Everlasting Memories of a Dark May in Syria

May 25 marked eight years since the Houla massacre and nine years since the death of Hamzah al-Khateeb, a Syian boy who was killed in one of al-Assad’s prisons. His horrifically mutilated body was later handed back to his family. Days before the massacre of Houla, another massacre was perpetrated in Al-Bayda and Ras al-Nabaa in the city of Baniyas. Hardly a day goes by in Syria without the memory of a massacre or an atrocity committed by Assad’s regime, his forces, and militias.

What these two massacres and Hamzah’s murder have in common is the extreme use of violence by someone who claims to be the country's president. Not only has his regime engaged in mass killings and executions, but it has also continuously adopted brutal methods unprecedented in modern history. The Houla massacre is one of the most atrocious massacres against civilians. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the massacre claimed the lives of more than 107 people, including 49 children under the age of ten and 32 women.

"Two men raped me and then raped my 21-year-old daughter Sawsan in front of my husband who was screaming and crying before they shot him in the head. Out of the 27 people in that house, only seven of us came out alive. They were even checking if children and women were alive, and those who were found still breathing were finished off with a knife,” Umm Alaa, Fawzia Hussein Al-Khalaf, a Houla massacre survivor said in her testimony.

That day, the regime’s forces murdered their victims with knives and used rape as a means of humiliation before slaughtering innocent civilians, and the same horrifying tactic was repeated a year later in the Baniyas countryside.

Images taken by “Caesar”, a Syrian military police defector show photographic evidence of torture and death of thousands of civilians in Assad's prisons. Assad could have chosen to execute them, but he and his regime would rather indulge in brutal violence.

Families of detainees and missing people spent many long months looking through thousands of pictures to figure out if their children are still alive or have already been killed. Can any sane person bear watching a mother search for a photograph of her only child among thousands of other victims’ pictures to know his fate? And while looking at these photographs, how many times did she envisage the horrifying methods of torture that her son had to endure?

Hamzah al-Khateeb, a thirteen-year-old Syrian child, left his home town al-Giza in the Daraa governorate with others to call for the lifting the siege in Daraa at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. He was arrested at a Syrian security checkpoint on April 29, 2011, and his body was handed over to his family on May 25, 2011. Hamzah’s torture and death were performed under the close supervision of people who are supposedly entrusted to protect him.

Some speculate that by using violence - sectarian violence in particular - the regime’s aim was to compel people to take up arms to transform the killing of innocent civilians and children to a battle against armed extremists to add a façade of legitimacy. These speculations may be true, but how do these explanations benefit the families of the victims, and how do Syrians forget something that had happened years ago and is still ongoing to this day? The Qur’an says: “Whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on Earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind.” What then can be said then about someone who is responsible for the murder of more than half a million people?

The Houla massacre sent shockwaves around the world, as a result, the 15-member UN Security Council unanimously condemned the Syrian government, while the United States, the United Kingdom, and eleven other countries expelled Syrian ambassadors and diplomats. “Caesar” and others had succeeded in smuggling pictures of torture victims out of Syria. As a result, The Ceasar Act was signed into American law in 2019 to help end the horrific and ongoing conflict in Syria by promoting accountability for the Assad regime. Even if small steps have been taken towards justice, Syrians expect much more: they await a homeland befitting their sacrifices, a homeland to which millions of displaced and homeless people yearn to return to without the fear of massacres and tragedies. They are awaiting support in combating terrorism in all its forms, whether that be in the form of organisations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, or a doctor who studied in the West and inherited his father’s rule after his brother was killed in a traffic accident.

At the end of her testimony about the Houla massacre, Umm Alaa says: ‘I do not wish anyone to experience what I have encountered, and I do not want anyone to see even small part of it. I never thought that humans can stoop to such a level of immorality, sectarian hatred and brutality. I will always tell my story as I wait for justice that will bring back my children back to life, and I will remember the massacre for as long as I live.

The victims will never overcome the memory of this tragedy, as Umm Alaa said: No one wants revenge, only justice - for these are only fragments of our memories from the month of May in Assad's Syria...