Regime defectors reveal | “They raped children right before their parent’s eyes”
A BILD-am-SONNTAG-Report by Katharina Windmaißer and Yasser al-Haji (text), Christian Spreitz (foto), Katrin Cremer and Philipp Blencke (layout and digital concept)
At a time when the world is talking about terror and the spread of radical ISIS Islamists in Syria and Iraq, the daily atrocities of Syrian dictator Assad, in whose civil war ISIS first came into being, are being overlooked. Our reporters have interviewed Syrians who themselves took part in the murder machine for years. They recount how children were raped in front of their imprisoned fathers, how they were forced to issue false death certificates for victims of torture, and how Assad is still poisoning his people with chemical weapons. Why are we standing idly by doing nothing as a nation is destroyed?
As coroner Dr. Abed Tawab Shahrour (50) opens the blue rubbish bag, once again he thinks, “Please, not another child”. But contained within this makeshift body bag in the Pathology Department of the University Hospital of Aleppo lies the small body of Hadi Zahrour, lips dark purple, his face contorted in agony. Stuck to the dead boy’s forehead is a Post-It. Someone has written the number 2160 on it by hand. “Brown eyes, fair skin, under ten years old. Death caused by inhalation of toxic substances” will later appear in an eight-line report on number 2160. The dark-haired child’s file offers no further information. Here, on the tables at the morgue, there are too many victims of dictator Bashar al-Assad (49).
At that time, in 2013, Dr. Shahrour was Chief Pathologist at the University Hospital of Aleppo. He secretly took a photo of the dead child with his Nokia 5130. “I kept it so that later I could tell the world what is happening to my people”, says the doctor.
He is one of four witnesses interviewed by BILD am SONNTAG. None of them started out as revolutionaries. The only way to be awarded their posts was to be law-abiding members of Assad’s Baath Party. At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, they worked for the regime until, in the face of the atrocities they were witnessing and at the risk of their own lives, they switched sides. By doing so, they put themselves and their families at risk, lost their livelihoods and were forced to leave their homes.
We meet Dr. Shahrour in Turkey, to where he fled. The doctor tells us about 19th March two years ago, the day when Hadi ceased to be a cheerful schoolboy and became just another number in Assad’s death registers. In Khan al-Assal, a small suburb of Aleppo, a poison gas attack at seven o’ clock in the morning killed at least 13 people in addition to Hadi and injured approximately 120 others. On that spring day, seven months had passed since Barack Obama’s famous “red line” speech. In it, the US president warned of military intervention if Assad continued to use poison gas against his own people.
Five months later still, up to 1,700 people died in Ghouta in Damascus after an attack with the nerve agent sarin, and many more have followed – right up until the present day. U.N. inspectors dispatched to the scene were allegedly not able to find adequate proof of who was responsible for the attacks. Since Khan al-Assal, the delegation has not even travelled to Syria. “For security reasons”, according to the final report.
Three years after Obama’s speech, Syria lies in ruins. Every week, war crimes are still perpetrated: barrel bombs, prohibited under international law of war, continue to fall on schools, neighbourhoods and marketplaces.
Former Chief Pathologist Dr. Shahrour cannot understand why no one is stopping the dictator: “After I fled Syria on 14th November 2013, I was invited to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. I testified for an hour about all the massacres that I had witnessed. I have seen more than 3,000 victims of cold-blooded murder. All of them died a senseless death. In The Hague, I handed over a police report by the regime about the poison gas attack in Khan al-Assal, which I had stolen and smuggled out from Syria under my shirt. You can still see the marks left on the document by the cold sweat of my fear. In the top-secret report, the regime itself writes that on the morning of the poison gas attack, several witnesses saw fighter jets in the skies over Khan al-Assal. Only the regime has fighter jets. But no-one wanted to know who was responsible for the poison gas attack.
The U.N. just wanted to know if chemical weapons were really used. Of course they were. I’ve seen bodies turned blue, people foaming at the mouth who have died in agony, choking to death. Our nurses also suffered poisoning from handling the bodies. We had to resuscitate one of them.
