Syrian gravedigger reveals details of 'Nazi-like' regime mass killings
In his three hour testimony earlier this week, the gravedigger told the court in the German city of Koblenz that he spent six years between 2011 and 2017 overseeing the transport of bodies of tens of thousands of Syrian regime victims from detention centres and military hospitals around Damascus, the Syrian site Levant News reported.
The gravedigger was speaking at the trial of Anwar Raslan and Eyad Gharib, two former Syrian regime officials currently living in Germany who are accused of crimes against humanity.
Raslan is accused of torturing roughly 4,000 people and killing 58 at the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus, while Gharib is accused of detaining anti-Assad protesters and turning them over to the centre to be tortured and killed.
Raslan, who worked for Syrian regime intelligence for 18 years, defected at the end of 2012 and arrived in Germany in 2014, seeking asylum.
The trial began on April 23 this year and is the first court case in the world dealing with torture by Bashar Assad's regime.
The gravedigger was given anonymity by the court, due to concerns over the safety of his family members in Syria, and wore a mask over his face as he testified.
He said that he had worked digging ordinary graves before the Syrian uprising began in 2011, but was recruited by the regime in October that year to oversee a team of labourers digging mass graves.
He said he and his team of between 10 and 15 men would escort the trucks, each loaded with hundreds of bodies and covered with pictures of Assad to mass grave sites around Damascus, four times a week.
The bodies were dumped into two huge mass graves in Al-Najha, 15 kilometres to the south of Damascus and Al-Qutayfah, 35 kilometres to its south. Each grave was 6 metres deep and 100 metres long.
Some of the faces on the bodies were disfigured with acid and all had numbers written on their chests or foreheads, the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported. All the bodies showed signs of torture, with bruises from beatings. Some had nails plucked out.
One of the most horrifying stories the gravedigger recalled at the court involved seeing and burying the bodies of a woman and her infant child, who she was carrying. He broke down in tears afterwards.
He estimated the number of bodies that he transported from regime security branches in Damascus as 50,000 from October 2011 to the end of 2012 and 25,000 each year after that until 2017.
Around 10,000 bodies every year came from the Al-Khatib detention centre while other regime torture centres like Al-Arbeen and the General Intelligence Directorate provided the rest of the torture victims, who included women and children.
The gravedigger's testimony shocked the German court and the judge had to adjourn the session right after the disturbing testimony.
Some observers compared the details of the testimony to the horrors of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.
At one point the gravedigger spoke about seeing a man who was still breathing being piled on top of hundreds of bodies and buried.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been detained by the Assad regime since the Syrian uprising began in 2011 and in 2015, a defector known as Caesar smuggled photos showing the bodies of at least 11,000 people who had died in detention centres.
Anwar Al-Bunni, a Syrian lawyer who worked on the case against Anwar Raslan and gave testimony regarding his own imprisonment by the regime, told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the gravedigger's testimony had provided a "missing link" in the answer to the question: "What happens to the detainees when they enter the security department branches and then disappear?"
"We now know", he said, adding that "The greatest shock of all is that these crimes are still happening in Syria."
The Syrian conflict began in 2011 after the Assad regime brutally suppressed peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations. More than 500,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced, mostly as a result of regime bombardment of civilian areas.