An illustration by ex-prisoner and illustrator Najah al-Bukai depicts his memories

Syria reveals fate of people thrown into 'slaughterhouse' jails

Updated 12:59 PM ET, Thu August 30, 2018

(CNN)No man will see Huda Halasi's face or hear her voice while she goes through her four-month grieving period. She sits in a side room of her house in Aleppo province, surrounded only by her female relatives. Her eyes are fiery but her voice never rises above a whisper. For six years, she and her family agonized over her husband's fate. His whereabouts and conditions were shrouded in mystery.

Until one day in early August, the Syrian government issued his death certificate.
"We don't know when he died exactly," Huda says to her relative.
Abdul Ghafour Halasi, an anesthesiologist, was arrested in the early years of Syria's war. He vanished into an abyss of prisons and military intelligence centers, and was one of around 82,000 forcibly disappeared people that local and international rights groups demanded the Syrian government return.
Families scrambled to track down their imprisoned relatives and scraped together money to try to secure their release. Much of the time, their efforts were in vain. An old maxim resurfaced about the regime's arbitrary detentions: "Those inside the prisons have disappeared. Those who managed to get out, have a new lease on life."
Syrian artist and painter Najah al-Bukai sits in front of his drawings which he used to document torture and the dead at Syrian prisons.
Abdul Ghafour Halasi was last seen in Saydnaya prison just outside Damascus. Amnesty International dubbed Saydnaya "the human slaughterhouse" in a 2017 report after extensively documenting mass hangings at the detention center.
Until May, Syria's government refused to disclose the status of its unaccounted-for prisoners, and President Bashar al-Assad dismissed leaked photographs of thousands of dead inmates as "fake."
With Russian and Iranian backing, Assad remains in control. And, in an apparent attempt to turn the page on one of the darkest chapters in the country's seven-year war, human rights groups say that Syrian officials released the death notices of more than 800 prisoners over the course of this summer. However, the bodies of loved ones, have not been returned.
"The war is winding down and (the government) is trying to normalize relations with the different parts of Syria as quickly as it can," says Joshua Landis, Syria expert and Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "A big part of that is explaining what's happened to people."
Najah al-Bukai depicts prisoners transporting the dead to mass graves.
With the civil records of some of Syria's missing now marked "deceased," the government could be getting rid of some bureaucratic bottlenecks, and re-instituting government order and processes. The wives of deceased prisoners are now officially widows. Property disputes that hung in the balance because owners were missing can be resolved. The government hopes this will allow people to move on, as the war dwindles.
Documents obtained by rights groups tracking the death notices shed little light on the exact cause of death. The Syrian Network for Human Rights said the death certificates bore "no differences from a death certificate for ordinary citizens who died naturally." In civil records recently updated to reflect the deaths, causes are predominantly listed as "natural," "dehydration" or "cardiac arrests," according to rights groups, lawyers and activists that CNN spoke to.
But scores of testimony, photographs and government documents show the reality is a far cry from this, and that the scale of abuse at Syria's prisons may be too difficult to ignore. But rights groups say that survivors of Assad's prisons continue to stand as testament to the regime's abuses, even as Syria's war draws to a close.

News of the disappeared

Obaid Haj Ahmad believes that his brother, Saad, was 27 years old when he died in a Syrian detention center.
"I continued to follow his news for about six months and then he just disappeared," Obaid says. Saad, a non-violent activist, was shuttled between interrogation centers before being transferred to Saydnaya prison in 2012.
Two years later, a Syrian army defector codenamed Caesar released over 28,000 photographs showing the dead bodies of bruised and battered prisoners with a number on each of the corpses. Saad appeared among those photos.
"I exploded in tears immediately ... my brother took the phone from me, saw the photo and collapsed on the floor. I went to my mother and I told her that Saad became a martyr," Obaid recounts in an interview with CNN.
"I think he died right after we stopped receiving news of him. I'm glad he wasn't tortured for a longer time," he says.
Visual artist and former prisoner Najah al-Bukai was tasked with transporting dead inmates to mass graves. He says the first body he lugged over to the pit was marked with a white card: corpse number 5,535.