Op-Ed: How can German police help the families of the Tadamon massacre victims identify their loved ones? 


June 8, 2022

In 2015, when Caesar photographs—images of victims who died primarily in government custody—were made public, I helped spread the news and inform the families how to access the leaked photos to search for their loved ones. I explained to them the importance of searching the photos and how to contact the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees (SAFMCD), which published the pictures on a dedicated website.

Afterward, I received countless requests from families. I looked for more details that would allow me to narrow down the possible victims, so that families would be spared painful expectations and unnecessary psychological impacts. I contacted SAFMCD and asked about the date the pictures were leaked and the possible time period of the victims’ deaths. 

I limited the time period covered by the Caesar photos to victims who were arrested before September 2013, thus ruling out hundreds of thousands of people who went missing or were detained after this date, and spared countless families the agony and pain of looking at the graphic photos searching for their missing loved ones.

On June 4, Professor Uğur Ümit Üngör and researcher Ansar Shahhoud published a statement on Twitter about a mechanism to identify the victims of the Tadamon massacre. They called on victims’ families “to submit a report containing all the information about the victim to the German federal police’s war crimes unit (BKA)” with the aim of “identifying the victims” as “a humanitarian priority and necessity, and a step toward justice.” 

The announcement from Üngör and Shahhoud, who revealed the Tadamon massacre in south Damascus this past April and sent the results of the investigation to the German and Dutch police, presupposes that the families have prior knowledge of the articles published about the massacre. It also raises some questions regarding the details of the identification mechanism. 

Therefore, it was necessary for me to seek out the absent information and details, which I add to the statement here. My goal is to facilitate access and communication for the families and the German police. I also hope to facilitate the identification process, so that the German police do not inadvertently contribute to the indefinite concealment of information that could help families uncover the fates of their loved ones. 

Time period:

The families must be given a specific time period that the Tadamon massacre videos may cover, so that there are no unnecessary identification efforts. This is to reduce the families’ exposure to unneeded psychological crises. Determining the time period would also help reduce German police efforts, so they do not receive messages from families whose loved ones could not have been killed in the Tadamon massacre. 

Read More: The Tadamon massacre: Why publishing videos of mass atrocities matters

Al-Jumhuriya’s report on the massacre states, “In April 2013, the regional Military Intelligence branch, also known as Branch 227, killed more than 280 civilians who were taken to an isolated Damascus neighborhood and executed.” This statement implies that all the victims must have been detained before 2014, and anyone detained or disappeared after 2013 could not be among the victims in these videos.

But a second statement in the same report contradicts that, saying, “These videos show Military Intelligence and the National Defense Forces elements carrying out a systematic extermination operation against civilians in the Tadamon district of Damascus in 2013 and early 2014.” This suggests that some of the victims could be people detained or disappeared after 2013. 

Meanwhile, Üngör and Shahhoud’s New Lines article on the Tadamon massacre indicates that all the victims must have been detained or disappeared before 2014: “Leaked videos show in chilling and unprecedented detail Syrian military personnel committing a massacre in 2013 of 288 civilians, including seven women and 12 children.”

The date of the published video was also defined. “There was one good clue to the precise time of the massacre, as one of the video files had a timestamp of 16-5-2013,” they wrote. 

In other words, families that lost their loved ones after the late afternoon of Tuesday, April 16, 2013 should not look for their loved ones in this video. However, there are 26 other videos for which no details about their time period have been published. These videos could cover other time periods. 

The German police should precisely determine the dates of the videos and killings, if they can, to exclude individuals who were detained or disappeared but could not be victims of the massacre. 

Target audience:

Syrian media can focus on disseminating the declaration of the victim identification mechanism and spread the accompanying information in likely areas, targeting a specific audience.

For example, the most likely areas that the victims could be from should be specified. These may include Tadamon district and the neighboring areas, including the Palestine camp, the Yarmouk camp, the towns of Yalda and Babila, and the Daf al-Shouk, Salikha, al-Zahra and al-Zahra al-Jadida districts. The most likely areas should be specified, without excluding other areas. 

It should also be noted that most Syrians inside Syria use Facebook much more than Twitter. 

Details of the mechanism: 

More details should be given about the victims’ families providing information to the German police. Some of these details are a right guaranteed by German law, including: 

  • Is the purpose of requesting information from the families only to help identify the victims? 
  • Are the German police investigating this incident individually, or as part of a structural investigation? 
  • Is information collection intended to open a case in an independent court that could issue a ruling in the foreseeable future? Or is the goal to document war crimes in Syria as part of a structural investigation or another judicial effort?

These details and others would help the families make informed decisions, and encourage them to provide information or contact the police on a basis of knowing the possible or expected outcomes. 

Communicating with the German police: 

The families of potential victims face communication obstacles, including: 

Some families do not use email, and do not know what kind of details they should provide to the German police. Some of them may also be exposed to security risks, such as being in regime-controlled areas. They may not have the experience to safely and securely communicate, especially since Tadamon district and all the neighboring areas are under regime control. 

The German police should provide reasonable solutions to facilitate contact with the families, or ask relevant Syrian organizations to help the families communicate. 

Much information can be gleaned from the videos to help both families and the police. All the videos should be viewed and studied, and information and indicators that could help the families with identification should be extracted without compromising the investigation process or legal value of the evidence. 

The German police should provide this information and work closely with Syrians to arrive at the most appropriate way to help the families identify their loved ones. 

However, I believe what will help most—and what must be done to reach the families and help them identify their forcibly disappeared and detained loved ones—is to extract images of the victims’ faces and other information that can be published to help the process of identifying potential victims. These should be disseminated on a dedicated website with a mechanism that respects the victims and the families. 

 

This article was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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