Since 2011 more than 250,000 Syrian people have been killed in the war which has seen over 11 million others displaced.
In March 2011 pro-democracy protests erupted in Deraa, just north of the Syrian border with Jordan, after some teenagers who had tagged a school wall with revolutionary signs were arrested and tortured. Security forces opened fire and killed demonstrators, resulting in nationwide unrest and a public call for President Assad to step down.
Over the months that followed, hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters were publicly demonstrating. In order to defend against security forces, they armed themselves and attempted to expel security forces at a local level resulting in a full blown civil war.
As civilians formed rebel brigades war crept through both the capital of Damascus and north to Aleppo. The civil war in Syria became more complex with the emergence of jihadist groups, such as Islamic State, claiming control over certain regions. The presence of Hezbollah, Kurdish and Russian military groups left Syrian civilians with nowhere to hide.
The deployment of barrel bombs by government forces in rebel held areas resulted in significant civilian casualties. In 2013 the severity of the war escalated when hundreds of civilians in agricultural locations were killed after sarin filled rockets were used by security forces.
In this same year, a former military policeman of the national army fled Syria. He took with him over 55,000 photographs of approximately 11,000 victims who had been killed by the security forces. This man is known only as Caesar. The images which were taken in the period 2011 – 2013 in just two military hospitals in Damascus are a mere fraction of the total number of murders that are attributed to Assads reign.
The Caesar photographs have been subjected to analysis by the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) and validated as providing suitable evidence of widespread human rights violations by the Assad regime.
A selection of the photographs, many of which are too graphic for public consumption have been choreographed into an exhibition entitled CAESAR – The Reality Behind the Syrian Refugee Crisis.
The exhibition has been shown at the UN in New York, US Congress and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. The UK Parliament Buildings in Westminster and the European Parliament in Brussels have also exhibited the collection. Today, Tuesday 19th January 2016, nearly five years after this most catastrophic civil war detonated and continues to rage the exhibition found its way to the RHA Gallery in Dublin.
Following my recent expedition to Lesvos to witness the mass exodus of refugees coming across the Aegean, I felt it was imperative to be there. Upon entering the solemness of the gallery I was immediately moved – not by the sight of the grotesque images of torture in my periphery, but of an elderly man quietly weeping in the centre of the room. Another man, not of European descent, comforted the elder, who in turn apologised for his display of emotion. This is humanity.
I turned my attention to the enlarged images on the wall and forced myself to engage with what I was seeing. My eyes, having been sheltered from the horrors of the world for too long, moved from one image to the next, a starved man – tortured, a starved woman – tortured, a starved child – tortured. People young, old, of a variety of ethnicities subjected to the most inhuman treatment imaginable.
The Syrian military personnel maintain a ridiculous operation of processing their murders as deaths “by accident or natural causes”. All the images in the exhibition have been attributed to unspecified Syrian Authorities Intelligence Branch. Three military hospitals, Tishreen Military Hospital 607 and Mezzo Military Hospital 601 in Damascus and Harasta Military Hospital in Douma are known centres of torture.
Civilians, many of whom are apolitical and randomly detained for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, are subjected to eye gouging, starvation, torture and mutilation. Some of the victims are processed as dead before the victim has actually died. Images of a victim curling their finger around that of the photographer illustrate the complete brutality of this regime. Many of the photographs have sections of the image redacted, for they show clear evidence of the use of chemical weapons.
Reminiscent of the Hitler reign, the responsibility for the atrocities can be documented all the way to the presidential palace. Despite an international cry for the war crimes of WWII to never be repeated – indiscriminate genocide is at large in Syria. It is a sad indictment that the terror attacks on Paris, with total casualties equal to that documented every few days in Syria for the past 5 years received the global condemnation that Assad deserves. I would hazard a guess that even the global financial crisis has had more media attention than the war in Syria.
The war continues. It is believed that over 300,000 people remain imprisoned and are being subjected to ongoing barbaric treatment. We, the world have abandoned them. They are the disappeared. This must be the final “never again” moment. As a pacifist it hurts my soul to say this requires intervention. No more outrage – it is time for action.
In discussion with Mouaz Mustafa @SoccerMouaz from the Syrian Emergency Task Force at the RHA Gallery, Dublin. The CAESAR exhibition was hosted by GOAL Global and co hosted by the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees; and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.