A Syrian gravedigger recounts a genocide, but is anyone listening?

A Syrian gravedigger recounts a genocide, but is anyone listening?
Comment: As we hear testimony on the extent of Assad's murderous apparatus, we must remember that these are crimes not just of past, but the present too, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
24 Sep, 2020
More than 500,000 Syrians have been killed and millions more displaced [Getty]
Last week in the German city of Koblenz, a Syrian gravedigger detailed a modern holocaust. 

The gravedigger, his identity concealed for the safety of himself and his family in Syria, was giving testimony in the trial of Anwar Raslan and Eyad Gharib, two former Assad regime officials accused of crimes against humanity.

The three-hour testimony was chillingly reminiscent of the accounts of Nazi crimes at Nuremberg, with the mass murder of human beings described in a manner akin to someone explaining what they do for a living. 

After all, that was the gravedigger's macabre job to oversee the digging of the mass burial sites and organise the transportation of the bodies of anti-regime Syrians who would fill them. 

The gravedigger, still shaken and haunted by what he saw and was forced to do, broke down when he spoke of witnessing the bodies of a young woman and her infant child being dumped. His testimony ought to have shook even a Covid-ravaged world to its very core, for this is not an account of a genocide past, but rather one still occurring in the present.

Raslan and Gharib might have been forced to legally reckon with their crimes, but the much larger criminals, including the ringleader Assad himself, continue to commit the crime of genocide against the backdrop of a largely unconcerned world. 

When Assad, Iran and then Russia realised that returning to a pre-war status quo in Syria was an impossibility, they began the task of cleansing, starving, besieging, bombing and terrorising liberated areas of the country. Their logic is for Assad to rule over a rump state, cleansed of much of the demographic who rose up against him.

This is not an account of a genocide past, but rather one still occurring in the present

It's for this reason that millions of Syrians have been made refugees. It's for this reason that schools, hospitals and markets have been targeted for bombing with unprecedented ferocity. It's for this reason that Assad has on multiple different occasions targeted civilians with chemical weapons. And it's for this reason that Caesar, the regime defector, smuggled out photos detailing the gruesome, Holocaust-esque systematic murder of tens of thousands of detained Syrians at the hands of the regime's apparatus of murder.  

Colonel Anwar Raslan's Branch 251 (a single branch of Assad's mukhabarat) was allowed to torture at least 4,000 innocent Syrians, and many were sent to their deaths. 

These are the kinds of crime that prompted a very different world after the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust to promise 'Never Again', but now, in light of not just Syria, but also China's genocidal persecution of Uighur Muslims and Myanmar's genocide of the Rohingya, such acts are apparently normal again on the world stage. 

It's of course encouraging that henchmen like Raslan are being legally prosecuted in Germany, but what of the genocide itself? Assad's rump state is full of monstrous agents like Raslan and, as I write this, they are allowed to ply their vicious trade against the Syrian people without interruption. 

Read more: Prosecuting Assad's henchmen must be the start of holding Syria's torturers to account

Idlib, the shattered, besieged and blood-spattered last liberated area of Syria, remains firmly within the sights of Assad and Russia's Reconquista. Only Turkey serves to deter full on assault, and Syrians know the world has long abandoned not just their political struggle for basic civil rights, but their struggle for the right to life itself; to not be tortured, starved, maimed, cleansed and murdered.  

Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has waged a ruthless and successful war on liberated areas of Syria, but this has coincided with another battle he has waged on civilians in areas of Syria his regime controls. 

Hundreds of thousands of anti-regime Syrians have been put into dungeons.The New York Times reports that almost 14,000 Syrians have been confirmed to have "died under torture", which has been rightfully labelled as "extermination" by the UN. In truth, the actual numbers could be vast, with at least 128,000 detained Syrians never having been heard from again.

The scale of this genocidal extermination campaign fits with the estimates of the quantity of the bodies given by the gravedigger. He says that around 50,000 bodies were transported to the gravesites from regime security facilities in Damascus alone between October 2011 to the end of 2012, with around 25,000 bodies every year after that until 2017, the year he got out. Details of the scale of the extermination clearly shocked the German court, but I fear it will have little effect on the world.

Though the Caesar Act might allow for more targeted sanctions against those who facilitate the Assad regime, as long as Assad remains in place, propped up by Russia and Iran, no sanctions will stop the genocide. 

Accompanying this prosecution of fairly low-level henchmen of Assad, has been a contrary push around the world to normalise relations with the regime that gave them their orders. Within the region, we've seen the UAE lead attempts to rehabilitate Assad, while there have also been moves by the fascist Orban regime in Hungary to reverse the EU's stance against normalisation with Damascus.

The EU already 
tacitly accepts Assad as they rush towards the goldmine of "reconstruction", while the UN does nothing as Assad and Russia have centralised aid in an attempt to force countries to run everything through Damascus. 

Accompanying this prosecution of fairly low-level henchmen of Assad has been a contrary push around the world to normalise relations with the regime

Again, beneath all of this, a genocide is occuring. One that could've and should've been stopped years ago, but which now, after nine years, has become essentially accepted. 

In some sense, the trial in Germany is a de facto indictment of the world's response to the genocide in Syria. Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian lawyer in Germany who was once a victim of Raslan's and who coincidentally ran into his torturer in a grocery store and pushed for his prosecution, puts it best. 

In an interview with Al Jazeera at the beginning of the trial, he said: "Our goal is not to convict a small cog of the infernal machinery that continues to murder people… Instead, we want to use this small cog to prove the existence of the machinery and to show the extent of its infernality."

Well, after the gravedigger's testimony, not only does the world know about the existence of the machinery, but they even know where the bodies of its victims are buried. The tragic and disturbing reality is that they know, but do not seem to care.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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