At the end of April, Annsar Shahhoud and Uğur Ümit Üngör published the video of a massacre of civilians in Damascus that was previously unknown to the public. Üngör talks to zenith about the research and what happened after the publication.
zenith: Mr. Üngör, how did you get hold of the video footage of the Tadamon massacre?
Uğur Ümit Üngör: I was at a conference in Paris in 2019 when a friend, a Syrian doctor, called me. He said it was very urgent and that he needed to talk to me. He insisted so much that we finally met at a café in the university, where he showed me the video. I had already studied with the conflict for eight years at that point, and I didn't expect that a violent video from Syria could still shock me. But it did. I immediately realized that this material was unique.
I find it interesting that the original source found the video on a militia laptop. He was not a conscript, but a member of a voluntary militia.
There are a lot of Syrian young men who join militias to get out of the conscript army. People might think all militiamen are criminals, but that's not necessarily the case. For those who were in it since March 2011, yes, because back then the reason to join a militia was to repress the demonstrations. But by 2018, you just try to get out of this extremely destructive conflict. The conscript army doesn't pay you anything, the conditions are terrible. Your commanders treat you badly. And that's before you go out to the battle where you have no support against battle-trained, tough Islamists. So that's the type of person we're talking about here, somebody who is just kind of apolitical. He could have also chosen to close that laptop, act like he didn’t see anything and continue his life.
Perhaps many did.
Exactly, but he made a moral decision.
How did you go on in your research from that point?
Annsar Shahhoud, the co-author, came on board. First, we analyzed the video. Through a timestamp and a graffiti that we initially misinterpreted, we finally figured out that it was recorded in Damascus in 2013.
That still seems relatively straightforward, but how were you able to identify the perpetrators?
We first asked ourselves who could execute civilians in Damascus in broad daylight. Who has the power to do something like that? And, of course, it's none other than the Syrian Mukhabarat (intelligence service, ed.), because not even a militia could do something like that, that is, shoot civilians without a warrant and with complete impunity. And then we started researching which Mukhabarat units are responsible for the south of Damascus, which led us to the Branch 227 of the dreaded Military Intelligence. On Facebook, there is a huge pro-regime community, including soldiers and sometimes intelligence officers. Annsar Shahhoud spent months searching for the faces of the perpetrators. She went through countless profiles of people who were close to the regime or associated with it. This is how she was actually able to prove the identity of one man in the video: Najib Al-Halabi, who died in 2015.
He was a member of a militia, right?
That's right. Annsar Shahhoud then went through his contacts on Facebook and checked them one by one. That's how she came across Amjad Youssef, the intelligence officer and main perpetrator in the green uniform, who is also featured in the video. We were absolutely shocked and elated at the same time when we found out that he had a Facebook page. We had set up this fake profile called ‘Anna’ that Annsar Shahhoud and I had been working with since 2018. I was sure that if anyone could communicate with this guy, it was Anna.
'Anna', meaning Annsar Shahhoud, was very deep inside a network of regime supporters and the intelligence community. Weren't these people skeptical?
We gave her a credible story: an Alawite girl from Homs, from the middle class, studying in Europe. There are many of them, including those who are close to the regime. Of all the people we interviewed, maybe one person was intelligent enough. They actually realized: This all sounds a bit too good.
'The massacre was extraordinarily well prepared.'
You then spoke with Amjad Youssef. Was he suspicious?
Not much. He did a little digging because that's what he’s supposed to do. An intelligence officer has to be paranoid and suspicious of everybody. Anyone could be CIA or Mossad, anyone could be this or that. But we passed the test and then he opened up.
Amjad Youssef was working for an official organ of the Syrian state at the time. The late Najib Al-Halabi, on the other hand, was in a volunteer militia. What is the relationship between the two institutions?
When the two of them together committed this massacre, they were not just two individuals, but two organizations working together. Especially in the beginning, the regime distanced itself from the shabiha (militias) and pretended that they were just loyal supporters who just loved the president so much that they put down the protests. To be sure, both Amjad Youssef and militiamen have already admitted to 'Anna' that the militias are actually the extended arm of the state. But here we have visual evidence of the Syrian state and militias executing civilians together.
And this visual evidence was not secretly recorded, but the perpetrators filmed themselves doing it. How do you explain that
There are four possible explanations. First, it could be a kind of trophy, like bullies filming themselves beating up others. The second explanation is that for this type of regime-killer, their work is extremely important for defending and maintaining the regime. They see their own role as epic, see themselves as heroes who cleanse Syria of the 'traitors'. The third explaination: for documentation purposes. Najib Al-Halabi turns the camera at one point and says: 'Greetings to the boss'. This means that the commander will watch the whole thing.
Why would they need to document their crimes?
