Families of Damascus' 'disappeared' seek Cesar's help

Families of Damascus' 'disappeared' seek Cesar's help
Feature: In chapter seven, Cesar recounts how families came to identify bodies of relatives who died under torture, after bribing regime officers, and sheds light on the Daraya massacre
12 min read
01 October, 2015
The Daraya massacre left many dead in the town near Damascus [AFP]
Al-Araby al-Jadeed is today publishing a series of translated excerpts from four chapters in the book Operation Cesar, written originally in French, about the dissident photographer known by the codename "Cesar", who worked for the military police of the Syrian regime before defecting.

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

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

And the second extract - "Cesar: Routine becomes nightmare in Syria's torture cells" - is available here.

Chapter VII

With families of missing persons

"I have helped mothers who were looking for their children. They had requested this because they had tried everything. They made contacts that came to nothing or paid money in vain.

"In our country, Syrians have long paid money for information about detained relatives. After the revolution, corruption took on another dimension. In the ranks of the army and the intelligence, the chain of command collapsed, and orders were respected less.

"The regime in a way had already collapsed. This mafia operated like a jungle. Many saw this as an opportunity to profit by selling information, even false information. Even the smallest question asked to a member of the regime was paid for, and the same goes for the smallest answer.

"Before the war, if you happened to pay but were tricked, you were able to complain. Today, this is impossible.

"When a father seeks to learn the whereabouts of his detained son, about whom he has heard nothing for months, he would try to meet an officer, an agent in an intelligence agency or a lawyer close to the regime. If they blackmail him while promising to release [his son] but did not deliver or lied because the son is dead, what would the father be able to do in this situation? Complain to the authorities?

"He would be told: 'You are looking for information about a terrorist? Then you are a terrorist too. You have raised your son to be a terrorist. You too must go to prison.' The agents also cover for one another.

"Thus mothers sought to obtain information through me. Since I wasn't a senior official, I had fewer powers than others. They came to me because they were desperate. But when they called me on my mobile phone, they put me at risk because it was being monitored. I would therefore return the call using un-monitored public phones.

"Thanks to some friends, I sometimes was able to obtain information. When leaving detention centres, some detainees would pass through the military police before going to prison. However, I did not know what happened inside detention centres.

"Helping those families made me feel better. My conscience could be at ease - even though I was still working for the regime, for Bashar al-Assad.

"When a person would be looking for information about a relative detailed by the military intelligence, for example, he could theoretically go to the military court. If the prisoner was deceased, the person is asked to go to Tishrin Hospital, which contains the coroners' archives, to obtain a death certificate.

"If the prisoner is in prison, the person is referred to the military police to obtain a permit to visit. But if the prisoner is detained in one of the intelligence branches, the issue will be buried - and it will be claimed that no information is available. This is where connections and money come in.

"In the two years during which I photographed corpses of the prisoners, dozens of families directly visited our department. Through the number of the prisoner himself or the number of his medical file, we could find his picture in our archive.
     In the two years during which I photographed corpses of the prisoners, dozens of families directly visited our department

"However, when we did not have either of these two numbers, it would be impossible - because we did not record names with the pictures of the deceased persons.

"One day, a man came looking for the photograph of his brother. He was with a military police investigator and the head of our department. He had obtained the prisoner number belonging to his brother. It was very exceptional for someone to come here with all this information.

"We found the body that bore the number and he saw it. He identified his brother thanks to his tattoo and a golden tooth. He was a father of two children. As he left in shock, he gave cash to the investigator. The investigator refused the money in front of me, but I am sure he got it later.

"On another day, two women came to the department. As usual, they were with an investigator and the head of the IT department. One of them was looking for her husband; the other was his sister. They were in their thirties. They had a document signed by the intelligence agency with the number of the coroner.

"The number allowed me to find the day the man's photograph was taken. It was easy to find because the pictures were ordered according to the date and the serial number. There were only thirty or forty pictures from that day's file.

"When they saw the picture, they started screaming, scratching at their faces and pulling their hair. It was very harsh, and I could not say anything or tell them that I understood their pain. They could not insult the regime that killed the husband and brother either, as they would have been detained too.