I have taken soil samples in Khan al-Assal. I have collected cigarettes and a dead bird, I have analysed the corpses’ clothes. Where have these documents gone? I handed them all over to the public prosecutor’s office in Aleppo. No-one has told me how much of the Assad government’s report remains at the U.N. I doubt that my complete analyses are there, because the regime is responsible for everything I have witnessed and studied.
Near the missile impact site, the regime has a military base. Countless civilians were poisoned, but not a single Assad soldier died. Did they use gas masks? Was it just a coincidence? I saw the dead and the injured. There was not a single soldier, just men, women, and children in their pyjamas. How can that be? Why is the U.N. not interested?
Do you know how it feels when once again, a truck loaded with corpses is being unloaded in front of you and you are afraid, thinking “This time, it’s going to be my children lying there, burnt to death, with no hands, no feet, no head”? That has happened to two nurses at the university. I’ll never forget their cries as long as I live.
Some days, I get body bags with three right hands and a torso. Where are the rest of the bodies?”
On his mobile phone, Dr. Shahrour shows us more images of horribly mangled bodies. Some victims have been gagged with plastic strips, others have brain tissue spilling from their heads. All have a number stuck to their foreheads.
“When I was studying, I read about what happened in World War II. Never in my life did I think that I would have to document something similar in my work. I could never have imagined that something like this would happen in the world again. I’ve seen a women who was dressed for her wedding night. Her body was intact, but her head was smashed in, just a bloody pulp. I put my jacket over her face, it was an unbearable sight. This emotional impulse alone could have cost me my head. For the last 40 years, we have paid Syrian taxes so that Assad can buy weapons. Now he is using these weapons against us. It’s a tragedy.”
Because the coroner refused to remain silent, his brothers were arrested. One spent three months in the notorious “Palestine Branch” torture prison in Damascus. Assad’s henchmen pulled out his hair and teeth, and broke the bones in his hands. Dr. Shahrour shows us a photo of his brother shortly after his release from prison. We see an elderly man in underpants. Half of his hair is missing, and his hands hang from his arms, strangely deformed.
Dr. Mohamad F. (44)* was also tortured in the same prison. He was also a pathologist at the University Hospital in Aleppo until the regime arrested him on November 12th, 2014. The accusation: he was a terrorist threat. Translated, this means that he was caught trying to escape.
“When I was released from prison, I didn’t recognise my own face in the mirror”, said the coroner. Mohamad shows us a photo taken on April 18th, 2015, two days after his mother pawned her 40-year-old engagement ring to ransom him for the equivalent of about 2,000 euros. His nose is swollen to the size of a potato, and the area under his eyes is heavily bruised. Today, his body is still covered with scars. His buttocks and legs are disfigured by burns. The torturers stubbed out countless cigarettes on his skin. In addition, he was tortured with electric shocks to his testicles. “I have suffered, but it’s nothing compared to the pain other prisoners have gone through. I have seen policemen rape women and children in front of other detainees. They rammed sticks up the prisoners’ anuses.”
Mohamad is one of the doctors who examined victims like little Hadi after the poison gas attack in Khan al-Assal. At the end of July 2013, as it became clear that Assad was going to allow U.N. inspectors into the country, Mohamad received a visit from Assad’s secret police. “They told me exactly what to say and what not to say about Khan al-Assal”, the doctor told BamS. “I was supposed to tell the inspectors that I saw a bearded man launching a rocket and that the Syrian army were trying to save people. None of that is true.” But the inspectors did not come.
“I saw such terrible things that I couldn’t go on, even if it meant risking my own life. I saw how soldiers of the Free Syrian Army were brought to us with gunshots to the head. The guns had been placed directly against their heads. I saw the bullet holes. These were not injuries of war, they were cold-blooded murders by the regime. My boss wrote “heart attack” or “renal failure” on the death certificates while the secret police stood behind us with their weapons at the ready. They allowed to us open the body bag zippers just enough to see the faces of the corpses. How could we carry out serious autopsies, or identify people? Sometimes the bodies had no face. They were buried in secret mass graves by the regime so that their families couldn’t see that their loved ones had been tortured. I saw dead bodies taken away in blue trucks. I spoke to the gravedigger. That’s the truth.
