Documenting Death Inside Syria's Secret Prisons

Jul 14, 2015
Originally published on July 18, 2015 12:45 pm

A Syrian forensic photographer, who now uses the pseudonym Caesar, documented the death of thousands of detainees in Syria's brutal prison system. He made more than 55,000 high-resolution images before he fled the country, fearing for his safety, in 2013.

He spoke publicly for the first time in July 2014, when he appeared before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, wearing a blue jacket with a hood to protect his identity.

Dozens of Caesar's photographs will be displayed again in the halls of Congress on Wednesday.

The exhibition is sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in cooperation with the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The graphic images show beaten and bruised bodies, many are skeletal, most with signs of torture. Now, Syrian families are searching the photos online after Syrian opposition groups posted more than 6,000 images in March.

NPR spoke to a member of the group that posted the pictures, as well as a friend who identified a victim, and a lawyer working on a war crimes case. Here are their stories:

Amer fled Damascus two days after his friend, Kutabia, a 40-year-old father of two, was seized by government agents from a bookstore in Damascus. The two friends demonstrated together through 2011. They took even larger risks together, smuggling money and medicine into restive neighborhoods besieged by the Syrian government.

"They invaded on New Year's Eve at 6 p.m. I was at a café nearby. And when I finished I said, 'Let's go and say hi [to Kutaiba].' I knocked and there's no one. No lights inside. And I continued home and that's when I heard that my friend was taken to the detention center or the torture center.

This is where the story begins. Once your friend is detained by the government, you try to figure out where he is.

His parents started to ask. They usually go to people in the intelligence service and the guy will say, 'I can't tell you, you have to give me money.'

For two and a half years his parents are paying money. Sometimes they take a couple of thousand dollars and [they] get back and say, 'He's alive and well, and says hi to his sons.'"

In March 2015, Syrian opposition groups published 6,000 of Caesar's photos online. For the first time, Syrian friends and families could search the gruesome photo gallery and identify the victims. Kutaiba's picture was among the dead, killed within a month of his arrest.

"It was him. His eyes were closed. He had stitches on his forehead like the ones you see in horror movies. And I was shocked. I was in the middle of work. I don't know what sort of people can do this harm and torture to another person.

I saw his color, and was like, 'Thank God he wasn't starved to death.' He didn't have his ears taken off or his nose. So, I thought he made them furious enough to kill him right away rather than being tortured on a daily basis. It's always better to know, is he alive or is he dead."

Dr. Mohammed Ayash works with the Syrian Association for Missing and Detainees of Conscience, based in Istanbul. In March, the group published some of the Caesar photos online and has organized private showings in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and even in some rebel-held neighborhoods near Damascus. Dr. Ayash is scanning all the images and documenting the dead. It is a grim task made harder still because Dr. Ayash has seen friends and neighbors among the dead.

"We have about 6,700 victims in this website. I am a doctor, I'm not a pathologist, but I describe what I see in every picture. We have children in these pictures. There are older men. There is one woman.

It comes to my dreams sometimes, because of the horrible methods. By torture, by starvation and eye gouging, and it's very hard for me.

(The work) is very important because we need the families as witnesses in any court. We need families to say, 'Yes, this is my father and my brother,' and they were taken and killed by the Assad regime."

Muna Jundi, an attorney in Flint, Mich., works with United for a Free Syria, a coalition of Syrian-American nonprofit organizations. She was part of a team of Syrians who got Caesar to testify to Congress last year and will be in Washington for the event on Wednesday. She took part in the decision to publish the photos online.

"It was systematic, the regime was using it as a way to quell the revolution.

There's a lot of missing Syrian people and a lot of people don't know the fate of their family members. They hear about it through rumors. They pay money to try and find information and really there's nothing concrete. And unfortunately there's nothing more concrete than pictures of dead bodies. So the idea was to open up to help people identify their own family members.

For an American audience, I think it was shocking. But the sheer ... mass production of this, I think, is what overwhelms. They've documented it in such detail.

Syrians inside Syria that had any experience with intelligence [services] automatically knew why the documentation had to happen.

When there's an order from above, they need evidence that those orders are being carried out. In a highly corrupt government, where you can pay people to release people, they need the evidence. They needed to keep the evidence to show that you told us this is what we need to do, and therefore, this is what we are doing."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Some photographs taken inside Syria's security state will be in the U.S. capital tomorrow. The photos were taken by a regime photographer and they document the deaths of 11,000 detainees. The photographer defected from the government and gave the photos to the Syrian opposition. Now they're - be on display in Congress at an exhibit put on by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. They will also be online for Syrians to see. And NPR's Deborah Amos met a man who viewed them in search of a friend.


DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This is the music that brings back the most painful memories for the people who knew Kutabia, a man who disappeared into Syria's vast prison complex. A 40-year-old father of two, he played this music for friends in his book shop in the Syrian capital, Damascus. In 2011, he was one of the first to join the Syrian revolt, a movement to oust a brutal regime.

AMER: He was active in many, many things. He was a political activist. At the same time, he was delivering aid.

AMOS: This is Amer, one of Kutabia's friends - last names withheld for safety. He used to talk to Kutabia about the revolution and the dangers at the demonstrations in Damascus. They took risks together, smuggled money and medicines into restive neighborhoods besieged by the regime. A twist of timing led to different fates. Amer escaped arrest by government agents when he came late to Kutabia's bookshop one night in 2012. Within days, he fled to Turkey where he recounts the events of that night.

AMER: Where is everyone? And I knocked a little bit and then I noticed there was no one. And so I continued home and then this is when I learned that everyone who was in the shop were taken to detention center, which is the torture center, actually.

AMOS: Did you ever find out whether he was officially arrested or where he was?

AMER: No, and this is where the story begins. You try to figure out first of all where he is.

AMOS: There were many willing to help for a price, he says, especially Syrian security police who regularly visited Kutabia's parents.

AMER: They pay, like, a thousand dollars, $2,000. And his parents were keep - were keep on paying money, you know? Like - so again, someone comes and says I can tell you - like, from the intelligence service - I can tell you where is your son.

AMOS: For more than two years, friends and family believed Kutabia was alive, paying for scraps of convincing news. Then in March, Amer got a call. There was a new website with photographs from inside Syria's detention centers.

AMER: I didn't think that it was about our friend, Kutabia, you know?

AMOS: The Syrian opposition took the unusual step of posting about half of the images the police defectors smuggled out. For the first time, family members and friends could try to identify the victims.

AMER: It was him. It was him. The photos were really terrible.

AMOS: Thousands of photos, emaciated faces, many with deep bruises and signs of beating. There are women among the dead, some children, too. Amer studied the pictures. He wanted to be certain it was his friend.

AMER: His eyes were closed. He had stitches on his forehead and stitches on his cheeks. And very large and huge stitches, like the ones you see in horror movies, you know, like this - and then I said, no, it's not him. It's his lips - lips are very larger than his. I'm sorry.

AMOS: His emotions are still raw, but this is his small comfort. He notes that Kutabia didn't look as bad as some. He even had some color in his face when he died.

AMER: He wasn't totally pale and I was like, wow, thanks God.

AMOS: And that made you feel better.

AMER: Yeah, this means that he died early. He managed to make them furious enough to kill him right away better than being tortured on a daily basis.

AMOS: The Syrian opposition says these images are evidence of systematic brutality and want to bring regime figures to court for war crimes. Identifying the victims is the first step. For Syrians, it's the most important step.

AMER: It's always better to know because people keep the faith and they wait and is he alive? Or is he dead? This solves a lot.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.