"One of them fainted, and an agent went to fetch cologne to help her regain consciousness. I remember it well. This was during the first year of the revolution, because during that period, the soldiers could still buy cologne. Later, it became too expensive because of the war.

"On a different day, members of the regime called the family of a detained boy. They promised to release him in return for half a million Syrian pounds [3,300 euros at the time].

"The boy's father knew someone in the military police. The agent told him that his son was definitely deceased and that he should not pay the money. The father did not want to believe him and was willing to pay.

"The agent came to see me and we searched together. We knew the approximate date of his death. We searched the photographs and we found his. When we saw the corpse, we realised that he must have died immediately after his arrest.

"The agent snapped a picture of one of the photographs in the boy's file using his mobile pone, but only of the lower part of the corpse that could be identified because he wore checkered pants. I did not let him copy the other pictures, especially the one showing the face.
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

"I was afraid the parents would file a complaint with the security forces, which wanted to blackmail them even though the youth was dead. The agent swore to me he would delete the picture from his phone to avoid arrest for us both.

"In Syria, when someone is arrested, he is tortured. He may provide correct or false information, and dozens others could end up in prison whether they are linked to the case or not."

Money for information

"When Khaled died, his forehead was stamped with the number 9077 and 'Aerial' [denoting the Air Intelligence Service]. The coroner filed his medical report under number 3217. In the image, Khaled shows no clear signs of having been tortured and his face was identifiable - despite burns in one of his eyes and ten-day-old stubble.

"The only proof: one of his feet is reddened. Khaled is wearing his pajama tops and bottoms under his clothes. It was cold on the morning of January 2, 2013, when an Air Intelligence patrol had detained him. It was the second time he was arrested.

"The 48-year-old father was a foreman from Daraya, a medium-sized town near Damascus. Ten kilometres to the southwest of the capital, near the Mezzeh military airport, this town of 250,000 people was at the forefront of the peaceful protest movement.

"Since the first days of the Spring of 2011, youths in Daraya staged silent protests calling for the release of prisoners of conscience, chanting 'Peaceful, peaceful,' Others even gave flowers and water to regime soldiers.

"Khaled was first arrested in his office in March 2012. Shortly after, a detainee released by the intelligence agency posted a list of his cellmates on a Facebook page following up news in Daraya. He wanted their families, next of kin, and friends to know.

"When the prisoner from Daraya left prison, he mentioned Khaled on social media. Ahmad, Khaled's brother, asked him: 'Are you sure it is him?' Yes, it was Khaled.

"Another friend put him in touch with a regime agent, who, in return for 400,000 Syrian pounds [4,000 euros at the time], secretly recorded Khaled's voice for his family to hear. Ahmad said: 'I recognised him immediately.'

"Five months later, the foreman was released, returning to a painful and violent new reality."

The Daraya massacre

"A few weeks later, peaceful Daraya saw one of the worst massacres of the war. On August 25 and 26, 2012, More than 700 people were executed as part of a punitive campaign in the city.

"A local imam who preached non-violence was arrested.
Ghiyath Matar, a 26-year-old man who had often given flowers to soldiers, was tortured to death. His body was given to his family.

"However, Daraya, which refused to surrender, insisted on its demands for democracy. On August 20, the army mobilised its forces and besieged the city, blocking the entrances and exits, before bombing the suburbs.

"All communication was cut off. Regime militias slipped in, combing the neighbourhoods and carrying out massacres in the mosques. The regime militias executed anyone who dared go to the street, and slaughtered entire families.

"On the following day, bodies were everywhere in the streets, including those of men, women, children and elderly people.
     On the following day, bodies were everywhere in the streets [of Daraya], including those of men, women, children and elderly people

"The state-controlled Al-Dunya TV claimed 'terrorists' carried out the massacre, before the army stepped in to purge the city of 'armed gangs'. The television then ran a report from a correspondent who had been dispatched to the site.

"Wearing sunglasses over her head and a blue shirt under a bulletproof vest with her shoulders bare, the beautiful woman told the viewers: 'As you can see, dear viewers, casualties are everywhere. I don't know if there are words [to describe this]... Here, there is a survivor too, let us talk to her and listen to her.'

