Tadamon Massacre: An interview with Uğur Ümit Üngör & Annsar Shahhoud, the researchers behind the report

Tadamon Massacre: Interview with the authors of the report
12 min read
20 May, 2022
In depth: Annsar Shahhoud and Professor Uğur Ümit Üngör recently brought to light the massacre of 41 Syrian civilians in the Tadamon district of Damascus in April 2013. Here, they talk to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed about their research and its implications.

Annsar Shahhoud had no idea in 2013, as she left her destroyed city, Homs, and headed for Beirut, that just two years later she would find herself a student at Amsterdam University.

However, in hindsight the journey may have seemed one of surreal coincidence, as if a figurative tunnel had been dug between Homs, where the Syrian regime committed all kinds of atrocities, from massacres to mass arrests, bombardment, intimidation and "purification", and the Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Amsterdam University. Here, she met Professor Uğur Ümit Üngör, a professor in the department, and started working on a masters degree on state violence in Syria.

Everything Annsar would experience later with Uğur would seem surreal, as was the state of her country, which had been ripped apart by the regime and turned into a mass grave stretching through every region it controlled. A place where bodies flew through the air before bullets silenced them forever and fire devoured their features, and it was though they had never existed.

"The journey may have seemed one of surreal coincidence, as if a tunnel in a figurative sense had been dug between Homs, where the Syrian regime committed all kinds of atrocities, from massacres to mass arrests, bombardment, intimidation and "purification", and the Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Amsterdam University"

Their lengthy study was published in both Arabic and English and was released alongside a chilling video depicting a massacre taking place in the Tadamon neighbourhood of Damascus. It posed many questions but answered others.

It reopened discussion on a regime that has perpetrated, for 10 years, the most unimaginable atrocities with complete impunity, at a time that many Arab states are starting to normalise relations with it, and when many Western states are re-evaluating the Syrian refugee issue as well as the issue of immigration more broadly.

Months before the video was leaked, Denmark branded Damascus a "safe zone". Will this report push states to review these issues? In conversation with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, Professor Üngör says he isn’t optimistic that a process of transitional justice is on the horizon because the regime remains powerful, and there is no discernible enthusiasm among Western states to try to end this tragedy. He also criticises those Arab states and others that still think there could be a diplomatic solution to Syria's situation.

However, he hopes the study prepared with his colleague Shahhoud could be useful in stopping attempts to deport Syrian refugees.

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Documented information on the victims

Üngör says, "Denmark says Damascus is a 'safe zone' today, and maybe they won’t reconsider this after seeing the video, because it dates back to 2013. However, Amjad Youssef is still there, so are the intelligence branches and their agents, so is the 'Shabiha'. Even where there are no videos being leaked, that doesn't mean similar crimes haven't been perpetrated, even up to this moment! There is documented evidence on people who returned, who were then imprisoned, tortured, killed, or disappeared".

Annsar and Üngör spent over two years counting the number of victims; trying to trace their identities and the identity of the killers. Usually, those committing atrocities hide their faces if they know they are being filmed, but in the leaked video, Amjad made no attempt to do this, instead, his victims faces were obscured.

But for Annsar, it wasn't enough to simply watch and document, counting the victims ragged breaths moments before they died. Instead, she created a new persona and called her Anna. Anna began to seek out and move in the circles of killers and torturers, those who carried out assassinations, and for whom violence was a profession.

She wandered among them until she stumbled across him, owner of the army green fisherman's hat and the scar marking his face. He had gained weight alongside a more muscular frame, and his cheeks had filled out. It was eight years after he had committed the crime.

For Annsar,  who is Syrian, the Syrian cause was what drove her primarily, her research taking second place. Identifying Amjad wasn’t enough; she wanted to bring him down, for which she needed a straight confession.

"She wandered among them until she stumbled across him, owner of the army green fisherman's hat and the scar marking his face. He had gained weight alongside a more muscular frame, and his cheeks had filled out. It was eight years after he had committed the crime"

If I couldn’t humanise him, I couldn’t do this

On meeting Amjad, and looking into his eyes albeit via a laptop screen, listening to him talk and plunging into the details of his day-to-day, Annsar says, "I viewed him as a human being. If I were in his place, and had lived his circumstances, maybe I'd have turned into something even worse. If I couldn't humanise him, I wouldn’t have been able to talk to him and get to know him".

