EITHERne by one the families have come forward. Some had studied the video frame by frame to identify their loved one. Others knew in an instant that one of the men being murdered in the Tadamon massacre was their family member who had vanished nine long years ago.
Ten days after the Guardian revealed the massacre carried out and filmed by Syrian forces in a suburb of Damascus, a fuller picture is emerging of the men who were killed, and unusually outspoken family members are demanding answers of a rattled Syrian regime – which has released a few hundred prisoners in an apparent attempt to quell the outcry.
A total of six men shown in their last moments of life in the thick video have now been identified. Many were Palestinians from the nearby Yarmouk refugee camp. Several more were local residents. Their families have little clue about why they were captured. But for the first time since the outset of the war, officials are under pressure to provide responses to a seeing Syrian street.
Regime reaction so far has been to offer concessions; an amnesty law for terrorism offenses that did not involve killing, an anti-torture law passed by decree, which many in Damascus feel is almost mocking them, and a new defense minister, who has no ties to the security machine accused of directing the slaughter in Tadamon.
The first prisoner release did not go quite to plan, if indeed it was the regime’s attempt to represent a new benevolent side, when up to 20 men were dropped off from a prison truck in a central Damascus square on Tuesday. Their faces gaunt, skin pallid and eyes staring vacantly into the middle distance, the men looked like human wrecks, pale imitations of the photos held by family members who wept as they received them.
All week a vigil ensued, with thousands lining the streets of the Syrian capital waiting for those incarcerated in Bashar’s dungeons – in this case, the infamous Sednaya prison on the outskirts of the capital.
Family members of the Tadamon victims, meanwhile, were finally able to hold vigils of their own, for men they had long believed were lost in the darkness of Sednaya. Among them were the parents of Wasim Siyam.
“I was expecting everything, that he’d have lost an eye, that he’d have been tortured, but I wasn’t expecting that they do this to him, it’s the absolutely worst,” his mother told the al-Araby network . “I thought he was held by the regime. I have left the house at 6am. I gave him his clothes from him, I had them hanging to dry, he wore them and I told him: please do n’t go. At 12.40 his phone dropped off the cell network. We asked the government for a family record and they had him down as alive. Justice must be served.”
Siyam’s father told Orient TV he recognized his son by the way he ran: “My friend who lives in the Netherlands sent me this video and I watched it once, twice, three times and I noticed one of them ran in a familiar way and it was my son.” Siyam was 33 years old when he was murdered and had two daughters, who are now 15 and 13.
His father told Orient Radio of having to tell his granddaughters. “On Monday, on the first day of Eid … their grandma showed [the daughters] the video and told them: this is your father. I used to lie to them and tell them that their dad was alive and working. One of them would tell me: ‘OK but I just succeeded in my exams, isn’t he going to come and get me a present?’”
A Facebook page, Yarmouk Camp News, carried more news about Siyam. A school friend, Rami Jalbout, who is now a lawyer, said: “He was hard-working. His grandfather owned the bakery and he used to work in it, he lived above it. He had a very special laugh and was a very kind person.”
The next three victims identified were the Turkmen Syrians Shaman al-Daher and his sons, Omar and Mutlaq. Omar and Shaman were identified being executed by family members who refused to provide their names to the website Zaman al-Wasl. They also identified Mutlaq, whom they said was already dead in the pit.
Shaman was 63 years old and was arrested with his sons during a raid on his house on 16 April 2013, the day of the massacre.
The fifth victim identified was Louay al-Kabra, another resident of the Yarmouk refugee camp, according to the Action Group for the Palestinians of Syria. Louay was a first responder and had been reported missing earlier that month. Said Ahmad Khattab, a barber, 27, was another Palestinian victim from Yarmouk. A friend said on Twitter that he was the grandson of a leader of a 1936 Palestinian revolt against the Ergun.
“Today, 74 years after that massacre, I forced myself to watch this video… and saw Said the grandson get executed the same way his grandfather was but this time by Arabs who claim they are resistance.”
Yarmouk had been long held up by the Syrian regime as a showpiece to its commitment to the Palestinian cause. But regime raids later in 2013 forced most of its residents into exile, some for a second time. Many remain in Lebanon, afraid to return.
Prof Uğur Ümit Üngör, from the University of Amsterdam’s Institute of Genocide and Holocaust Studies, who revealed the massacre along with his colleague, Annsar Shahhoud, said the overwhelming reaction to the revelations had left him feeling ambivalent. “You don’t want to re-traumatise people and cause more suffering, but on the other hand there’s no point keeping bad news from people,” he said. “So it’s the lesser evil, that’s a thin consolation but it’s all I have.
“I cannot and do not want to imagine the feelings of those family members the very moment they saw the video and recognized their loved ones. I just hope this research puts an end to the horrific feeling of endless waiting for a disappeared, and hopefully they can mourn the person now.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism