Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

Syrians find heartbreak among republished Caesar torture images

The introduction of the US's Caesar Act has led to the recirculation of the photos that inspired it

Majad Al Mneni, a labourer from Damascus, went missing in 2012 and has only now been found to be dead by his family, who spotted him among the Caeser images. Courtesy Amer Al Faj
Majad Al Mneni, a labourer from Damascus, went missing in 2012 and has only now been found to be dead by his family, who spotted him among the Caeser images. Courtesy Amer Al Faj

When Abdulwahab Idelbi last saw his parents seven years ago, he was expecting to see them again the following day – he did not even hug them goodbye.

It is only now, with fresh attention on a set of images that document the widespread torture, starvation and beatings in Syrian government detention facilities, that he is beginning to piece together what happened to them.

The recent introduction of the long-awaited Caesar Act, a US bill imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime and those who co-operate with it, has led to the republishing of the photographs it was named after in local media.

Smuggled out from the civil war-ridden country in 2013 by a military officer codenamed Caesar, they show the corpses of those who had died in regime custody. Some are listed under a number and no name and most show the signs of systematic torture.

While some families of the missing said they were previously unaware that the images were available online, others – like Mr Idelbi – had checked many times before, but it is only now that they can begin to put the search for their family members to rest.

“When the pictures were circulated on social media again a few days ago, I saw that some people had spotted their loved ones and I felt that there were new pictures,” Mr Idelbi told The National.

“I checked the Air Force Intelligence folder and I saw my father with the number ‘0053346’ on his forehead. It was shocking, I couldn’t believe it for a moment.

Words can’t help me to describe my emotions – my father is just a number now

Abdulwahab Idelbi

“We still had a hope that he was still alive … Words can’t help me to describe my emotions – my father is just a number now.”

After years of asking questions, of contacting anyone who may have seen his parents in prison or heard of their whereabouts, he now has some closure. Yet the fate of his mother remains unknown.

A report by Human Rights Watch identified that at least 6,786 people among almost 29,000 of the Caesar photographs had died in detention or military hospital, while the other pictures showed attack sites or the bodies of those who were identified by name.

Most of the unidentified dead, HRW said, had been detained by just five intelligence agency branches in Damascus between May 2011 and August 2013. Today, it is estimated that between 75,000 and over 200,000 people are missing in Syria, with many thought to be either dead or forcibly detained.

Amer Al Faj’s family had not dared look at the brutal Caesar images when they were released between 2014 and 2015 because they were scared of seeing his sister’s husband among them.

Last week, his brother sent a message saying: “I am going to send you a picture of Majed”.

Majad Al Mneni, a labourer from Damascus, went missing in 2012 and has only now been found to be dead by his family, who spotted him among the Caeser images. Courtesy Amer Al Faj
Majad Al Mneni, a labourer from Damascus, went missing in 2012 and has only now been found to be dead by his family, who spotted him among the Caeser images. Courtesy Amer Al Faj

“My sister came to me crying and showed me her husband’s picture. She was expecting his death, but it is shocking and heartbreaking,” he said.

The last time he saw Majed Al Mneni, a father of two who worked in a cosmetic trading business, was 20 days before he disappeared in 2012. Having been injured in a bombing in an opposition-held area of Aleppo, he was transferred to a regime hospital for treatment, where he was detained.

They found on his phone videos of anti-regime demonstrations, of regime soldiers torturing civilians and a picture of him with a late dissident – a first lieutenant who had defected from the army that same year.

Majed’s mother followed his status in detention, and although an intelligence officer told her he had died in prison, they were not able to prove it.

“Majed was such a hardworking and ambitious man. He was committed to his business, such a respectful and calm person. It’s a big loss,” said Mr Al Faj.

“These pictures are proof that a heinous crime was committed, and is still being committed, before the world’s eyes … We will never forget or forgive those who have kept silent.”

Updated: July 6, 2020 09:24 PM

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