She clarifies: "Humanising is totally different to sympathy. In many cases I have felt compassion for people I have met online, who support the regime, but are not implicated in the murder of Syrians. Amjad is implicated. Amjad is a 'son of the institution' and it is difficult to feel compassion for him. He has an identity that supersedes that of the sub-sectarian identities. Military identity is the highest and strongest".

"Üngör and I have talked a lot with friends working on this issue, trying to understand these characters. Military training, and the daily humiliation that [recruits] are subjected to, turns them into cruel people, and violence turns into just a functional practice, like writing, acting or medicine. This does not make Amjad a victim, rather, he is a product of a military institution which perpetrates crimes."

Tadamon Massacre: Interview with the authors of the report
Children play football in a narrow street in Tadamon neighbourhood, Damascus. [Getty]

Amjad: A product of his environment

Üngör says, "Amjad’s father was an intelligence officer, so how much of a chance did he have to turn out differently? My father was a secondary school teacher, and I have become a university professor. Amjad is a product of his environment, and even if that doesn’t lessen the severity of his crimes, it does explain what an environment that encourages the practice of violence and criminal behaviour can create."

Annsar believes that "existential fear turns into violence. The government said from the start that the dissidents were a threat, and 'if you don't eliminate them, they will eliminate you'. Fear is key. Even the peaceful demonstrations became [seen as] a threat to the existence of the other. The regime encouraged violence, said 'if you don't take up arms you won't survive, because I won't be able to protect you'."

Üngör adds: "Fear has become intrinsic to the Syrian identity. There are families, all of whom left Syria, and retain no links with those in Syria, and despite this, they remain deeply fearful in Europe. Fear paralysed people's ability to adapt and to undertake organised political activity in support of the revolution."

"Military training, and the daily humiliation that [recruits] are subjected to, turns them into cruel people, and violence turns into just a functional practice, like writing, acting or medicine"

"If fear ended, the regime would end," Annsar states. However, the reservoir of fear in the collective Syrian psyche is inexhaustible, as are the crimes of the regime. And fear, which begins as tangible, and clearly defined in relation to an 'Other' who poses a threat to your life, transforms with time into a vague, indefinable fear of any 'Other', and into an incapacity to engage with fundamental issues, fearful of making a mistake; being punished, profiled, and found a traitor.    

Syrians haven't yet forgotten the pain of the past ten years. However, the desperation they have sunk to and the hardship of their daily lives have distracted from the graves for a while, and closed their eyes to the brutality and slaughter.

The leaked video and accompanying research have opened the question of the graves once more and has also recalled the question of hatred. Questions arise again on the ability of millions of Syrians to live together, and whether they can possibly transcend the reservoir of fear and to find a way to live with the memory of the last decade. 

Truth: More important than accountability

"The truth is more important than accountability," says Annsar, "and if Syrians are to be capable of coexisting again, they need to engage with the past without excluding others and without ignoring their narratives. They must acknowledge mistakes. We won’t be able to live together if we can't speak frankly about what we have done."

Annsar believes speaking about the past, without malice or desire for revenge, nor trying to marginalise those who are different, is the path to defeating the security apparatus, which is fears the truth.

She says, "The problem is that the concept of the victim, which most Syrians would fall into, is presented with the idea of revenge being central, rather than rights. Victims have rights, but revenge isn’t the way to achieve them."

But, she says, Syrians no longer share a common ground, and a vicious interregional attitude of nonacceptance prevails, with everyone paying the price for the actions of a few: "Just the fact that you're from the Al Zahra neighbourhood in Homs, which is affiliated to the regime, for example, means you're a criminal. Someone from Sabeel neighbourhood will attack someone from Al Zahra without knowing him, and vice versa. They hate, fight, and kill each other without knowing anything about each other."

Üngör believes that vengeance will play a big role in Syria: "No one like Nelson Mandela has emerged from Syria, and towns the regime has destroyed may later be sites of bitter retaliation. The absence of justice generates bitter resentment and a thirst for revenge." But, he says, abstract notions of revenge tend to become exaggerated, and this exaggeration can be translated into reality.

"While the Syrian people are not unified, Annsar believes that the two sides have come to realise that the regime is responsible for the nihilistic condition they have been brought to and the level of violence"

"Amjad took revenge for his brother, but he murdered over 300 people in exchange! This is the danger. That the abstract expression for the desire to make someone pay twofold transforms into a reality. And this is what we saw in Amjad's case, and many others. The actions they took 'in revenge' belong to the realms of fantasy."

Annsar believes that Syrians have a right to hate, as long as it doesn’t lead to violence: "I believe up to five million Syrians could be implicated in violence. Those who drive people to the prisons, those who take food to them, or withhold it from them, those who take part in digging the pits, those who inform on their neighbours… what do we do with this terrifying number? Do we exclude five million Syrians, or do we search for a mechanism for a justice appropriate to the Syrian case, so to preserve the memory without seeking redress to it with violence?"

The dilemma lies in that the sheer scale of sacrifices made by the Syrian majority, and the enormity of human, emotional, and material losses suffered, cause this narrative to lose its historical importance which is derived from the experiences of other peoples who were subjected to genocide, massacres and systematic violence.

On the relationship between narrative and human experience, Üngör says: "Violence writes the history of societies and divides them into segments. In the Bosnia example, the majority of people considered themselves Bosnians, but when the nationalist extremists from Serbia came they killed people based on ethnicity, which re-divided them."

 "Violence leads to new divisions. Many used to consider themselves Syrian before anything else. However, the violence […] contributed to deepening sectarian divisions and creating them."

Annsar says the regime used the military to penetrate every aspect of Syrian life, conscripting the society and militarising daily life. It also installed sectarianism in Syria, and wielded it as a political tool to tyrannise civilians in times of crisis.

Tadamon Massacre: Interview with the authors of the report
Syrians await the release of relatives held in regime prisons, on 3 May 2022 in Damascus after a general amnesty was issued by the Syrian president in the week following the release of the video and report on the Tadamon massacre. [Getty]

But while the Syrian people are not unified, Annsar believes that the two sides have come to realise that the regime is responsible for the nihilistic condition they have been brought to and the level of violence.

"Both sides have lost, all of the sects and religions, the war criminals and their victims. All have lost because of the regime, and everyone is a victim of the regime."

But in the same way that the regime's exclusivist policies contributed over decades in the narrowing of choices Syrians had, and in obliterating any possibility of change, the exclusivist stances of some opposition forces have led many to withdraw from the opposition ranks and return to the regime fold.   

Annsar adds: "The regime's violence is not the only reason many have fled, or even joined its battle fronts. Rather, some are rejecting the behaviour of some of the political opposition forces in ways reminiscent of the regime. The opposition has prisons, in which they are recreating the same conditions established by the Syrian regime."

"To document the massacre and tell its story is to reconsider the victims and acknowledge them, their existence and their sacrifice"

Reconsidering the victims

"To document the massacre and tell its story is to reconsider the victims and acknowledge them, their existence and their sacrifice. The grave had become shrouded in something like myth, or legend. The residents of Tadamon and the neighbourhoods surrounding it said they had doubts the grave actually existed. Some of them had nightmares about it, but they weren't sure. They live in an area fully under regime control. They have the right to know the identity of the criminal," says Annsar.

When he received the video clips of the massacre, Üngör only thought of using them in the context of the research. However, Annsar saw a broader context for the videos which she saw as testifying, in a way, to the ongoing 'purification' process in Syria, which is accompanying displacement, rape and confiscation of public and private property.

"Annsar thought we needed put these videos into their true context, relating to what is happening in Syria. Because there is a difference between massacre and genocide. A massacre is the moment of killing - the moment Amjad slaughtered 41 civilians […] in a period of time not exceeding half an hour," Üngör  says.

"This is a massacre. Whereas genocide is a policy of massacres in an extended period of time through which the regime strives to destroy the society and fragment it […] the aim is 'purification'. The regime itself has used this term on many occasions. And the Syrian regime has committed two crimes together: massacre and genocide. Purification and destruction."

Annsar and Üngör fulfilled their mission to identify the perpetrator of the crime, and discover the nature of what had been covered up that day in Tadamon neighbourhood. The videos were handed to the Dutch and German police in the hope that steps would be taken in the direction of justice and accountability.

But for Annsar, one of the biggest achievements is the discussion that has been reopened internally, and the revulsion and condemnation they have seen expressed by those who would be considered supporters of the regime.

This is an edited and abridged translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko.