and be exiled. I was hard and I was worried.

"We had lost our house and our businesses and we were living in an apartment that belonged to one of our acquaintances for months.

"It never occurred to me that I would one day be forced to leave my country. Before the revolution, we used to live a simple life, live day to day without major ambitions.

"We never visited the beautiful places in Syria because we had neither the time nor the money to do so. I had only gone to the cinema twice in my life and I had never travelled outside the country.

"I did not even have a passport because conscripts, soldiers and security personnel were not allowed to travel while they were in service.

"My generation lived under Hafez al-Assad and, later, his son. Every mundane detail of life had to be approved by the security services - from marriage and divorce to travel and even choosing a child's name. Syrians became used to life under this oppression, and it became their daily bread. We used to suffer, but when pain accumulates, a human learns to live with it."

The critical moment

"One morning, I was in the office and decided to spend the night there because we were short staffed and we were not allowed to go home. I had an assignment in the suburbs of Damascus - and at that moment I decided to leave the office and never come back. When I stepped out of my work building in the military police I was both sad and happy.

"I was sad to leave my friends who I had worked with for a long time and to step into the unknown, but I was happy to leave the daily stress of photographing bodies and the regular detentions that came with the job. We had no idea what the future held for us.

"As I passed through the gate of the military complex, I did not think about my family. I only thought about how I could be safe - how can I cross the border safely? I was terrified but reassured by the military assignment that I was tasked with, because it would allow me to cross the checkpoints in Damascus and its suburbs fairly freely.

     I was afraid the person I was meeting would betray me - and he in turn was afraid that I was a spy for the regime

"I had an appointment with a member of the opposition at a bus station. They had described him to me and he also knew what I looked like.

"We both had each other's phone numbers in case we needed to contact one another, despite my phone being under surveillance.

"The meeting was fraught with danger, as I was afraid the person I was meeting would betray me - and he in turn was afraid that I was a spy for the regime. Luckily, I knew the area well, which alleviated some of my fears. We recognised each other and without much talk, we climbed into his car and set off.

"The man I was with surprised me by knowing many people, as we crossed a number of checkpoints without even being asked to show our IDs. We then started taking dirt side roads that are seldom used by cars to leave Damascus.

"After about 50 kilometres, the man handed me over to another - who in turned passed me over to someone I did not know at all. I was handed over to a different person every 50 kilometres.

"This is the only way you can get around Syria nowadays. You have to accompany people who know their areas well and know which roads to take to avoid checkpoints. However, the few minutes it would take to change cars and drivers were nerve racking. I would wonder: It this person going to betray me? Am I in safe hands?

"I then arrived at the southern border and stayed with a trusted person in his family home with his wife and children. The wife knew that I was a defector but did not know what my job was. That border region was known to harbour defectors and surrounded by regime forces.

"I had to wait for the right time to illegally cross the border. After a few days, I started getting bored by staying in the house so I went out and saw relief organisations distributing food to civilians.

"The aid was from Arab and western countries. One day, while the organisations were distributing food, a missile fell 20 metres from where we were standing. I thought that the missile was not a coincidence and the army undoubtedly had informants in the area."

Living in hunger

"As the days passed, the family I was staying with started treating me like one of their own, but I felt like a burden. It was a large family and food was scarce. The grandmother would bake bread herself because the local bakery was destroyed by the regime.

     In Damascus we had no idea that a part of the Syrian population were hungry

"That is when I understood what it meant to live in hunger in a besieged area. In Damascus, in the areas under regime control, we had bread and food supplies.

"In Damascus we had no idea that a part of the Syrian population were hungry. In the border region where I was, people would stand in line for hours to get a small bag of food supplies. I never imagined that I would experience such a thing.

"I used to go to the neighbouring fields during the day. There used to be crops in the fields and I would pluck grapes. The residents of the area were very generous.

"I could not stray too far from the house, because one evening the owner of the house I was staying in came home and did not find me, which made him really angry. He thought that regime informers or extremist groups had captured me.

