The words "Never Again" permeate throughout as one enters the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is dedicated to memorializing the suffering of the victims of the most horrific crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. The term has, however, been expanded all-too-many times to include the repeated the horrors of genocide, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Exhibits dedicated to past atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur remind visitors that time and again the international community lacked the political will to put words into action. In all of these situations, once documented evidence surfaced and the world community was mobilized to act, it was often too late to save countless lives.
This week, a new exhibit opened in the museum, featuring photos from a Syrian military-photographer-turned-defector under the pseudonym "Caesar," showing that mass atrocities are occurring and little has been done to stop them. Yet again, documentation and evidence of these crimes emerges as the violations are ongoing. Pleading ignorance is not an option.
In this particular case, Caesar has over 55,000 photographs he took while working for the Syrian military many of which he shared with the U.S. government and independent investigators documenting atrocities committed by all sides of the conflict. Investigators and local actors take enormous risks to also retrieve documentation of the chain of command that led to arbitrary arrests, torture and killings.
International discussion surrounding these photos and documents centers on how they will be used to hold perpetrators accountable. Meanwhile, the numbers of victims continually increase and neighboring countries and international aid organizations struggle to sustain the influx from the world's largest current refugee crisis. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has registered over 3 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. Beyond that, approximately 6.5 million Syrians are internally displaced and the conflict has claimed nearly 200,000 lives by most estimates.
Unlike, for example, the Cambodian killing fields under the Khmer Rouge where eye witness accounts from journalists and refugees were often the only evidence of ongoing atrocities, from Syria a trove of documentation is slowly being unearthed detailing and depicting not only past atrocities, but ongoing torture and extrajudicial killing. Reports from refugees make clear that although the Syrian regime has perpetrated many of the mass atrocities, most of the belligerent parties in Syria are responsible for human rights violations and war crimes.
The stark reality is that even though the world says "Never Again," the same atrocities continue to be perpetrated. At the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) in Jordan, trained counselors help Syrian and Iraqi refugees heal from the psychological and physical wounds of torture and war trauma. Caesar's photos portray evidence of abuse that our clients in Amman and Zarqa often report.
A former client we will call by the pseudonym "Adnan" was held in a Syrian prison in the summer of 2012 after being arrested for alleged political activities. "Those 40 days felt like 40 years," he explained. As Adnan described the treatment he endured, he would pull up his shirt or pant legs to reveal scars and other injuries -- his fingernails were pulled out by pliers and holes were drilled in his legs by power drills. An athletic man, who once loved to play soccer, now walks with a limp and holds tightly to the railing when going down stairs. He wears dentures as all of his teeth were knocked out during beatings. When he returned home from prison -- a miracle by his own account -- his wife didn't recognize him. His weight had dropped from a sturdy 225 lbs. to an emaciated 136 lbs. "I can still hear the sound of all the screaming I heard from people being tortured," he lamented. "How can human beings treat other human beings that way?"
Frequently, CVT clients who have been detained or had family members detained report withholding of food and water in prisons to the point of starvation. They report being beaten with rods, wires and cables until they passed out; forced to undress and having cold water thrown on them; subjected to sexual humiliation; or held from the ceiling by ropes for extended periods of time. As Caesar's photos verify, when families were allowed to retrieve the bodies of those who died in prison, they exhibited brutal signs of torture.
If "Never Again" means that the world will mobilize to stop mass atrocities -- genocide, torture, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity -- then the integration of an exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum showing ongoing crimes in Syria that rise to that level belies our commitment to such a slogan. The video of Caesar's photos does not only memorialize the victims of past crimes; it reminds its visitors that, in this instance, it is still not too late to save countless lives.