The faces of the dead in Syria’s unrest
By Babak Dehghanpisheh,
BEIRUT — Sakher Hallak went all out last year during his first trip to the United States.
He visited his brother in Philadelphia, checked out Times Square in New York and even hit Miami Beach.
Hallak, 43, ran a successful eating-disorder clinic in his native Syria, and he had come to the United States for a medical conference. Before he returned, Hallak discussed with his brother the unrest gripping their homeland.
“He told me not to worry about him,” the brother said.
A few weeks later, Hallak’s body was found dumped outside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. It bore the marks of extreme torture.
Day by day, the death count in Syria climbs as headlines mark dozens of men, women and children shot and stabbed in Houla, or entire families killed in Qubeir.
But beyond the numbers, scant attention is paid to the individuals who have lost their lives in what officials with the United Nations have described as a civil war.
Much of the killing has occurred out of the world’s sight. Syria has become, by some measures, the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, and the vast majority of international coverage of the conflict comes from outside the nation’s borders. U.N. observers, meanwhile, recently put their mission on hold, citing the risk.
No one knows exactly how many Syrians have died, but one of the most conservative counts puts the toll at more than 14,000, with others citing figures of more than 18,000. Among the nations across the Middle East that have been convulsed by popular revolts, Syria seems destined to be the bloodiest of the Arab uprisings.
There is no group among the diverse sectarian and ethnic mix in Syria that hasn’t been affected by the violence. Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Kurds, Druze and Christians have all lost family members, in every corner of the country. And the situation appears to be worsening, with world leaders desperately grappling for solutions that remain elusive more than 15 months after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began.
“Every time someone says there is a turning point, the international community still does not act,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the director of the nonprofit Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. “The situation is going to get worse until the international community decides to take action.”
Meanwhile, the conflict claims more victims every day: Dalal Auf, a 15-year-old high school student who loved to draw; Ahmad Sadeq, a pro-government preacher who sermonized against the opposition until he was cut down by bullets at age 36; Basilious Nassar, a 30-year-old Christian priest who taught Byzantine music.
Based on interviews with friends and relatives of these three victims and four others, The Washington Post has compiled a short profile of each. The circumstances of the deaths were checked against a report by the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Both organizations document the violence in Syria and have an extensive network of contacts inside the country.
Together, the accounts offer a window into the human dimension of a conflict in which the names of the dead, and the details of their lives, have been familiar only to the loved ones left to grieve.
When Sakher Hallak, a Sunni Muslim, returned to Syria after his U.S. visit last year, things didn’t go as planned, according to his brother, Hazem. Hallak was briefly detained at the airport and told to report to military intelligence headquarters in his native Aleppo.
On May 23, 2011, military intelligence agents grilled him about his trip to the United States. What was this medical conference all about? Whom had he met? Why had he gone?
He returned for more questioning the next day and assured his family that it was just routine procedure. But on May 25, Hallak, a father of two with a third on the way, was spooked. He asked his mother to pray for him as he once again went in for questioning, his brother said.
Hallak didn’t come home that night, and his family began to panic. On Thursday morning, a close friend called the intelligence headquarters and was able to talk to Hallak, who said he was okay.
A little later, Hallak posted a picture of flowers on his Facebook page and sent a greeting to several friends. That was the last message anyone received from him.
The following day, a motorcycle rider spotted a pair of shoes in a dry creek bed about 15 miles outside Aleppo. The rider went for a closer look and saw a man’s bloody body.
The official autopsy report said Hallak had died by hanging, implying that he had committed suicide. But other doctors at the scene noted signs of vicious torture. His arms, fingers and ribs were broken. His eyes had been gouged, and there were bruises from beatings. There were also signs of genital mutilation and multiple drill holes in his skull. “They drilled him while he was alive,” Hazem Hallak said of his brother. “It’s a very horrific way of dying.”
Even now, Sakher Hallak’s family members say they have no idea why he was killed. They say he was not politically active and did not have ties to the opposition.
His body was wrapped in a white burial shroud that covered the signs of torture before his family was allowed to see him. Two police officers stayed with the family members as they grieved, and the officers insisted that the body be buried the same day.
Hallak’s wife gave birth to a baby girl two weeks after his death. “It’s unbearable,” Hazem Hallak said. “I never thought this kind of pain actually exists.”
Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.
Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.