We could not afford to show any emotion when countless corpses were repeatedly carted in. Too many for our cold storage facility. We examined them in a square in front of the university. My heart pounded like crazy every time. Anyone who wept or protested risked death. Who would have thought that a profession as cold as pathology could become even icier? One day, two of my colleagues turned up on our autopsy tables. They had worked with me in the coroner’s office, and had refused to continue writing false reports. They have been starved in prison. Nobody knows about it, there are no reports about it, but in the hospital I saw with my own eyes prisoners being given blood transfusions with the wrong blood group. They died in agony. Others were given chemical injections. Then, when the families were given the bodies back, or were at least allowed to view them, they appeared outwardly intact. On the death certificate it would say: heart attack. This all happens every day in Assad’s hospitals and prisons.”
* We have changed his name, as well as dates, in order to protect him.
Someone else who can confirm the atrocities in the regime’s hospitals is Hussein Al Hassan (46). For 15 years he was a judge in Haritan, near Aleppo. He says that he questioned badly injured demonstrators in the Al-Razi University Hospital in Aleppo. “Their bodies were covered in torture marks, black and blue, they were covered with wounds. Several of them were roped together like cattle on a bed. They were shackled hand and foot to the person next to them. Some of them could barely speak, and I was supposed to hear their case when they were in that state? A farce.”
At the very beginning of the revolution, the judge received a written order to send all demonstrators immediately to jail.
“I was told that the accusation should always be “terrorism””. I was threatened and pressured. The problem was, even if I acquitted them, as soon as the “suspects” were released from court, the secret police would be waiting for them outside. They didn’t have a chance. From week to week I received stricter instructions on how I should proceed. Soon I was told I should also send minors from the age of 14 to jail. They wanted me to hear suspects’ cases in the secret police building. I refused. That’s not a civilian location. In early 2012, they took my nephew. When we ransomed him a few days later for the equivalent of around 400 euros, he could only walk on all fours. They had smashed his legs with metal rods. He was just an ordinary student.
My court was very small, but I still had around 50 “terrorism” cases every month. You can imagine how many there were in the big cities. Some demonstrators were brought to me with gunshot wounds, barely able to stand up.
Because I soon refused to make arbitrary judgements, they set my office on fire. My safe was stolen, everything was burnt. The secret service told me that revolutionaries were to blame. But funnily enough, the picture of Assad that hangs in every office was unharmed. That would have been the first thing the revolutionaries would have destroyed. I continued to work, but suddenly any demonstrators in my jurisdiction were sent to two other judges in Aleppo. Probably they made “better” judgements than I did. I left Syria with my wife and children on 26th January 2014. I couldn’t see a future, even although where we are now I can’t work and don’t know how we will survive. Syria has become a dark place.”
Brigadier General Zaher al-Saket (52), ex-head of the Chemical Weapons Research Centre of the 5th Division of the military subordinated to the regime in Damascus, and current head of the Aleppo Military Council, also sees no end to civilian agony in sight.
He asserts: “Assad hasn’t destroyed even half of his chemical weapons.” For many years, Al-Saket’s task was to set up Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal so that the regime could defend itself against enemies such as Israel. “That Bashar would use these weapons against his own people, I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams. Before I fled on March 11th, 2013, I was personally commissioned to carry out three chemical weapons attacks. In October 2012 on Sheik Maskeen, in December 2012 on Al Harak, and in January 2013 on Busra al-Harir, where many demonstrations against Assad had taken place. The people need to be “re-orientated”, they told me. I received an order from General Ali Hassan Amar to prepare phosgene, which at high concentrations damages the lungs within seconds after inhalation and causes death by suffocation. I didn’t want to have blood on my hands, so instead of filling the containers with lethal chemicals I used water, adding Javel water, a bleaching agent, to make it smell pungent while remaining harmless. I buried the other containers filled with poison. When the attacks didn’t have the desired devastating effect, I came under suspicion and had to leave the country.
But I have still good contacts in Syria. Until a year ago I had an informant in the secret service, but suddenly he stopped answering. I hope they let him live. He also confirmed to me the repeated use of sarin by the regime.
The command to use nerve gas can only be given by the head of the army, and that’s Assad. How can it be, then, that he denies ever having used chemical weapons? I know how much material we had at the beginning of the revolution. In Syria there were at least 45 chemical weapons research centres, while the government initially indicated to the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) that there were 23. No-one saw the most important fact, which was that these were not research centres, but production centres for weapons intended for military use. For example, there is one in the region around Mountain Atta, in Adra and Tadmor. Assad hides chemical weapons in heavily fortified military installations in the mountains. When Assad agreed to the 2013 U.N. resolution requiring him to destroy his chemical weapons, 1,300 tonnes were destroyed, but I know that we had at least 3000 tonnes, some of which had already been installed in warheads. Assad continues to have mustard gas and VX gas. Before the visit by U.N. inspectors, many other chemicals which can be used to fabricate chemical weapons were moved to areas controlled by the regime, for example the province of Tartus, the 45 Brigade Rais al-Shaara, the Al Shabiba school in Masyaf, Humaymin Airport in Jableh and the Jabburin region west of Homs. Together with doctors and on-site helpers, I still document any poison gas attacks on FSA areas. I often travel to Syria myself to visit the locations where attacks have taken place, to gather soil samples, photograph the dead and injured and, where possible, the missiles used to launch the chemicals. I send my results to the OPCW.
To my knowledge, the regime continues to use chlorine gas and chloroacetophenone. Their use can be sanctioned by all senior local commanders. Bashar doesn’t even have to sign off on it any more. Because I wouldn’t remain silent, they tortured my brother Khaled (55) in prison. They broke several of his vertebrae and tortured him with electric shocks to the head, hands and feet. He paid $ 60,000 for his release and fled to Germany. He is now receiving medical treatment in Germany.”
Regular attacks on civilians in Free Syrian Army areas attest to the fact that the dictator obviously still has a stockpile of weapons. One of the latest attacks occurred in Sarmin near Idlib on March 16th, 2015 at around 22.30. Six people died.
A whole family was wiped out, including three small children: father, electrician Waref Taleb (33), his wife Alaeh (22), his mother Aiosh (58), his daughters Sarah (1), Aisha (2) and his son Mohamad (11 months). Videos show the doctors’ desperate struggle to revive the tiny Mohamad. Even an injection directly into his heart was unsuccessful. Foam bubbles from the children’s noses, their eyes are contorted, their lips purple.
General Zaher himself travelled to the site of the attack, took soil samples and talked to the doctors. According to their findings, chlorine gas was used.
Ten days earlier, on March 6th, 2015, the U.N. adopted Resolution No. 2209, which strictly condemns the use of chlorine gas as a chemical weapon. Samantha Power (44), US Ambassador to the United Nations: “Only the Bashar al-Assad regime could have stored chlorine gas to use as a chemical weapon, and it must be held accountable for this violation of international law.”
Nevertheless, at the beginning of August, the U.N. decided to put together a team of experts to identify the perpetrators of the poison gas attacks.
Are these once again just words, which are not followed up by deeds? Will those responsible be punished? How can they be stopped? Until now, no resolution has been able to prevent pathologists in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria having to open body bags containing the bodies of innocent children, identified by just a number, a Post-It.
During our research, three family members of our colleague Yasser Al Haji died. Abdullah and Rashid Al Haji were killed by ISIS near the northern Syrian city of Marea. They were 18 and 23 years old. Allah Al Haji (17) was killed by a bullet from Assad’s soldiers in Aleppo as he tried to escape arrest at a checkpoint. This narrative is dedicated to them.