The boss wants evidence to be sure that the job is done, that Amjad hasn't taken bribes from the victims and let them go. He wants it on video.
And the fourth explanation?
That's pretty crazy, but who knows: with this regime, you can believe anything. This is about showing these videos to the young recruits in the intelligence academy as instructional videos. They need to raise a new generation of Amjad Youssefs. The only way to do that is by brutalizing them and showing them how it's done. By first digging the hole, then killing the victims that way, and then burning the bodies and filling in the pit to destroy the evidence. The perpetrators were exceptionally well prepared. That's why they blindfolded people. Because if they saw anything, they would have known they were about to be massacred.
Do you think that more such videos exist?
I totally believe so. There was a number behind the time stamp: 356. I want to know what is in the other 355 videos. Do they show more massacres? We have a total of 27 videos, half of which are of this kind. The other half are field operations, digging and covering mass graves, and torture videos. A 'kill to record' trend emerged. Since everyone has cameras, it is no longer enough to simply kill someone. You have to have evidence of it. For that, these people look for someone to kill on camera: for the trophy, the epic. It's deeply immoral, but that's the nature of this conflict.
'It's a big taboo to talk about confessionalism'
Did Amjad Youssef make a career after the massacre?
He has risen in rank. Step by step, not astronomically. At the beginning of the conflict, he was doing more field work. When we spoke to him, he was more involved with desk work and no longer went into the field.
So he had an ordinary career?
Yes, basically so. Amjad Youssef does come from an Alawite family and his father was an intelligence officer, but he is not from the coast. He is not a member of the Assad family, so he is not someone who can make a career very easily. He has to work for his promotions, and of course he did. He is a careerist.
That might suggest that the murders were nothing out of the ordinary. Neither was he punished, nor did he really move up because he proved his loyalty.
In a sense, this is normal. Although it is reported that he was arrested a few days ago, however, I have my doubts about that. Maybe he will be sent back to his village or he will have a car accident soon, who knows. I am sure that the problem is not his crimes, not even the videos, but that he talked to us.
Do you think that the massacre had a sectarian background? Were the victims killed because they are Sunnis?
That is a major question that is causing us quite a headache. On the one hand, the two killers in the video are not Sunnis. One is Druse, the other is Alawite. So two non-Sunnis killing almost 300 people, again, probably almost all of whom are Sunnis, at least all of the victims identified so far. Most likely, all are also from majority Sunni areas. On the other hand, at no point does Amjad Youssef use any kind of sectarian language. Maybe that is normal, but in Bosnia, for example, there was that at the moment of the killing, at the moment of the violence. That's when the hatred came through.
When you talked to Amjad Youssef, did he give the impression that he was motivated by sectarian hatred?
It's interesting that he felt safe because 'Anna' was Alawite. If you believe that you can only feel comfortable with people of your own religious or ethnic background, and that only your own group is good and trustworthy, then of course that is quite problematic. Amjad Youssef is a devout Alawite who visits the Alawite shrines and has respect for the sheikhs. Of course, it is okay to be Alawite, to be interested in your own culture. The question is whether he hates other groups, such as Sunnis. To be honest, we couldn't find too much evidence for that in our conversations. But then again, it is a big taboo to talk about sectarianism publicly. The hatred may be in his mind and in his heart, but not on his tongue. He does not talk about it.
What about the victims? Can you find any evidence that they thought this was a sectarian-motivated act?
For example, there is an old man begging for his life who says, 'Please, for Imam Ali's sake,' knowing that these people are Alawites, trying to appeal to their sense of religiosity. By that time, however, it is too late. Those who are in the minibus cannot do anything to save themselves. Some of them beg, some plead, however none of them claim to be Alawite, for example.
'The victims had stayed in the regime territory because they felt safe there'
Many Arab media outlets have taken a very sectarian tone in their coverage of the massacre.
Yes, but that misses the point. There really is only one sect and that is the Mukhabarat. A group of men who have the authority to torture and kill people - many Alawites are among the victims, too. It’s not that the violence is clearly sectarian, but the disproportionate number of Alawites, especially in the intelligence service, is also reflected in the violence. If the regime falls at some point and we go into the archives, we will never find an explicit order to kill Sunnis. That is unthinkable. But two types of violence exist in Syria: direct orders from above and discretionary violence, where there are certain expectations but also a kind of Spielraum (leeway) in how it is carried out. This sectarian violence occurs because people like Amjad Youssef can design the violence the way they want.
What did the victims' families think? That their loved ones had disappeared, perhaps in secret prisons?
