Video by Rachel Ayotte & Haley Ryger
The Caesar Photographs
Last month, Smith College held an open gallery for the recently smuggled “Caesar Photographs" which chronicle the crimes against humanity in Syria. The gallery served as a courtroom, brimming with eerie and undisputable evidence of the Assad regime’s abuse and maniacal documentation of their reign of terror upon the civilians of Syria. The display was followed by a discussion and the outcry of several panelists urging greater awareness of the foreign atrocity and the necessity for justice and Assad’s accountability.
Since the beginning of the country's uprising in 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians in opposition to Assad have died in government-run detention facilities. The conflict originates from pro-democracy protests that were met with violence by the government’s security forces. Slowly, the country has descended into civil war.
From May of 2011 to August of 2013, an official photographer for Syria’s military police known as “Caesar” secretly collected and smuggled 55,000 images of more than 6,700 victims of abuse and suffering. His photographs are testimony to the Assad regime’s war crimes.
The Campus Center Nolen Art Lounge at Smith College, like other venues nationwide, warned exhibition viewers of its inherent graphic nature. Construction paper plastered the windows of the gallery, restricting the disturbing content to the confines of four walls. Despite any forewarning of the pictures or even the measures taken to shield a wandering eye from unintentionally catching a glimpse, little can be done to prepare for the rawness of reality. There is not much that can warn one of the unedited, sharp, and unmasked representation of real-time, real world barbarity.
Amongst the photos, the faces of adults, the elderly, and children are blurred. Their bodies, mutilated and stricken with starvation are identified only by their sex, attributed death, and the location where their bodies were photographed. The haunting inhumanity and bloodied injustice serve as a screaming, yet silent reminder of what truly is happening in Syria. The gruesome depiction of the methodical torture and subsequent extinction of Syrian detainees echoes past genocides. The photographs taken are not an abstract portrayal of a far-off horror, but rather a true and uncensored representation of a fraction of contemporary crimes against humanity.
“We are living today’s ‘never again’ moment,” panelist Mouaz Moustafa, Executive Director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force implored, following the gallery on February 11th.
He sat amongst Sarah Leah Whitson of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch; Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria; and Steven Heydemann, Smith professor of Middle East Studies, who moderated the discussion. Moutsafa, alongside the other panelists, discussed the illicit evidence. They spoke to a room full of community members, professors, scholars, and students alike. Their conversation elaborated on the daily life of Syrian civilians, one that is fixed to a political ensnarement of unrest and instability. The panelists insisted on a truth telling process as well as a national dialogue in order to spark a regional ceasefire. But, despite recent efforts, the carnage has ensued. Like many others, the panelists held fast to their demand for justice.
Amidst a deliberation of policies and potential solutions, which for many people, including myself, may have seemed abstruse, Robert Ford spoke to what I believe may have been the most important topic surrounding the issue.
“I am mad. I am upset,” he declared, grasping his microphone and looking out into the room. "Frankly, by the time I'm finished talking, I hope you're mad and upset too."
Ambassador Ford challenged the audience with one simple question.
“We're Americans. When we see evil, do we just look at it and sit on our hands or do we do something?”
The conflict in Syria is confusing. To the average college student like myself, the unrest, refugee crisis, and subsequent crimes against humanity don’t appear as a clear gradient of malevolence. It would be simpler to address Syria and its conflicts as one seamless, overarching problem, but that is not the reality. It is easy-- even comfortable-- to think that ISIS is the sole problem as it headlines the news and every presidential candidate debate. And that, in essence, is what limits our generation’s vision. Many of us are aware of the ISIS presence in Syria, the refugee crisis, and the all-encompassing civil unrest. Many of us know, from media portrayal, or perhaps, inadequate media portrayal, that there is “conflict in the Middle East,” yet we aren’t exactly sure what it is or how to separate each individual problem in order to properly address it.
In interviewing both Smith College and University of Massachusetts Amherst students, many were able to speak about the Middle East in generalities such as these.
They were able to identify Syria as an area plagued by political turmoil, often attributing their information to the headlines that often spot our social media platforms. But, not surprisingly, out of twenty students interviewed, only two knew of the crimes against humanity. Only a fraction was aware of the detention centers, the torture, abuse, and neglect. Only a minority knew of the ongoing slaughters and systematic extermination.
Unfortunately, the evil that Ford prompts us to address is strikingly obvious, yet fleeting for most. Within the panel and gallery display, where the carnage so vividly stains our field of vision and consumes our present thoughts, it is easy to care. In that moment, it is easy to demand change and justice, recognizing the mark of evil. Yet it is when we are back out in the world, living our daily lives, that it is hard to fully comprehend these heinous acts and subsequently raise the issue to the forefront our minds. In order to address the evil, it must first be brought into the light.
But, not surprisingly, out of twenty students interviewed, only two knew of the crimes against humanity. Only a fraction was aware of the detention centers, the torture, abuse, and neglect. Only a minority knew of the ongoing slaughters and systematic extermination.
As college students notoriously accused of limited optics, we are primarily concerned with issues that plague our over-scheduled lives. Our tunnel vision focuses on student debt, and the unclear value of our expensive college degree. For many millennia, societal issues outside of our focus including international crimes against humanity, fade into the background. They are within our peripheral vision, but certainly not within our direct line of sight.
College students are the targeted demographic for change. We are the fresh new faces, both eager and afraid of the adult life we are so quickly approaching. In this swift transition and hectic adjustment into bigger shoes, I challenge my peers to worry about student debt, but worry about Syria too. In the process of grappling with school, loans, relationships, and several other daily obstacles, I urge a broadening of vision. Check for blind spots.
In order to address the evil, it must first be brought into the light.
Understand Syria and the crimes against humanity, use our power as an influential generation to spark change. Attend rallies and protests, but don’t leave your voice behind, entangled in a crowd of thousands of others. Take it with you and leave knowing you will use it to spread awareness and invoke change. Ask your presidential candidates what they will do to address Syria. Ask them what they will do to save the lives of thousands of detainees. Vote on the issues that matter to you, and make Syria one of them.
Hear Mr. Ford’s cry. Seek the evil, expose it. Drag it out from the darkness where it has been hiding. Because if we do not, who will?
Photo: "Syrian Refugees" by Freedom House via Flickr licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0