Documenting Death Inside Syria's Secret Prisons
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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.