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An unnamed Syrian official is a key witness in proving war crimes of the regime


What makes it possible to prosecute war crimes? A lot rides on the answer in 2022. Russian forces stand accused of human rights violations across Ukraine. U.S., Ukrainian and other European investigators are gathering evidence. And as they do, they are using techniques developed during an older war. Syria's civil war is 11 years old, and investigators believe they have made progress in gathering evidence and witnesses against the government of Bashar al-Assad. This next story shows us how, because we will hear from a Syrian witness known only as the Grave Digger. He spoke with NPR's Deborah Amos. Deborah, good morning.


INSKEEP: How did this anonymous person become an important figure?

AMOS: He came to Germany as a refugee, as so many people did, and he decided that he was going to testify about what he saw. These cases are all based on the courage of witnesses who often have to sit in a courtroom with a torturer within arm's distance. And that's what he did. The second thing that happened in Germany is they have a concept, a legal concept, called universal jurisdiction. And that means a country can prosecute alleged crimes against humanity that were committed elsewhere. In January, a German court convicted a former Syrian intelligence officer. This was the first ever criminal trial for state-sponsored torture in Syria. And the Grave Digger was one of the witnesses, a key witness. So I wanted to talk to him because I'd been covering that trial for two years. And we should warn that some of what we're going to hear in the next six minutes will be disturbing.

Steve, I met the Grave Digger and his family over lunch in an apartment that's usually rented to vacationers. There's potted plants and a Marilyn Monroe poster, all part of the spare decor. But for the Grave Digger, this is a safe house. He says he still fears for his life, even in Germany. He tells me, I'm threatened by regime loyalists. His eyewitness accounts have unraveled mysteries about the dead in Syria. He literally knows where the bodies are buried.

He sets the rules for this interview. I can't broadcast his voice without distorting it or say his name. By now, it's likely the Syrian government knows who he is, but he doesn't want them to track him down. Still, through an interpreter, he insists it is his duty to speak.

GRAVE DIGGER: (Through interpreter) When I was in Syria, I pledged to God that if I managed to leave Syria safely with my children and my wife, my tongue will never stop talking. And that's my only weapon.

AMOS: I met him through the Syrian opposition group that he works with. He lights one cigarette after another as he describes his old life, a government job in a bureau overseeing civilian burials.

GRAVE DIGGER: (Through interpreter) So it was a job with short attendance hours. I would go to work around 8 or 9 in the morning and leave around 2 or 3. You go home clean with a peaceful mind. But after the revolution, day became night, and night became day. I lost my ability to sleep or eat or drink.

AMOS: He was in his mid-30s when Syria's uprising swept the country. The Assad regime's response? Crush the rebellion with arbitrary arrests, torture and executions. The regime denies this and calls the prisoners terrorists, but there is ample evidence to the contrary. The Grave Digger says in the winter of 2011, security police came to his office because they had a problem. The bodies were piling up in the security prisons, the police stations, in military hospitals. The Grave Digger was recruited to head a secret burial squad. Refrigerator trucks and military transports arrived after dark to dump the human cargo into freshly dug mass graves, sometimes 400 to 500 bodies buried in a single night. This was death on an industrial scale. He says the mass graves were hundreds of feet long and 20 feet deep.

GRAVE DIGGER: (Through interpreter) And in order to fill them up, they would take up to 40 loads of refrigerated trucks. And over seven years we had about four loads a week, and then we had two extra loads that would come from hospitals.

AMOS: He could tell no one about his work. He shut down his emotions, he says, even when he recognized some of the dead dropped into the pit. He learned to ignore gruesome signs of torture and the smell of death.

GRAVE DIGGER: (Through interpreter) You know, I had to do my job. And at the same time, there was this unspoken threat. Everyone knows anything I do, they will go after me, after my wife, my kids. And this is sort of your contract with them. Actually, a couple of workers who made some mistakes and complained about the smell over the phone ended up disappearing. I really don't know what happened to them afterwards.

AMOS: The Grave Digger is a big man, his beard flecked with early gray, and he laughs easily with his wife and his kids, even with guests at lunch. It's hard to imagine the crying jags his wife describes. He says his mental pain is triggered at night. Frankly, he is ill, she says. He is tired all the time. He spaces out. He's not present in his head. We try to bring him back.

GRAVE DIGGER: (Through interpreter) I get angry for no reason. I really get mad sometimes at the kids.