"It was an appalling and despicable report. The reporter walked over the bodies, and gave the microphone to an injured old woman lying in a cemetery. She had lost her husband, daughter and two sons.

"The reporter continued walking and then interviewed a three-year-old girl sitting in a small truck next to her mother's body.

"Music plays in the background and the footage is fast-forwarded, as the camera follows soldiers firing their guns to 'purge what is left of the terrorists'. The soldiers confirm the official account.

"During the assault, Ahmad Jalal, an uncle of Khaled's, was arrested. Jalal is a respected imam who preached non-violence.

"Other family members had fled the city to the Mezzeh neighbourhood of Damascus, a few kilometres north. Three of the six siblings with their wives and children sheltered in a house together there, consisting of seven rooms.

"On January 2, 2013, when Khaled did not return from a grocery run, his brother Ahmad immediately realised what had happened. And soon enough, a cigarette vendor confirmed that an informant had pointed him out to the intelligence services. He was arrested by an Air Intelligence patrol.

"Once again, Ahmad contacted a middleman, this time a retired officer. They met at a cafe. Ahmad gave him an envelope containing $1,500. The retired officer promised him: 'Give me some time, I'll see what I can do.'

"Ahmad met him again a week later in the same place. 'Your brother is okay. We asked the prison guards not to beat him. If you want him out, the head of the branch wants $1,500.'

"Ahmad gathered as much money as he could, selling a gold bracelet that belonged to his wife. A few weeks later, he met with the retired officer again. 'We prepared a report so that he would not be tried as a terrorist,' he said.

"Six weeks later, when no news came, the former officer would ask Ahmad to remain patient, telling him, 'he is fine. No one is going to hurt him. He will be released as part of an amnesty'.

"In reality, Khaled had died a long time previously. Less than two weeks after he was detained, in fact, according to the picture Cesar or one of his colleagues had taken. But the family remained hopeful for a long time. 'What else could we do,' says Ahmad, regretfully. Today, he and his family are refugees in Turkey.

"A year ago, Munsir, the family's youngest brother, was released in return for a bribe paid to a judge. He had been sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of terrorism, and was incarcerated in Sednaya prison.

"An uncle of his also benefited from a similar arrangement. After three months in prison, this elderly man was transferred to the Adra civilian prison before he was released.

"The man does not retain his full mental faculties today. His vision is impaired and he is deaf in one ear. His sojourn at the Mezzeh hospital (601), where he was chained to a bed with a broken arm had a toll on him."


Ahmad says: "It is easier when relatives are in prison. Lawyers can deliver bribes to the people in charge. But when they are in detention centres, it is ambiguous and unpredictable. We never know where our money goes and who are the influential intermediaries."

Mass graves

Sheikh Ahmad Jalal, the imam arrested during the Daraya massacre, was never released. He died five months after he was detained.

His picture was found among Cesar's photographs published online. The corpse had the number 3026 with the word "Aerial". On November 1, 2012, the coroner filed him in the archive under 2409.

Khaled's corpse, like the imam's corpse, was dumped under a shed at Mezzeh hospital. Khaled's death was documented in a medical report bearing the number 3217 in January 2013.

At the time, his entire family was sheltering in the residential neighbourhood [of Mezzeh] after the Daraya massacre. They lived less than 500 metres from the hospital.

Khaled's body was there, just a few minutes' walk from their shelter, before it was thrown in a grave. Like thousands of civilians killed in detention centres, the order came to "bury" Khaled and to note the cause of death in his file as "heart and respiratory failure".

Where was Khaled buried? In the Martyrs' Cemetery? Or in the Southern Cemetery? Both are located in Damascus' southern suburbs, and are thought to contain mass graves.

In collaboration with Human Rights Watch and the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria published a report on the month of September 2013 focusing on Branch 215 of the military intelligence.

The report contained testimonies and photo evidence taken by satellites documenting the use of refrigerated trucks and earthwork by bulldozers, as well as the presence of bags of sand and lime that could have been used to accelerate the decomposition of corpses.