The Tadamon massacre and Syria's delayed justice

7 min read
18 May, 2022
In-depth: Shocking video evidence of the Tadamon massacre reinforces the need for accountability for war crimes in Syria, but it has been met with silence by the international community.

For Syrians, 227 has a special significance. It is the number of a notorious district branch of the regime’s military intelligence services responsible for torture, mass detention, and murder.

Part of a bureaucracy of violence, every Syrian knows that you rarely leave Mukhabarat branches unharmed, if at all.

They are often slaughterhouses where officers mercilessly torture or kill detainees, according to witness accounts from survivors.

What is rarer to encounter is video evidence of regime security officers toying with blindfolded prisoners, deceiving them that they are safe, before pushing them into a mass grave, shooting them, and setting their bodies on fire.

"Part of a bureaucracy of violence, every Syrian knows that you rarely leave Mukhabarat branches unharmed, if at all"

These were the events of the Tadamon massacre as reported by the UK’s Guardian newspaper and the online New Lines Magazine, which documented the coldblooded execution of 41 people by Assad regime officials in the southern Damascus neighbourhood on 16 April 2013.

A total of 288 people are thought to have been killed in Tadamon, with 27 videos providing evidence of the crimes. The Guardian only published one, but its details were shocking.

The massacre was in large part uncovered by the work of academics Uğur Ümit Üngör and Annsar Shahhoud from the University of Amsterdam’s Holocaust and Genocide Center.

The two officers at Branch 227 responsible for the massacre were identified by the researchers as Amjad Youssef and Najib Halabi.

What separated this mass killing from others is that “the camera and laptop belong to the security branch, which archived criminal acts systematically,” the academics told Al-jumhuriya.

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After tracking Youssef down online and conducting numerous interviews, both researchers described him as 'normal' and unlikely to be suffering from mental illness or psychological issues.

"He is convinced that he is doing a task. He was made to kill, he is a killer with a double life; everyday life and one in which they carry out murder orders," they said.

Most Syrians found it challenging to watch the video. For many, it induced nightmares, panic attacks, and uncontrollable crying.

During the 11 years of the Syrian revolution, many people have witnessed similar massacres which are now carved into their memories.

Mouna Khaity is one such person. She is a Syrian researcher on health systems who lived in Douma and survived untold violence, including the chemical attacks in 2013 and the brutal five-year siege of Eastern Ghouta.

"Such horrific killings are a strategy applied by the regime against any revolting area to spread fear and force its residents to flee [..] but this is the first time watching such a shocking video showing the execution process while showing the executors,” she told The New Arab.

The Tadamon massacre and Syria's delayed justice
A Syrian paramedic carries an injured child following a bombardment by Syrian and Russian forces in the Eastern Ghouta on 6 January 2018. [Getty]

“It strengthened the guilt and inability we [exiled Syrians] feel to end such violations in Syria. Scrolling down our social media accounts, mass mourning and collective anger at the lack of accountability and the impunity of the Syrian regime prevailed".

While the fate of thousands of people is still unknown, several Syrian organisations are working to document these types of violations, in addition to individual attempts since the release of the video to identify the victims and then notify their families.

So far, six victims have been identified by their families, and the number could increase. All of this once again reinforces the need for, and importance of, accountability for war crimes in Syria.

Eyad Hamid, a Senior Researcher at SLDP (Syrian Legal Development Programme) in London says that the videos are horrifying proof of the brutality of the Assad regime.

“It is proof that the regime's crimes against helpless civilians were committed in cold blood and for the enjoyment of the monsters who committed these acts of terror,” he told TNA.

“The victims of these crimes, and their families, deserve justice, which is also important to the whole of Syria, to overcome the horrible human rights abuses and violations".

"We feel angry at the absence of any international response. This silence has shown us how lightly the international community deals with Syrian blood"

International silence

The Guardian, the British newspaper that broke the story to the world, was one of only a few Western media outlets to report on the massacre.

"We feel angry at the absence of any international response. This silence has shown us how lightly the international community deals with Syrian blood in light of the Ukrainian war,” Mouna said.

“Humans have no equal rights regarding the international community's response to their suffering. Russia is the ally and protector of the Syrian regime from any accountability and punishment for these actions. Russia established a policy of impunity in Syria, which escalated to committing a war outside Syrian borders to Ukraine and Europe".

Tadamon is one of several neighbourhoods that also housed Palestinian refugees forcibly displaced by Israel, and as expected, many of the victims are Palestinians.

Hamid is a British/Syrian-Palestinian born in Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.

“Given that some of its victims are Palestinians, this begs the question of the responsibility of the PLO in protecting the Palestinians that it claims to represent,” he told The New Arab.  

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“It also raises question marks about the responsibility of the UN in protecting half a million stateless refugees in Syria, who have been refugees for the international organisation's entire existence".

Dr Azzam Al Kassir, a Syrian-British political scientist, says that the video of the massacre is not only a reminder of the Assad regime’s brutality but also further evidence of why holding the perpetrators accountable is so important to Syria’s future.

“Any sustainable peace and stability in the future will necessarily require bringing those involved in the preparation and execution of the Tadamon massacre and all other summary executions to trial,” Kassir said.

"Ten years of political stagnation coupled with a constant stream of misinformation regarding the situation in Syria has resulted in a prevailing state of news fatigue and emotional numbness around the world, especially in Western countries,” he added.

“However, what's difficult to comprehend is the lack of concerted international pressure in response to the regime's human rights violations".

Shortly after the massacre was exposed, the Syrian regime issued a meagre pardon to release 300 detainees on the first day of Eid, with families gathering outside the detention centre in Damascus for news of their loved ones.

More than 500,000 people have been arrested since the revolution began, with up to 100,000 dying either due to torture or poor detention conditions, rights groups say.

"Eid is supposed to be a happy occasion, but the Syrian regime turned it into a sad day and a reason for remembering our sorrows," Khaity said. One family, according to the researcher, was told their son was released despite having received a death certificate from the regime years ago.

"Any sustainable peace and stability in the future will necessarily require bringing those involved in the preparation and execution of the Tadamon massacre and all other summary executions to trial"

Cases like these generate suspicion among other families who received death certificates, with the absence of a body or grave adding to the confusion for detainees’ families.

Hamid said the pardon was simply a strategy to divert attention away from the massacre.  “This is a small fraction of those detained by the Syrian regime in the last 11 years, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands,” he said.

“The whole intelligence establishment in Syria needs a reformation to end its oppression of the Syrian people, but what is required urgently is to reveal the fate of the remaining hundreds of thousands of forcibly disappeared who remain in its prisons.”

Despite the shocking, and graphic, evidence of the Tadamon massacre the international community’s response has been muted, at best. For the most part, it has simply been ignored.

At a point in time when it seems that the killing of Syrians has become normalised, and their lives worth less than other victims of war, the Tadamon massacre reinforces the need for accountability in Syria.

This requires justice for the victims of the regime, and freedom for the detainees still languishing in its jails.

Naya Skaf is a Syrian Journalist, Researcher and Co-Host of Branch 251 Podcast

Follow her on Twitter: @NayaSkaf