After the video was released, it turned out that almost all the people who had identified their family members assumed that their relatives were taken by force. It looks like most of the victims were from Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp next door. A Palestinian mother identified her son after the video was released and said that they had a bakery. Her son went to get gas canisters to bake bread and still told his daughters that he would be back in half an hour. In the process, he probably had to pass the checkpoint, where he was arrested and taken away. According to the mother, this happened one day before the massacre. So he might have been held in an Ad hoc-prison in an apartment for a day before he was executed the next day. It is likely that almost all of the victims have similar stories.
What is also shocking is that they lived in areas controlled by the regime.
And not even on the front lines, where civilians were automatically suspected because they had lived among the rebels. These people did not move to rebel-held areas at the beginning of the war, they did not move to Lebanon. They stayed in regime-held territory for the whole two years because they felt safe there.
What have the revelations accomplished so far?
Legal efforts are moving forward. Carla Del Ponte, for example, who used to be a prosecutor in the Yugoslavia tribunal, was very grateful because it is valuable evidence. I am sure that more will happen in this direction, for example through the BKA here in Germany.
What reactions did you receive from the Syrian diaspora, for example?
After the publication, I had about 500 new Facebook requests from people who contacted me. To see so clearly on camera how the two perpetrators had fun killing these defenseless civilians. That was a really big shock. I have a Syrian friend who lives in Kassel. He said he made a mistake by watching the video. He had a panic attack. The roommates in his shared apartment even had to call an ambulance because he was shaking uncontrollably. I have heard of people who suffered heart attacks, people who couldn't sleep for a day, people who stopped eating. Many also preferred not to watch the video at all. That shows the sense of retraumatization. Of course, we don't want to put the Syrian communities through this pain. But the video was leaked and ultimately the naked truth has to be put on the table, ugly as it is.
In Turkey, the mood against refugees is becoming more aggressive. Moreover, parliamentary and presidential elections are coming up next year. Has pro-government media seized on the massacre to change the public debate on the issue of Syrian refugees?
That's what you would expect. We perhaps also had a bit of hope that this would shake up the Turkish population, but also the people acting in the government, so that they would really recognize how criminal this regime is and that you can't send anyone back there. However, the coverage has been very restrained, both by opposition and pro-government media. They either didn't pick up on it or dismissed it by saying that it was just a single video. But there are 27 videos, and they show the microcosm of a broader genocide.
What about reactions from the Turkish population?
They were similar. For example, I watched a reaction video of a video crew going to the streets of Istanbul, stopping people, showing them the video and filming the reactions. They were shocked, but it's just a short clip of three minutes - that's it. No further analysis, no political implications. What's interesting are the comments on YouTube and Twitter. One of the ladies in the video actually even says how terrible it is, but that she still wants the Syrians to leave. That's a bizarre contradiction. How can you say they are suffering terribly but we should still send them back? Racism against Syrians is now so ingrained and widespread that even the Tadamon video was unable to convey any sense of humanity or empathy toward them. I was very disappointed by that. The situation in Turkey is really worrying. Unfortunately, the video did not bring about a fundamental change in Turkish discourse.
'We are proud of our work'
Although you are an academic, you chose to publish your research in journalistic publications rather than, say, as an article in an academic journal. Could you tell a little about the area of conflict between science, journalism and activism and how you navigate through it?
We believed that this story needed a bigger audience, because if you turn it into a boring academic article and bury it in some scientific journal, no one will read it.
Especially since an academic publication also involves peer review. Methodologically, you have chosen a very innovative approach that might have led to discussions in the academic environment.
Perhaps our approach would not be accepted. It's very good that universities have ethics boards, you shouldn't be able to do everything. But when we are dealing with a dictatorship, we have to be especially careful when it comes to ethical issues. In dictatorships and with perpetrators as powerful as Amjad Youssef, I don't think those standards apply to them per se. That's why we made a conscious decision not to take the matter to the ethics committee, but to conduct the research based on our own ethical principles. For example, I paid for the source to get out of Syria.
Although as a researcher you are not supposed to give money to your interviewees.
That’s right, but the guy has to get out. If I just do the research and I leave him inside, he dies. Basically, it's about the lesser evil. A few people also criticized that we weren’t honest with Amjad, that we didn’t tell him honestly exactly what we're doing. That’s naïve. They're basically accusing us of lying to the killer. But killing and lying are two different things. Lying is the lesser evil and is even necessary here for everybody's security. That’s why I believe that we are developing a new research methodology for studying perpetrators. We call it undercover ethnography, just like there's undercover journalism. We think that when you're dealing with dictatorships, this is the way to do it. We did the lesser evil and we were happy with it. We're proud of what we did.
Uğur Ümit Üngör is a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at the University of Amsterdam. He has published books on the Armenian genocide and paramilitaries in Syria, among others. His latest book on Syrian gulags is forthcoming in English translation.