Like a story straight out of the Theater of the Macabre, Al Jazeera’s documentary titled “The Gravedigger” is full of gruesome details of trucks full of anonymous corpses being delivered to a gravedigger for burial in mass graves in the wee hours of the morning in Syria. The former gravedigger, whose identity is being protected by the German courts because he still has family in Syria, was the main witness in the recent trial of a former officer of the Assad regime who was tried and convicted of crimes against humanity by the German court system.
“The Gravedigger” which was produced by Al Jazeera, aired on January 21, 2022, but the story it tells is not exactly new. Even before the Syrian Revolution began in the spring of 2011 a group of ill-fated civilians known as “the disappeared” existed in Syria. After the onset of the uprising, the number of arbitrary arrests and unexplained disappearances increased dramatically. Although prisoners are occasionally released by the regime (often only after a hefty ransom has been paid by the prisoner’s family), for years many families were kept in the dark as to the whereabouts of their disappeared loved ones.
When the equally anonymous informer known only as Caesar brought photos he had smuggled out of Syria to the US government in 2013, many families were able to confirm their worst fears after finding pictures of their missing family members among the thousands of corpses that had been numbered and documented by the regime before disposing of their bodies. But even after finding some measure of relief that their loved ones were no longer being subjected to starvation and torture by Assad’s ghouls, the question still remained, what had the regime done with their bodies?
In the Al Jazeera documentary, the gravedigger shared how most of the bodies brought to him for burial were beyond recognition, often bearing evidence of torture and already beginning to decompose. In the beginning, he had no idea where they were coming from, and no identifying paperwork accompanied them. At one point he recalled receiving paperwork that only served to confirm that among the bodies he had already buried were eight of his childhood friends. They had died after being detained in the security branches.
Among the images that continue to haunt the Syrian gravedigger is that of a woman he found at the bottom of a mound of corpses still embracing the body of her dead child in her arms. As he told his story to the horrified listeners in the courtroom, he broke down and began to cry compelling the female judge to call for a recess so that he could regain his composure. Some images stand out in his mind more than others he said, like the time he saw a man who was still breathing in the midst of a pile of hundreds of corpses until the regime officer in charge ordered the driver of the shovel used to dig the mass graves to drive over him, effectively turning him into just another corpse among corpses.
The testimony of the gravedigger during the trial in Germany came as a shock to German journalists in the courtroom as the gruesomeness of what they were hearing brought to mind familiar images of the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis during WWII.
the testimony of the gravedigger completes the circle in explaining the systematic approach the Assad regime has been implementing in its security branches to accomplish the mass murder of those perceived to oppose themAnwar al-Bunni
Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni has played an important role in getting members of the Assad regime now living in Germany charged for their crimes. According to al-Bunni, the most important thing revealed by the testimony of the gravedigger completes the circle in explaining the systematic approach the Assad regime has been implementing in its security branches to accomplish the mass murder of those perceived to oppose them. The mystery of what they have done with the bodies has now been solved.
there can be no reconstruction in Syria, not even talk of rebuilding on the land as long as the bodies of so many beloved family members are under the ground.Fadwa Mahmoud
But simply knowing that they are buried in Syria does not bring solace to the families of Assad’s victims. Fadwa Mahmoud, who has not seen her husband and son since they were detained in 2012, adamantly declares that there can be no reconstruction in Syria, not even talk of rebuilding on the land as long as the bodies of so many beloved family members are under the ground.
To further assist in helping the grieving to find closure, the International Committee for Missing Persons has been encouraging families of the disappeared to contact them and make arrangements to have DNA samples taken that may contribute to identifying their missing loved ones in the future.