AMOS: Sometimes tears start falling down, and we get worried, she says. We don't know if he's heard bad news or if we're in danger. His only therapy is his testimony, he says. In 2020, he was a key witness in Germany's first Syrian war crime trial, which ended in a life sentence for a former Syrian intelligence officer. The Grave Digger testified for two days behind a screen to protect his identity. When he broke down describing the mass graves, the chief judge called for a recess and came off the bench to bring him a glass of water. Throughout the long Syrian conflict, human rights groups have documented the torture and killings in Syrian prisons, but there was a lingering question, what happened to the bodies? Satellite images have now confirmed the mass graves. The Grave Digger moved to a new safe house after his June trip to Washington.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is so nice.


AMOS: The last place felt too risky, he tells me. A street-level apartment, there were random knocks on the door.

When I met you the last time, you said that you thought if you went to America that you would feel better. You thought this would be your therapy. Does it help?

GRAVE DIGGER: (Through interpreter) I'm happy that I managed to say something in favor of the innocent, say something about what the victims had to go through. But it still never leaves my mind. It still affects, like, physically and mentally.

AMOS: On the latest trip to the U.S., he says he was questioned in an extensive interview with the FBI. The questions were focused on American citizens reported to be in Syrian custody. The FBI wouldn't comment to NPR.

GRAVE DIGGER: (Through interpreter) There were two sessions, and each session was about up to five hours or so.

AMOS: Since the uprising began more than a decade ago, at least 11 American citizens have been jailed, tortured or killed by the Syrian regime. There is one known execution by hanging. Human rights groups say 26-year-old Layla Shweikani, an American citizen born in Syria, was executed by the Syrian regime in 2016 after a quick trial on terrorism charges.

Did they ask you about other Americans? Is that what they were interested in - if you saw any Americans, if you buried any Americans?

GRAVE DIGGER: (Through interpreter) No, they showed me some photos of Syrian army officers, some specific persons. I could identify some, but not others.

AMOS: He says he has more to tell and is set to testify again at the United Nations in September. He knows he was lucky to get his family safely to Germany, but the price is more than the bribes he paid to get them all out of Syria. His memories always return at night, and like many trauma survivors, the present seems unsafe, and the past is always present.

INSKEEP: Wow. Powerful reporting there from NPR's Deborah Amos, who's still with us. And Deb, human rights advocates now have a decade's experience investigating in Syria. This is a man with a decade's worth of information. How have they applied that experience elsewhere?

AMOS: So he was part of one historic trial in Germany. There are two more against Syrians, but so much of this now has to do with Ukraine. European governments expanded their war crimes units. They had prosecutors who had special skills. They are now experienced in war crimes trials, even open source investigations. And that's using data from social media, satellite photos, smartphone videos as evidence. All that sort of began in Syria and has been expanded. There's different groups who got their start in Syria. Bellingcat is the most well known who does this kind of work, and they are working in Ukraine. There's another group called Syrian Archive. They're based in Berlin, run by Syrians. They have been collecting social media posts from the war in Syria. Now they are working with Ukraine. They are the ones who are storing this data to turn it into evidence for war crimes trials. There are now protocols to do this - has to do with chain of custody. Where was the image taken? Is the metadata still on the web? Syrian Archive learned how to do that over the years for what they needed to do in Syria, and now they're doing it for Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Well, we're just getting around to prosecutions, though, in Syria after a decade. Is there a similar timeline ahead of us for Ukraine?

AMOS: Because of all that work done on Syria, it is moving a lot faster - 10 years for Syria, less than 10 days for the first investigations from the Germans, from the French, from the International Criminal Court - takes place in Ukraine almost as soon as Russian troops crossed the border into the country. There have been domestic war crimes trials in Ukraine. The holdup now is what will be the platform for an international tribunal. Does it go through the United Nations? Does it go through the European Union? Or does it stay as a domestic trial inside Ukraine? And I think those questions have not been settled yet.

INSKEEP: All this must be a tremendously different world than when you were covering conflicts before the time of social media 15, 20, 30 years ago.

AMOS: Correct. I think that the most interesting thing for me is to see how important this social media component is and how in some ways it empowers people on the ground. They are documenting their own war crimes. They've been through hell and back. But the idea that you are not so much a victim but a survivor, that you have a voice in these trials - and I think that will be important. It's certainly been important for the Syrians who've been able to testify. They feel like survivors and not victims. They feel like they have a voice in the narrative of the conflict that has defined their generation and their country.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deb Amos