BEIRUT (AP) — For years, the Siyam family have hoped to one day be reunited with their son Wassim, whom they believe is being held in a Syrian government prison after disappearing at a checkpoint nearly a decade ago.
That hope was dashed the moment they saw him in a newly leaked video: He was one of dozens of blindfolded and bound men shot dead by Syrian security agents one by one and thrown into the trenches.
“It shocked our hearts,” Siham Siyam said of the horrific video, which was filmed in 2013 and appeared late last month.
“They killed him in cold blood … No mother can accept seeing her child suffer this kind of damage,” Siham told The Associated Press in Germany, where she now lives with her family.
The video set off a wave of grief and fear among the families of tens of thousands of Syrians who went missing during Syria’s long civil war. After the video went live, thousands of people scrambled to browse the video online, looking for traces of missing relatives.
Even with similar atrocities in Ukraine, years of massacres and disappearances from the Syrian war have gone unpunished and largely uninvestigated. Families of missing persons who spoke to The Associated Press described the endless daily torture inflicted on them, unaware of the fate of their loved ones.
The video was allegedly smuggled out of Syria by a pro-government militia and handed over to a pair of researchers at the University of Amsterdam, apparently hoping it would help him secure asylum outside Syria. Researchers worked hard to verify it and identify the location and some of the perpetrators.
The video was first reported by British newspaper The Guardian in late April, and the full version of the video has since circulated widely online.
“Even if loved ones of the family are not on the video, the horrific images will forever be etched in their minds, and they will wonder if they face the same fate,” said Mohammad Al Abdallah, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Syrian Justice and Accountability told The Associated Press.
He called Syria’s prison network a “black box” with no information on who was being held inside and who was killed.
Learning the truth brings a new kind of torture.
Siham and her husband vowed to watch the video every day to see their son’s last moments alive and say goodbye to him.
The video is dated April 16, 2013, two days after Wasim, a 39-year-old father of two, disappeared at a checkpoint near the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus.
The 6-minute, 43-second video shows members of Syria’s notorious military intelligence branch 227 lining up with about 40 prisoners in an abandoned building in Tadamon, near Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus. For most of the war, the area was a front line between government forces and opposition fighters.
The prisoners were blindfolded and their hands tied behind their backs. One by one, the gunmen of Detachment 227 had them stand on the edge of a trench full of old tires, then pushed or kicked the men, shooting them as they fell.
In a brutal game, the agent told some people – including Wasim – that they were going to run through the sniper’s alley and that they should flee. The men fell on top of those in front. Gunmen opened fire on some still moving as bodies piled up in the trenches.
The gunmen then set fire to the bodies, presumably to erase all traces of the carnage.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 102,207 people It has been more than 11 years since the Syrian conflict began.
The group said the Syrian government was most responsible for enforced disappearances, with 86,792 people missing, an unknown number of whom disappeared in a labyrinth of prisons. Islamic State group 8,648 people were missing and 2,567 were missing from armed opposition groups. The rest are held by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and al Qaeda-linked militants.
A man who spoke to The Associated Press said 25 of his relatives were taken from their Zhongmen home in July 2013 by agents from Precinct 227.
“We are sure they were killed in the same way (as the person in the video) because they were taken by the same person who appeared in the video,” said the man, who asked not to be named.
Residents knew of multiple pits in Zhongmen, where people were killed and later burned, he said. He said the security personnel featured in the video were neighbors of the missing family and had known each other for more than 30 years.
Among his missing relatives were children and an older sister who went to visit family two days after they were taken away from home. She never came back.
His family tragedy didn’t end there. A few months later, a brother who was not present on the day the family disappeared was taken from the checkpoint. Years later, a photo of his tortured body appeared in a trove of photos and documents smuggled out by a dissident known as Caesar.
In an open letter dated May 9, 17 Human rights and civil society organizations Urge the UN Security Council to investigate the killings and bring the perpetrators of the massacre and those who gave the order to justice. They also condemned the international community’s inaction towards Syria, saying it allowed Assad and his allies to continue to commit crimes against the Syrian people with impunity.
The family of the missing person described years of painful and futile searches to The Associated Press, interrupted by a wave of false hope.
A man named Maher said he still hopes his brother, who has been missing since 2013, is alive and will one day be released. Each announcement of the release of a prisoner is a new blow, and his brother is not among them.
“A person has been trying to adapt for years, but every time a report comes out, the wound reopens,” he said, on the condition that he can only be identified by his first name.
His brother disappeared while bringing home food aid from the UN agency that helps Palestine refugees, namely UNRWA. Hundreds of people were arrested while collecting the food boxes, so many that they became known as “death boxes,” Maher said.
To avoid arrest, people would send elderly people to collect boxes, he said. His brother went four times; on the fifth day, he was detained.
If it is confirmed that he is dead, “the wound will be cut open and the real pain will start from there,” Maher said.
A group of war speculators loot families, extort large sums of money from them, and falsely promise the eventual release of missing relatives.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced the amnesty of hundreds of prisoners, days after videos showing the killings came to light. According to video by pro-government media, families flocked to Damascus Square, holding up pictures of missing relatives and pleading for information.
Abdullah said it was spread by profiteers telling families they could put their loved ones’ names on the release list in exchange for 50 million Syrian pounds (nearly $13,000).
“These are all lies,” he said.
Still, some families are paying and desperate for any information.
“How can I say no when my father’s life is on hold? … Even if I know they’re lying, how can I say no?” Wafa Mustafa told The Associated Press from Berlin.
The walls of her room are covered with pictures of her father, who has been missing since he was taken from the home in 2013.
“11 years later, after we’ve left the country, it’s crazy that the regime can still control us and control our physical and mental health,” Wafa said. “They control our existence.”