It's easy to talk about deaths on a large scale in a civil war like Syria. It's another thing to see the faces of the dead.
A man claiming to be a military policeman recently defected from the Assad regime, and brought with him photographs of thousands of those faces.
For the last three years, the defector said his job had been to document — with photographs — the deaths of detainees. Eleven thousand detainees. Many of them bearing clear signs of starvation and torture prior to their execution.
The policeman and his 55,000 photos were examined last week by a team of experienced international war crimes investigators and found to be credible. The investigators published a 31-page report titled "A report into the credibility of certain evidence with regard to torture and execution of persons incarcerated by the current Syrian regime."
"These were human beings," said David Crane, one of the investigators." They had hopes. They had dreams. Each and every one of them."
According to Crane, they were "starved, tortured, beaten and then killed on the orders of the Assad regime. Their bodies removed into a process, an industrialized process, not seen since Nuremburg. They were photographed and tagged. A report was filed on them, and they were processed out the door and buried somewhere in the countryside."
Crane, the first chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, indicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
He called the Syria photographs evidence of "industrialized killing; systematic killing ... scientifically-proven evidence that we have a modern-day killing machine."
The Syrian government has denied the allegations. But Crane said it will be impossible to refute these charges. "Having practiced as a chief prosecutor of an international war crimes tribunal, I've not seen this kind of detailed, credible direct evidence before."
The report said that the regime photographed and documented the bodies for two reasons. One was to be able to issue a death certificate. But the other reason was less civic-minded.
"When one orders the execution of a human being, they're going to want proof that that killing actually happened," Crane said. "So these reports were processed and forwarded to those who had directed the execution of these individuals as proof that the executioners had done their job."
The report that Crane worked on was funded by the government of Qatar, which openly opposes the Assad regime. But Crane said the team went in with their "eyes open" to any attempt to manipulate the evidence, and were ready to walk away if they were not completely satisfied. In this case, he said, they all agreed that the evidence was easily credible enough to hold up in court.
The Syrian government denies the charges and says that the pictures are either faked, or not from Syria. But the scientists on Crane's team reported that the injuries they saw could not be faked.
Talking about his own ability to deal with all these images of death, Crane said, "this is a tough business." Crane said he balances the horror with respect for each and every victim. And he's proud of the fact that the international community has created a system, "so that we can seek justice for them."