‘We Can’t Save Syrians Anymore, But We Can Save the Truth’

An ambitious oral history project will determine how the war in Syria is remembered.

A woman looks for items to salvage amid the wreckage of a street in Yarmouk, in Damascus, Syria, on Oct. 9. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman looks for items to salvage amid the wreckage of a street in Yarmouk, in Damascus, Syria, on Oct. 9. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

In the final days of World War II, amid Europe’s smoldering ruins, some survivors turned to the task of documenting what had just happened. They set out to preserve what Isaac Schneersohn, a French rabbi and industrialist, called “the materials of truth”: personal correspondence and oral histories collected by newly formed commissions and documentation centers. Schneersohn built an archive in Paris, filled with evidence that French prosecutors used in the Nuremberg trials.

In Amsterdam, officials took to newspapers and the radio, asking the public to donate diaries, letters, and photo albums to record what life was like under German occupation. These sources found a home at the State Institute for War Documentation—what is today the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies. The idea was that Dutch scholars could mine these archives to write the history of the war, but questions of justice and retribution were also at stake. Like everywhere in Europe, local collaborators in the Netherlands had abetted Nazi crimes. Tens of thousands of documents held in the archives were used by prosecutors in 1945 and 1946, and the institute would shape the collective memory of the war and its aftermath—from Dutch society’s treatment of Jews to political purges of Nazi sympathizers.

Today, Ugur Umit Ungor, a historian at Utrecht University, is trying to do the same thing for the war in Syria, with the Dutch institute’s support.

The goal of the Syria Oral History Project, which Ungor founded earlier this year, is to gather as many testimonies as possible, for the sake of historical memory. They could also come to bear on prosecutions: In the Netherlands, as in Germany, Sweden, and France, universal jurisdiction gives national courts the authority to charge anyone with crimes against humanity.

The project is the work of an academic historian seeking to collect a first draft of history. It will define how the Syrian war is understood by future generations and potentially influence efforts to achieve justice and accountability. There is no official process for coming to terms with the civil war, now grinding toward its ninth year. Ungor’s project offers a stand-in.

A sense of powerlessness has characterized many Syrians’ experiences of war. But like Holocaust survivors who once documented the details of their own persecution, participants in the Syria Oral History Project control the stories they tell. Testimony can be a form of agency, as Pulitzer-winning Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer has written. This is especially the case when a personal account leads to the rendering of justice.

Ungor and his team of three full-time Syrian researchers and many more informants and fixers plan to conduct in-depth interviews with some 8,000 Syrian refugees living in the Netherlands to document the experiences of war and displacement. They’ve completed more than a hundred interviews. Rich in detail and substance, the conversations have begun to fill in gaping omissions in the historical record.

Although international attention is focused on events in Syria, the country represents something of a black hole for historians of the recent past. Since the Assad family took power 47 years ago, researchers have had limited access to sources. Fieldwork remains nearly impossible as long as the country is mired in conflict. And while a YouTube search for “Syria war” returns more than a million hits, and nongovernmental organizations such as the Violations Documentation Center (whose CEO, until recently, lived in the Netherlands) and the Syrian Archive in Berlin have been busy gathering video footage, medical records, and eyewitness reports of human rights abuses with future justice-related procedures in mind, personal testimony and published narratives are hard to find. One notable exception is Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, the citizen journalist group that has documented crimes committed by the Islamic State. Several of its members have lost their lives.

Ungor’s first interviews, conducted by Skype and on trips to the Turkish cities of Istanbul, Gaziantep, and Antakya, resembled a dam breach: out poured stories of torture in the Assad regime’s prison gulags, murders witnessed in the street, and other traumas fresh in the minds of Syrians. These accounts deserved the world’s attention, but they could also change entrenched narratives of the conflict, Ungor realized. “The news cycle has been stuck on Islamist rebels, from nationalist Syrian types to right-wing ISIS groups,” he said. “Meanwhile, Assad has his secret prison network. He constructed a crematorium to keep up with industrial killing. Why has the focus been almost entirely on terrorism and not on state violence?”

