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Holocaust Museum Displays Echoes of Nazi Era in Syria War Photos

When a Syrian army photographer code-named Caesar defected from Syria in 2013, he risked his life to sneak out thumb drives containing more than 50,000 photos that documented atrocities carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s regime before and during the Syrian civil war. He did this without knowing whether anyone would believe his story or take ...

Top photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images News
Top photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images News

When a Syrian army photographer code-named Caesar defected from Syria in 2013, he risked his life to sneak out thumb drives containing more than 50,000 photos that documented atrocities carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s regime before and during the Syrian civil war.

He did this without knowing whether anyone would believe his story or take seriously his evidence of widespread human rights abuses at the hands of the Syrian government, but this week the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has begun commemorating his bravery and the victims of Assad’s regime by unveiling the first public display of his photos from Syria’s death chambers.

The photos are devastating: Warehouse rooms filled with the emaciated bodies of victims brutally scarred from torture tactics, their eyes gouged out and faces ripped apart. The diversity of the victims — men, women, and children, ranging in age from very young to quite old — has served as proof that those killed were starved, beaten, and abused in torture chambers, not killed on battlefields as the Assad regime has tried to assert. According to the most recent U.N. figures, 191,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian conflict, and the true figure is probably much higher.

Caesar’s photos have helped galvanize public opinion against the Assad regime. He testified before the U.N. Security Council in April and before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee in July. At his Capitol Hill hearing, Caesar hid behind a blue hood, sunglasses, and a hat, fearing for his safety and the safety of his family. “Death would have been my fate if the regime found out,” he said. Caesar’s real name remains unknown even to the members of Congress who heard his testimony. According to Cameron Hudson, the director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the museum, Caesar is currently in hiding in Europe.

While skeptics have questioned the authenticity of Caesar’s photos, a forensic team that included researcher David Crane, the chief prosecutor for the international war crimes tribunal that indicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor for crimes against humanity, confirmed them as authentic this spring.

“When we have an opportunity like this to engage with someone like Caesar, who’s witnessed and documented these himself and escaped at great personal risk, we feel a certain obligation to make sure his story is heard,” Hudson said.

The Holocaust museum, which is funded in part by the federal government, is displaying the photos in an exhibit called “Genocide: The Threat Remains,” in a wing dedicated to genocide prevention. The photos are being projected in a loop that is also available for viewing on the museum’s website. Although the Syrian civil war hasn’t been officially designated a genocide, Hudson said that by displaying the photos he hopes to help end the atrocities in Syria by calling further public attention to the photos before the United Nations labels the conflict a genocide.

Hudson compares Caesar’s photographs to those from Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland, and said they tell a similar story. “We wanted people to understand that in some of the photographs you see notecards held up with prisoner number, date, detention site, and battalion unit number, all organized and routinized by the Syrians, which is not unlike what the Nazis did,” Hudson said.

Caesar, Hudson said, reminds him of Jan Karski, a Polish citizen who served as a diplomat and courier for the Polish resistance and who was dispatched to tell the world about the Holocaust.* In a futile campaign to build support for the Jewish cause, Karski met with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 but left their meeting with nothing more than a vague promise of support.

“When we heard the story of Caesar and when we saw his images, there was so much that harkened back to these kinds of witnesses from the past, frankly whose warnings weren’t acted upon, whose eyewitness testimonies never saw the light of day, never escaped the Oval Office or the State Department, and never made it to a major museum,” Hudson said. “This museum was founded to give voice to these kind of people.”

The museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide has hosted similar exhibits in the past, including ones dedicated to mass killings under the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the Darfur genocide, the exhibition for which went on display six months before then-Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled it a genocide in September 2004.

But this latest exhibit comes as the U.S. government shows few signs of moving against the Assad regime. After the Islamic State militant group captured a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq, the United States launched a campaign of airstrikes against the group. While moving against the militant group, Washington has refused to take military action against the Assad regime and has in the eyes of many critics become de facto allied with Damascus.

With the Islamic State being battered by U.S. airstrikes and the Assad government moving against moderate rebels, the Syrian government shows no signs of weakening. The atrocities documented by Caesar are all but certainly still going on.

“It’ll be up for as long as it needs to be up, for as long as we have to keep reminding people of the human cost of the war in Syria,” Hudson said, referring to the exhibit.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provided Foreign Policy with an image from the exhibit. (Warning: The image is intensely graphic and violent in nature. Click to see the uncensored version.)

*Correction, Oct. 17, 2014: Jan Karski was not Jewish. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said he was. (Return to reading.)

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