A new exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers a grisly reminder of the toll the Syrian civil war has taken on its victims. But it also could raise questions about why the United States is not taking a stronger stand against the Syrian regime at the same time as the U.S. government focuses on fighting the Islamic State.
The exhibit, “I had the job of taking pictures of the dead,” opened Oct. 15. It is a slide show of eight photos taken by a Syrian military photographer who smuggled the photos out of Syria and defected in July. The exhibit items are among 27,000 photographs that the man, only known by his code name, Caesar, took of what he said are tortured dissident victims of the Syrian regime.
The photos, also accessible as a slideshow on the museum’s website, depict burned and emaciated bodies. Some images show corpses laid out on a warehouse floor. Each corpse is tagged with the name or identifying number of the victim and the Syrian agency that carried out the arrest and execution, according to the exhibit.
The U.S. State Department and the FBI are examining the photos, which the Syrian government has denounced as fakes. Human rights groups and some U.S. officials believe the trove is evidence of war crimes charges against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, according to Yahoo! News.
Most of the photographs are close-ups that show the effects of torture on the victims. But the museum also selected shots that showed the “mechanized and industrial scale,” of the government operation, said Cameron Hudson, director of the museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “They were being processed in some manner.”
This “organized and methodical approach,” reminiscent of the Holocaust, “made it different from other kinds of conflicts,” he said.
The exhibit opens as the United States has increased its air offensive against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Some critics point out that any weakening of the Islamic State means strengthening Assad, whose four-year fight against his own people has led to 170,000 deaths and created 3 million refugees.
Hudson said the museum does not come down on the politics of the moment.
“Our intent was not to make a political statement,” he said. “This is a bit opportunistic for us. Caesar came to us with the photos as an eyewitness to these events. We as a museum look at the role of the witness to these crimes. We were compelled by the power of the witness.”
Is Never Again a hollow slogan?
“No. Never again is an aspiration. It’s an incredibly high bar. We’re trying to remind the world that genocide didn’t end with the Holocaust. Never again has not been achieved.”