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Syrian Defector To Testify Before Senate Panel About Regime's Atrocities

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The civil war in Syria has now been raging for nine years. The State Department says over 400,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have died. Some of the most vivid evidence of the death and torture carried out by the Assad regime comes from a defector. He has made a secret trip to testify before Congress today, and NPR's Tim Mak has the story. And just a word of warning, this does contain some graphic descriptions.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: This morning, a former military photographer for the Syrian government will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For two years, he was given the grisly role of documenting the dead. Ever since he snuck himself and his precious cargo of photographs out of Syria in 2013, he's only been known to the public by the codename Caesar. Here's Mouaz Moustafa, who heads a U.S. nonprofit focused on humanitarian action in Syria.

MOUAZ MOUSTAFA: For two and a half years, Caesar took and collected almost 55,000 photographs of men, women, children and elderly tortured to death.

MAK: Caesar is testifying for his first time before the Senate and only the second time before Congress. He first came to Capitol Hill in 2014. His testimony is critical now, says Moustafa, as the last rebel-held province in the country, Idlib, has been under months of Syrian regime and Russian bombardment.

MOUSTAFA: What's happening in Syria has been the displacement, detention and murder of countless people.

MAK: Caesar has been living in hiding in Europe ever since his escape from Syria, and he's become a figure of conscience. When Congress passed sanctions against the Assad regime late last year, they passed what was called the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act. But Caesar won't be on his own today; he'll be joined by Omar Alshogre, a former detainee of the Syrian government who endured torture and abuse for three years. As a detainee, Alshogre was told to mark and move the bodies of the dead.

OMAR ALSHOGRE: Just the smell when you go in with all these dead bodies and blood everywhere, and there is maggots eating these dead bodies. And it smells so bad that you can't breathe inside.

MAK: It's been six years since his family was able to secure his freedom from prison.

ALSHOGRE: I see these nightmares every day. So when I wake up, wow - I'm alive; I survived. Like, being in the nightmare is the same thing as being in torture physically in Syria. You - having the same, you know, fear. And I wake up, I touch my hands, hit my face, and it's like, I'm still alive. That's the feeling of freedom.

MAK: As the humanitarian crisis continues to grind on in Syria, there's a bipartisan consensus that the Assad regime needs to be punished. The sanctions against Syria passed in December by an overwhelming margin - 86 to 6. Here's Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jim Risch.

JAMES RISCH: We know that there's been just tremendous human rights violations, particularly torture. What we're trying to do is, again, underscore this for the world.

MAK: In the meantime, civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict. In just the last few months, nearly a million Syrians were displaced from Idlib province.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.