By 2017, with more than a million Syrians in Europe, Ungor no longer had to go abroad to conduct interviews. Weighing an ambitious oral history project, he hoped to produce a new body of sources for scholars of the region and students of peacebuilding. For moral and methodological reasons, he believed that the project’s interviewers and researchers must be Syrian, and he recruited colleagues to represent different social classes, genders, areas of the country, and ethnic and religious backgrounds. This team is now crisscrossing the Netherlands, conducting interviews in what they call “a strategic, scholarly, and purposeful manner.” Transcripts will eventually find a home at an institution or organization—“ideally something like the USC Shoah Foundation,” said Ungor, referring to the world’s largest archive of Holocaust testimonies. He cites the British government’s 1916 Blue Book, a vast documentary collection on the Armenian genocide, as another model. Like every project that takes its shape from its sources, unexpected developments have come up, too.

Extending the long arm of justice isn’t easy during or after a conflict like Syria’s. Gathering evidence from victims and witnesses usually requires travel to the country where the crimes occurred, and linguistic and cultural barriers often get in the way. Still, the Netherlands has a strong track record of prioritizing international crimes, beginning in 1997, when Dutch media reported that Afghan war criminals were slipping into the country alongside refugees, igniting a public firestorm. Amsterdam’s response was to create specialized war crimes units in the immigration service and police, which in recent years have helped Dutch courts lock up and extradite perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. When it comes to Syria, however, Dutch authorities have only prosecuted Islamic State members. Germany and Sweden have taken the lead in convicting war criminals. But by producing new sources and shifting the focus from terrorism to state violence, the Syria Oral History Project should be well positioned to influence Dutch investigators and prosecutors in years to come.

Ungor’s team abides by the principle of “do no harm” (seeking to add stories to the historical record, not encourage participants to self-incriminate or to extract confessions from them), yet it has interviewed several Syrians who were eager to speak out about a crime they saw—or even committed. A lawyer from Aleppo described a Facebook encounter with a known torturer, whom she discovered is now also living in the Netherlands. “Am I obligated to report these incidents to Dutch police?” Ungor asked the head of the country’s international crimes section, who assured him that information-sharing isn’t required. “In many cases, if I know something, it turns out they know it as well,” Ungor said. “They’re interested in the rule of law and want to catch crooks and prosecute them. I’m interested not only in the crimes but also in people’s subjectivities. Every Syrian has a story to tell that is fascinating and important.” The tension between this research principle and the potential for prosecution could be resolved over the course of the project as participants share their stories and Ungor continues the conversation with Dutch authorities.

In 2006 and 2009, Ungor spent time in the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo, interviewing elderly Armenians for his book The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950. During these trips, he gathered clues that would come to inform the questions his team asks in interviews. While the specter of war was then far off, he detected a general reluctance to speak about the past, whether the subject was the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, the history of Kurds in the country, or the four wars Syria fought against Israel. “Indeed, any political history was off-limits in polite conversation,” Ungor said. “There was not a single meaningful bookshop or library in the country and not a single critical media outlet, aside from Arab satellite channels.”

Scratching the veneer of Syria’s famous hospitality, Ungor found “a deeply polarized, frustrated, anxious, and nepotistic society,” whose members he glimpsed lining up to visit loved ones at one of Bashar al-Assad’s notorious prisons. “The regime had and has absolute power to incarcerate or annihilate people,” he said. “There were no limitations, either from civil society or the constitution, to protect these people from the power of the state.”

The Syria Oral History Project wants Syrians to build a common narrative about what happened to their country. Interviews are designed to give participants enough time to tell their stories in all their fullness and complexity. While this advances the aims of transitional justice, or the process of addressing past human rights violations, the hope is that Dutch society as a whole will benefit from hearing from its refugees, many of whom will remain traumatized and in need of therapy, education, and jobs for the foreseeable future. Until now, media narratives have shaped the story of Syria’s war, but the testimonies of thousands of Syrians will eventually rewrite it. These oral histories will shape public understanding of the conflict—its causes and consequences, and the fates of its victims and perpetrators.

“We can’t save Syrians anymore, but we can save the truth,” one refugee told Ungor.

Daniela Blei is a historian and editor of scholarly books in San Francisco.