The vow of ‘never again’ is dying in Assad’s prisons

“What’s happening in Syria is a holocaust,” he told me, reacting to Trump’s speech. “The difference is, we still have time to do something to stop this holocaust.”

February 12, 2019

The vow of ‘never again’ is dying in Assad’s prisons

Source: By Josh Rogin / The Washington Post

During his State of the Union address, President Trump invoked the Holocaust, praising some of his invited guests: U.S. soldiers who liberated Nazi concentration camps and victims of those camps. Trump’s comments force us to ask ourselves: Is the United States living up to the vow — expressed so often after the mass murder of Jews and other minorities during World War II — of “never again”? One look at Syria confirms we are failing.

Godwin’s Law stipulates that the longer any political discussion goes, the greater the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Adolf Hitler. It’s a caution against false equivalence and a reminder of the singular horror of the Holocaust. But for victims of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the comparison is apt. Just ask Omar Alshogre, a Syrian who has suffered some of the worst atrocities.

“What’s happening in Syria is a holocaust,” he told me, reacting to Trump’s speech. “The difference is, we still have time to do something to stop this holocaust.”

When Omar, then 15, first joined protests in his hometown of Al-Bayda, it was out of curiosity. When he was first arrested, the torture lasted only two days and he was released. Newly aware of what his government was capable of, Omar went right back to the demonstrations.

He was arrested and tortured five more times, eventually released each time after his father — a retired military officer — paid a bribe. But after his last arrest, Omar’s father didn’t come. He later learned that Assad’s forces had killed his father, his brothers and most of the village. This particular slaughter in 2013 is known as the Al-Bayda massacre .

“Then the real torture started,” Omar told me. “They knew then I was not getting out.”

Omar was in a local prison with three cousins. They were often tortured within screaming distance of one another, to use one cousin’s pain to psychologically torment the others. They were tortured until they confessed to crimes they didn’t commit — and then tortured more.

“They were just having fun with us,” he said. “Everything horrible at the same time and your cousin tortured next to you.”

Then things got worse. Omar was transferred to the military intelligence prison known as Branch 291. “Sexual torture is the favorite of those in this branch,” he said. Then things got even worse. Omar was transferred to Branch 215, which Human Rights Watch called the “Branch of Death.”

Most people survive there for only weeks. Omar stayed for 21 months. All three of his cousins died. They arrested a fourth cousin, who also died. Omar then spent 10 months in Sednaya prison, which has been characterized by Amnesty International as a “Human Slaughterhouse.” Now living in Sweden, Omar has dedicated his life to imploring the world not to turn a blind eye. That mission brought him to Washington this week, to tell his story to officials and lawmakers.

Inside Branch 215, between torture sessions, Omar was forced to number and tag dead bodies. Hundreds of those bodies ended up at a hospital known as 601, where they were photographed by a military police officer known as Caesar, who later escaped Syria with more than 55,000 photographs the FBI has verified as evidence of Assad’s mass atrocities.

That evidence forms the basis of the Caesar exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The State Department’s former war crimes ambassador, Stephen Rapp, has said this evidence is the strongest since the Nuremberg trials — and that Assad’s “machinery of death” is the worst since the Nazis.

Caesar testified before a House committee in 2015. Congress passed a sanctions bill, named after Caesar, just last month. His photographs have been shown around the world. Yet years later, Branch 215 is still churning out dead bodies. Assad’s prisons are just one component of the regime’s war crimes, which include starving cities, bombing hospitals and using chemical weapons, on its way to killing an estimated half-million innocent people.

What would Assad have to do to justify a comparison to the Holocaust? Attempted ethnic cleansing on a massive scale? Check. Mass torture and murder of civilians in custody? Check. Crematoriums ? Check. Gassing children? Check.

Assad’s defenders in Washington often present a false choice: You either support Assad’s rule, or you support military intervention on behalf of terrorists. During the Holocaust, there was a reasoned case against military intervention, like now. That argument became an excuse for ignoring the atrocities, like now. Then, the United States had options short of invading, such as admitting more refugees fleeing the atrocities. But even then, it didn’t act, just like now.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Americans believe. For an entire generation of Syrians, this is their holocaust. Over the coming years, the Assad regime may continue to slaughter thousands, but many will surely survive and live to tell their tales. Their evidence will outgrow the Holocaust Museum’s hospitality. The Syrian holocaust will need its own museum.

As long as Assad is in power, there will never be peace in Syria. People will always struggle for basic dignity. But someday, his brutal rule will end. And at some future address, survivors of the Syrian holocaust will be celebrated along with their liberators. That address likely won’t be in the United States, because we stood by. But we can never say we didn’t know. Omar told us.

The Washington Post