Assad’s 21st Cen­tury HOLO­CAUST

We know these pictures will dis­tress read­ers. But we be­lieve the sav­agery and mass slaugh­ter they show – and this dev­as­tat­ing new eye­wit­ness ac­count – MUST be seen. Yet still the tyrant to blame mocks the West, say­ing ‘war crimes don’t mat­ter’

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Focus - By IAN BIRRELL

EVERY day, the bod­ies were de­liv­ered to the hos­pi­tal: bat­tered beyond be­lief and hideously scarred from months of the most hor­rific tor­ture imag­in­able. The corpses were shriv­elled from de­hy­dra­tion and star­va­tion, with ribs stick­ing out and limbs like sticks.

Most were cov­ered in pur­ple bruises from beat­ings, and many were criss-crossed with wounds from knives, or burns from acid, elec­tric­ity or cig­a­rettes.

One was miss­ing an eye, gouged out dur­ing frenzied beat­ing. An­other had no head. A third showed signs of acid dripped along the vic­tim’s back, the ver­te­brae vis­i­ble through ter­ri­ble holes in flesh. Oth­ers were rid­dled with dis­ease.

These were the vic­tims of Syria’s slaugh­ter­houses: the jails and pris­ons run by Pres­i­dent Bashar Assad’s regime, de­signed to ter­rorise the Syr­ian peo­ple into sub­mis­sion af­ter they dared rise up in re­volt.

And in­side three Da­m­as­cus hos­pi­tals, doc­tors were forced to cover up the de­prav­ity by sign­ing cer­tifi­cates say­ing the vic­tims died from con­di­tions such as heart fail­ure or breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties.

‘It was like a scene from hell. We did not even have time to check if they were dead,’ said one of the doc­tors known as Ne­mer. ‘I have seen so many ter­ri­ble things.’

Then the corpses were whisked away to nearby mass graves, buried in their thou­sands with­out fam­i­lies be­ing in­formed, in an ef­fort to hide ev­i­dence from any war crime in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Such is the ap­palling ba­nal­ity of evil: industrial-scale tor­ture and mur­der, backed by a cold bu­reau­cracy to cover up the most re­volt­ing crimes of this cen­tury.

Lit­tle won­der that UN ex­perts asked to re­view the pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence com­pared such scenes with the hor­ror of Nazi death camps.

Sir Des­mond de Silva, who coau­thored a UN re­port into Assad’s atroc­i­ties, said the pho­tographs are ‘rem­i­nis­cent of pictures of peo­ple who came out of Belsen and Auschwitz’. His view was echoed by foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Sue Black, who said re­view­ing the ev­i­dence for the UN had been like ‘go­ing back in time and look­ing at con­cen­tra­tion camps’. She added: ‘In this day and age, you re­ally don’t ex­pect to be able to wit­ness these sort of things on this sort of scale.’

In a bar­baric twist, it was hos­pi­tals – de­signed as sanc­tu­ar­ies for the sick – that were used to serve the sadis­tic in­hu­man­ity of a blood­stained dic­ta­tor, who trained in Bri­tain as an eye doc­tor. It was here that Ne­mer – not his real name, to pro­tect his fam­ily – was forced to serve. Speak­ing to The Mail on Sun­day last week in the Ger­man city where he now lives, this af­fa­ble man in his 30s told tales of de­prav­ity and despair.

His ev­i­dence formed part of a damn­ing re­port last week by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, which claimed up to 13,000 peo­ple have died in a ‘cal­cu­lated cam­paign of ex­tra­ju­di­cial ex­e­cu­tion by mass hang­ings’ at one no­to­ri­ous jail alone.

It was dis­missed by Assad as ‘fake news’ – just as he dis­missed thou­sands of images of ema­ci­ated dead tor­ture vic­tims smug­gled out by a se­cu­rity forces pho­tog­ra­pher. These led last week to the launch­ing of a land­mark hu­man rights case in Spain against se­nior Syr­ian fig­ures.

But rev­e­la­tions from those such as Ne­mer – so chill­ing and res­o­nant from the worst chap­ters of re­cent Euro­pean his­tory – ex­pose what has gone on be­hind the closed doors of Assad’s tor­ture cham­bers.

When the up­ris­ing against Assad be­gan in 2011, Ne­mer was train­ing as a sur­geon in Tishreen, a huge hos­pi­tal in Da­m­as­cus built by the French and run by Syria’s Mil­i­tary Med­i­cal Ser­vices. ‘The dream of every Syr­ian is to be a doc­tor since it is a re­spected, se­cure and well-paid job,’ he said. ‘And I liked the idea of help­ing peo­ple.’ But he soon found him­self in a moral quag­mire. One day in April

‘When bod­ies ar­rived it was a scene from hell’

two buses, a truck and an am­bu­lance pulled up. They were stuffed with Syr­i­ans who had been shot tak­ing part in un­armed protests.

‘It was hor­ri­ble to see them ar­rive. They had bul­let wounds in their legs and backs but the mil­i­tary po­lice were kick­ing them on the in­jured ar­eas as they left the buses.’

He wit­nessed one se­cu­rity goon switch off a ven­ti­la­tor keep­ing an old man alive in the am­bu­lance. ‘We were so sur­prised to see this – they would not even give him a chance.’ The re­main­der were taken to an un­der­ground emer­gency room, hand­cuffed to each other and laid across 200 beds in four rows. Some beds held more than one in­jured pro­tester. ‘I saw the mil­i­tary po­lice walk across the pa­tients, jump­ing on them. It was de­signed to hurt as much as pos­si­ble,’ said Ne­mer.

The young doc­tor be­gan to ster­ilise his hands to treat a man whose thigh had been shat­tered by a bul­let. ‘Why do that for these an­i­mals?’ asked one mil­i­tary col­league, a mem­ber of the Alaw­ite sect like Assad. ‘These peo­ple are pol­luted.’

Days later, a video from in­side the emer­gency room was leaked on to so­cial me­dia. Se­cu­rity forces im­me­di­ately placed armed guards on the doors and banned non-Alaw­ites – espe­cially Sunni Mus­lims such as Ne­mer – from en­ter­ing.

But within weeks, as protests swelled on the streets, Syria’s four ri­val in­tel­li­gence bod­ies be­gan dump­ing dozens of their tor­ture vic­tims at the hos­pi­tal for treat­ment.

I asked Ne­mer why he thought they spared some peo­ple? ‘They wanted to de­liver a mes­sage to the wider com­mu­nity: this is what will hap­pen if you fight us,’ he replied.

Assad’s foes were not safe, how­ever, even in hos­pi­tal. Medics would re­turn to pa­tients they had treated hours ear­lier to find new burns on their bod­ies – or fouled wa­ter from toi­lets poured on ban­dages cov­er­ing freshly cleaned wounds.

‘There were days we felt so des­per­ate. It was just dis­gust­ing,’ said Ne­mer. ‘I would carry out an op­er­a­tion un­der anaesthetic, clean up wounds, use an­tibi­otics and then screw an ex­ter­nal metal fix­a­tion on to the bones to hold an arm or leg to­gether. But when I went back, some­one from in­tel­li­gence had pulled it out. Can you imag­ine the pain that must have caused?’ The doc­tors com­plained about the killings and tor­ture, say­ing they were in a hos­pi­tal ‘not a slaugh­ter­house’, but se­cu­rity chiefs brushed aside con­cerns. Ne­mer would try to find out names of those chained to the beds, pass­ing on the de­tails to their fam­i­lies.

Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials some­times ca­su­ally stubbed out cig­a­rettes on pa­tients when he walked into a room. Yet in­cred­i­bly, be­low these atroc­i­ties on the eighth-floor, was a reg­u­lar hos­pi­tal, which was even used as a show­case for vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries. Even­tu­ally, Ne­mer found it too trau­matic – espe­cially since he was moon­light­ing in se­cret field hos­pi­tals to help in­jured pro­test­ers. When a mortar ex­ploded in one at­tack, he rushed out­side and al­most trod on the sev­ered head of a doc­tor friend who had taken a break.

He was also rou­tinely in­ter­ro­gated for days on end by in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials, who did not trust him since he was Sunni and his room­mate was un­der sus­pi­cion. ‘I asked to move to an­other hos­pi­tal be­cause I could not han­dle the sit­u­a­tion any longer.’ His re­quest was granted. Yet Ne­mer’s life did not im­prove when he went to Harasta hos­pi­tal, on the out­skirts of Da­m­as­cus – for the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies be­gan doc­u­ment­ing their dead and he was forced to col­lab­o­rate with their ac­tiv­i­ties.

‘Every day they would bring corpses in a jeep or truck. The of­fi­cials would tell us to write death cer­tifi­cates and we had to ig­nore the ob­vi­ous signs of tor­ture and star­va­tion. They would not even let us take a pulse or ex­am­ine the pupils.’

One day af­ter a big bat­tle in Da­m­as­cus, there were 1,300 bod­ies. More typ­i­cally, a flatbed truck would ar­rive with 20 or 30 de­stroyed corpses on the back; once, he saw a body slip on to the pave­ment af­ter a driver took a hos­pi­tal round­about too fast. ‘The first time I re­fused to sign the death cer­tifi­cate but an in­tel­li­gence per­son held his AK-47 to my head and said, “Do it or die.”

‘It was such hu­mil­i­a­tion – in­side you’re boil­ing with anger but you can’t do any­thing. This hurt so much. I am a doc­tor. When I grad­u­ated I took the Hip­po­cratic Oath, which was about sav­ing lives.’

Pictures of the bat­tered, burned and starved bod­ies were cap­tured by a mil­i­tary po­lice pho­tog­ra­pher

‘This is a hos­pi­tal – not a slaugh­ter­house’

known as Cae­sar, who smug­gled out more than 53,000 images on mem­ory sticks to pro­vide ev­i­dence of Assad’s bru­tal­ity.

The corpses had codes scrib­bled on skin: the iden­tity num­ber; the unit that killed them; the hos­pi­tal case file num­ber. It was just like the Nazis doc­u­mented their evil deeds – and, in­deed, just as Is­lamic State cat­a­logue Yazidi women sold into sex slav­ery.

‘This was when Assad started telling the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity that he was fight­ing ter­ror­ists. He be­gan doc­u­ment­ing ev­ery­thing so he could say, if chal­lenged, that all these pris­on­ers died from nat­u­ral causes.’

Ne­mer smiled rue­fully be­fore adding: ‘And if the cer­tifi­cates were signed by a Sunni doc­tor, that gave them more pro­tec­tion to ar­gue it was le­git­i­mate.’

The UN agreed in De­cem­ber to start gath­er­ing ev­i­dence as a step to­wards pros­e­cut­ing those be­hind Syria’s atroc­i­ties.

But since Rus­sia joined Iran in prop­ping up Assad, it seems in­creas­ingly likely he will cling on to power – no won­der he could say last week he ‘doesn’t care’ about war crimes.

Ne­mer stayed be­cause, like other doc­tors, he was se­cretly un­der­min­ing Assad by sign­ing sick notes for scores of mil­i­tary re­cruits, know­ing they would flee if al­lowed to re­turn home. Some were so des­per­ate to es­cape they even shot them­selves. Then the sur­geon was warned by a friend that he was about to be ar­rested for anti-regime ac­tiv­i­ties. Ne­mer fled in­stantly, brib­ing his way into rebel-held ar­eas be­fore cross­ing the bor­der to Tur­key. Sadly, his el­derly fa­ther ig­nored warn­ings not to re­turn af­ter get­ting can­cer sev­eral months later – and with dread­ful irony, died in Harasta hos­pi­tal af­ter be­ing seized by se­cu­rity forces and beaten sav­agely in a de­ten­tion cen­tre.

One more dead per­son in a war that de­stroyed a nation.

But at least brave peo­ple such as Ne­mer are bear­ing wit­ness to evil, speak­ing out to re­mind us of the war crimes be­ing com­mit­ted on all sides of this cen­tury’s most dis­tress­ing con­flict.

HOR­ROR: Some of the thou­sands of dis­tress­ing pho­tographs smug­gled out of Syria show­ing ema­ci­ated bod­ies and signs of tor­ture. Some, like the body above, have codes on their skin, re­veal­ing their name and the unit re­spon­si­ble for killing them.

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