Operation Cesar: Syrian regime crimes exposed

Operation Cesar: Syrian regime crimes exposed
Al-Araby al-Jadeed publishes excerpts from the book Operation Cesar, the testimony of a dissident photographer who worked for the regime before defecting and leaking thousands of civilian torture photographs.
6 min read
01 October, 2015
A French court will use Cesar's photos as evidence of Syrian regime crimes [AFP]

Al-Araby al-Jadeed today publishes 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 military police of the Syrian regime 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.

Here in the second chapter of the book, Operation Cesar - In the Heart of the Syrian Killing Machine, Cesar talks about the nature of his profession as a photographer of corpses, and how that transformed after the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution in the spring of 2011.

A French court has recently decided to use his testimony as evidence in the criminal trial of Bashar al-Assad's regime on charges of committing war crimes.

Here is the first taster of the groundbreaking work.

Chapter II

Occupation: Photographer of corpses

"My name is Cesar. I used to work for the Syrian regime. I was a photographer in the military police in Damascus.

"I will tell you about my work before the revolution, and during the first two years of it. But I cannot talk about everything because I am afraid that the regime would identify me through the information that I reveal.

"I am a refugee in Europe. I am afraid that they may find me, eliminate me, or harm my family.

I was responsible for taking photographs of crimes and accidents involving the military
- Cesar

"Before the revolution, I was responsible for taking photographs of crimes and accidents involving the military. This included suicides, drowning, and road and fire accidents.

"Other photographers and I used to go to a location and take shots of the area and the victims. Over there, the judge or the prosecutor used to say to us: 'Take a photo of this person... take a photo of that.' Our work complemented theirs.

"For example, if a crime took place in an office, we would take a photo of the location where the body was found, then we would photograph the body at the morgue in order to record where the bullet had entered and exited from.

"We were also able to photograph evidence related to the crime, ie: any gun or knife used.

"If the task was related to a traffic accident, we would take shots of the scene and the car, then we would go back to the office and write a report supported with pictures. The report would then be sent to the military court to begin judicial proceedings.

"In the administrative hierarchy, no one cared about our work and our department was not important. It was one department out of dozens others. The military police has dozens of departments, branches and brigades.

"In Damascus alone, there were at least 30 departments: Photographers, drivers, mechanics ... operational services, sports, and a squad that would transfer prisoners between the various branches of the Military Intelligence. But more important, of course, were the investigations departments and prisons.

"One day, a colleague of mine told me that we were supposed to photograph the bodies of civilians. He had just returned from photographing the bodies of demonstrators from Daraa province.

"We were in the first weeks of the revolution in March/April 2011. He told me, crying: 'Soldiers have insulted the corpses, and they trampled them down with their boots screaming: "O sons of whores!"'

The bodies no longer had names tagged to them, only numbers
- Cesar

"My colleague did not want to go back, he was afraid. I had to go and I saw things myself.

"Officers said that they were 'terrorists'. But they were simply demonstrators. The bodies were stacked in line at the morgue in Tishreen Military Hospital, which is not far from the headquarters of the military police.

"At first, the name used to be placed on each body. After some time, or about a few weeks or months later, the bodies no longer had names tagged to them, only numbers. At the Tishreen Hospital morgue, a soldier removed the bodies from the refrigerators and put them on the ground for us to have them photographed, then returned them to the refrigerators.

"Whenever we were called on for a photo session, there would be a coroner. Like us, the coroners would not have to wear a uniform but they were soldiers. In the first months, they were ordinary officers, then they were replaced by higher ranking officers.

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

"When bodies would arrive at the hospital they had two numbers written on a piece of paper stuck directly on their foreheads or temples. The adhesive was poor quality and usually the papers would not stay stuck onto the bodies.

"The first number was the detainee number and the second was the intelligence agency's section where they were detained. The coroner would come in early in the morning and give each body a third number for his medical reports. This number was more important for our archival work, the other two numbers could be written illegibly or they could even be incorrect, as mistakes sometimes happened.

"The coroners were higher than us in rank, we could not talk to them or even ask them questions. When one gave us an order, we had to obey. 'Go photograph bodies one to 30,' they would tell us, for example.

"The bodies were collected according to the departments they came from. Yhere was a place for section 215 of military intelligence and another for air force intelligence. This made it easy to later take photographs and organise them.

I had to keep taking breaks and splash water on my face so that I would not cry
- Cesar

"I had not seen anything like this before. Before the revolution the regime would torture detainees to extract information, but they were now doing so to kill.

"I saw wax marks and I once saw a round mark from a small stove used to make tea that had burned the face and hair of one of the bodies. Some of them had deep wounds, gouged eyes, broken teeth and marks from being hit by electric cables used to start car batteries.

"There were inflamed wounds filled with pus, which looked as if they had not been treated for a long time. Sometimes they were covered in blood, fresh blood. They had clearly died recently.

"I had to keep taking breaks and splash water on my face so that I would not cry. I did not feel well at home either. I had changed. I used to be calm, but I became irritable with my family. In fact, I was terrified, replaying in my head everything I had seen during the day. I would imagine my brothers and sisters as corpses.

"It made me sick, and I could no longer take it. That is when I decided to speak to Sami, a friend of mine who lived in the same area. It was a spring evening in 2011."


Cesar wanted to stop working and defect, but Sami talked him into staying, because he was the only one who could gather insider evidence against the regime. He promised to stand by him - no matter what happened.

For two years, and despite the risk, Cesar copied millions of pictures of prisoners, which can be seen today online and at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

Sami stood by him every day for two years. And today, in 2015, he continues to support him somewhere in Europe, where he currently lives.

Arabic version: حصري: "عملية قيصر" ــ في قلب آلة الموت السورية

To read the second instalment of extracts from Cesar's extraordinary story - "Cesar: Routine becomes nightmare in Syria's torture cells" - click here.