The murdered dissidents of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad ended up in mass graves, which could hold evidence of war crimes, the New York Times reports after speaking with four men who claim to have worked around two mass gravesites near Damascus, which the Times located using satellite images. Each one contains thousands of bodies, said the men, only one of whom remains in Syria. Human rights groups say the graves may also hold evidence of war crimes carried out by al-Assad's forces, including the systematic torture and murder of protesters, activists, and others once held in government detention centers.
Many of the more than 130,000 people to vanish from these centers are assumed dead. At least 14,000 were tortured to death, the US Treasury Department said in July. Human rights groups say mass gravesites probably exist across Syria, though the Times focuses on just two: one in Qutayfa, a town north of the capital, and another in Najha, to the south. One man said he spent six years overseeing civilian burials at the two sites, where up to 2,400 bodies would arrive each week in large refrigerator trucks meant to transport food. He said many bodies showed signs of injury, including rope marks around their necks, gunshot wounds, bruises, and missing fingernails. Some were already rotting.
Documents reportedly indicated the bodies came from detention centers but were counted at government hospitals before burial. Many families in Syria have been told of the deaths of their loved ones in detention but haven't been able to retrieve their bodies, per Al Jazeera. Satellite images of the Najha site "show graves filling up, and one image from 2012 shows a truck with its rear pointed toward the graves," per the Times. A man tasked with digging graves at the site "recalled the smell of death being so strong that it made him faint." He also recalled seeing the body of a child arrive in an ice cream truck. "I can no longer eat ice cream," the man said. (A former Syrian officer was recently convicted of crimes against humanity.)