BEIRUT: Syrian government forces are digging mass grave sites to bury thousands of people killed in detention, a human rights organization said in a report released Monday. Using satellite imagery, along with testimony from civilian witnesses, former detainees and defected prison officers, the Violations and Documentation Center has identified two sites it believes are being used to bury thousands of regime detainees in the Damascus area.
The center, headed by prominent human rights lawyer and opposition activist Razan Zeitouneh, has documented the detention of over 43,000 Syrians over the course of the 31-month uprising by name. Of those, they say 3,337 detainees have been killed in custody.
However, according to VDC spokesman Bassam al-Ahmad, a further 1,700 Syrians are missing, with no information on either their detention or death.
While many families of those killed in detention are informed of the death of a relative and asked to collect the corpse by the authorities, a large number only receive the grim news from second-hand testimony by other detainees, with no word on the final resting place.
The VDC believes that some of those missing may be among what they estimate to be around 1,000 bodies buried at the two locations.
In the report, the VDC cited testimony from former detainees and prison officers, who said they witnessed the deaths of large numbers of detainees and heard of their transfer to the sites near existing cemeteries in Najha and Bahdaliya, to the southeast of Damascus.
Those testimonies appeared to correlate with eyewitness reports of the movement of refrigerated vans and digging activity, along with satellite imagery provided by Human Rights Watch showing movement and expansion of the sites.
The VDC believes the vast majority of those buried at the sites were long-term detainees who died from severe torture, disease and malnutrition after lengthy incarceration. In particular, the VDC believes hundreds of those detained at the notorious Branch 215 of Military Intelligence may have been transported to the site.
Speaking to The Daily Star from outside Syria following his release from Branch 215 after 38 days in custody during which he said he was beaten and tortured, university student Malek al-Khobbi, 28, from Deraa, said he witnessed the deaths of an average of two people a day in his cell alone.
“Every day they put the dead bodies in one place and then the jailers take them out,” he said.
In Khobbi’s statement to the VDC, he said “There were two rooms near the bathrooms; the first was called the ‘consolation’ room’ where the dead bodies ... are put.”
When he asked a jailer what happened to the dead, he said he was told “they are taken in the green [military vans] to Mezzeh hospital for processing; then they are taken to Najha.”
Walid Samhani, a former army sergeant who defected from Military Intelligence and is now fighting with the rebel Free Syrian Army in Latakia, told VDC researchers “the sixth and seventh floors” of Branch 215 are used for “interrogation ... which practically means torture and killing.”
The fate of those killed had remained a “mystery,” according to the VDC’s Ahmad, until the reports from witnesses emerged citing “suspicious activity” around the Najha and Bahdaliya sites, apparently corroborated by satellite imagery.
The VDC cited residents reporting the arrival of bulldozers, followed by “big refrigerated lorries” at the Najha cemetery site.
The report added that death records, purchased illegally by the families of the deceased from Military Intelligence, documented a large number of deaths around September 2011.
Satellite imagery obtained of the site showed changes had occurred, in what VDC analysis described as the appearance of a large “trench” that was subsequently left uncovered, along with the appearance of piles of sand and stones between Sept. 8 and Sept. 22, 2011.
Further activity was observed again in November 2012 and February 2013 in what Human Rights Watch surmised was carried out by bulldozers and heavy digging equipment.
At the Bahdaliya Cemetery, the VDC said residents reported refrigerated trucks arriving during the last days of September and early days of October 2012.
The Human Rights Watch time series satellite imagery showed changes to the sites, believed to be the digging of new graves between Sept. 8, 2012, and Feb. 4, 2013.
HRW researcher Josh Lyons told The Daily Star the satellite imagery “clearly shows that over the course of eight months there was sustained and substantial digging activity at these two government grave sites.”
However, he cautioned that without the corroborating testimony, there was nothing to conclude the sites were used for “criminal dumping” of government victims.
“The problem is that these are known grave sites and so that is what you would expect in an ongoing conflict,” Lyons said. “We can’t say if they are victims of the regime or soldiers buried there.”
“The findings of the imagery are fully consistent with the testimony that the VDC has collected, but the imagery without the testimony is inconclusive that these are burial sites of the victims of this detention facility.”
For the families of the missing and dead who have not received the bodies of their loved ones, the sites offer potential answers – or another mystery.
The friend of one victim, speaking to The Daily Star, said the family had been informed of the man’s death by other detainees, but had no word on where his remains lie.
“The family doesn’t know where his body is – another inmate informed them he died in his lap after another day of torture,” the friend said.