"I crossed the border hiding in a car and when I arrived at the other side I found many of my family members waiting for me. I was happy to see them safe, but the country was swarming with informants and we did not feel safe.

"There were many defectors who had been eliminated so we were careful not to mix with many Syrian refugees in that country. We stayed there for several months before seeking asylum in Europe."

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

Sami and Abu Khaled

Cesar cannot divulge the details of how he was protected.

At the start of 2013, Cesar was secretly under surveillance by rebels from the Free Syria Army who were observing him and watching his movements for months without his knowledge.

The person in charge of the rebels was Abu Khaled, a short, stern man from Qalamoun. Abu Khaled and his men had to evade regime informants twice before they were able to smuggle the criminal evidence Cesar had gathered in the Mezzeh and Tishreen military hospitals.

The Islamic State group entered the Syrian scene more concerned with fighting the opposition than the regime, and finding safe passage for Cesar out of the country became of critical importance.

Cesar was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He was feeling increasingly guilty for being forced to take part in the massacres of the regime. He had wanted to quit his job several times - but was always talked out of his decision because he was the only person who could gather evidence from within the regime.

     Syrians were posing in front of the camera in front of the mutilated corpses of other Syrians. The pictures were horrific

Cesar's friend Sami was in contact with an activist from the "moderate" peaceful opposition, and he would send the leaked pictures through encrypted email outside the country.

Thousands of pictures were gathered in this way through Cesar and sent abroad.

Was Cesar supposed to continue his work with the danger of being found out, while he was the main witness to the killing machine run by Bashar al-Assad?

In the daily war - and while Operation Cesar continued - the sensitivity of Cesar's case was not necessarily obvious. To realise the scale of the issue, one had to thoroughly review the pictures that he was leaking.

One had to closely examine the smiles on young faces to understand that they were the faces of regime soldiers wearing surgical gloves. Syrians were posing in front of the camera in front of the mutilated corpses of other Syrians. The pictures were horrific.

Sami knows this suffering and knows its effects. He decided to send a picture he had found on a computer hard disk that belonged to a doctor friend - who was imprisoned by the regime - to Abu Khaled.

In the Syrian war, medical personnel are targeted by the regime because they treat anyone in need of medical attention, and are considered as "terrorists" by the regime for helping its opponents.

Since the first months of the revolution, public hospitals were no longer safe. Activists would have their limbs amputated for no medical reason and injured protesters, even with minor injuries, would be left to die.

So in order to treat civilians, doctors started secretly working in kitchens, basements and small rooms that did not meet any medical hygiene standards and which lacked the medical supplies they needed.

     The man was stopped at an army checkpoint while on his way to meet the commander of the Free Syrian Army. He was tortured to death.

Similar to many activists and rebels, many medical staff in hospitals began using aliases to hide their identities and protect their families.

In areas under opposition control, the hospitals were targeted by the regime with missiles and rockets. To be a doctor or a medical worker was as dangerous as carrying a Kalashnikov on the battlefield.

Sami knew what he was doing when he sent the picture of the doctor's body to Abu Khaled.

He found the man had been stopped at an army checkpoint while on his way to meet the commander of the Free Syrian Army. He was tortured to death. His face was swollen and his bones crushed.

His picture travelled through the official channels to the archive of the military police. Then, through Cesar, the picture went to Sami - and from him to Abu Khaled.

The following day, Sami drove down the dirt track towards Abu Khaled's family farm in the Qalamoun highlands, which was isolated by the mountains and naturally fortified against enemies.

There, the two men talked for a long time. Abu Khaled said: "We have to get Cesar out of the country alive and his pictures have to reach the world."

Abu Khaled organised the escape of the unknown hero. Cesar crossed the border while hiding in a car. Millions of files were recorded on two hard discs.

One had the low quality copies of the pictures that were sent through email and the other had the high quality originals, which remained in Syria. Abu Khaled later crossed the mountains on the Lebanese border with Syria to smuggle the hard disk containing the original images and handed it to Sami in Beirut.

Operation Cesar: In the Heart of the Syrian Killing Machine, written by Garance Le Caisne, will be released in Paris on 7 October by publisher Stock.