BERLIN -- Two secret mass graves outside Damascus contain the remains of thousands of Syrians, many of whom died under torture in the regime's prisons, a New York Times investigation revealed Wednesday (March 16).
The investigation, which led to the identification of the sites, was conducted over several months, the newspaper said. It included interviews with four Syrian men who worked at or near the sites, and an examination of satellite images.
The two mass grave sites are located at a former civilian cemetery in Najha, a town south of Damascus, and Qutayfa, a town north of Damascus.
Najha is a half-hour drive west from Damascus International Airport.
Qutayfa, which houses a Syrian army base, is a roughly 40-minute drive from the regime's notorious Saydnaya military prison. The site is a former shooting range, according to one of the men interviewed by the New York Times.
Each of the grave sites holds thousands of bodies.
As the conflict grew more violent, the numbers of bodies arriving at the Najha site increased, according to one of the men interviewed by the newspaper.
Before dawn, he said he would drive more than a dozen workers to the site, using a permit that enabled him to cross checkpoints.
Large refrigerator trucks meant to transport food brought the corpses from the hospitals -- where the deaths of those who died in regime detention were recorded -- to the graves, he said.
When they arrived, his team would dump the bodies in the ground. Many of the bodies had bruises, lesions and missing fingernails, he told the newspaper, and some were decomposing -- indicating it had been some time since their deaths.
At some points, his team unloaded two trucks about twice per week, each carrying anywhere from 150 to as many as 600 bodies, he said.
The team also received a few dozen bodies per week from Saydnaya prison.
The bodies that came from Saydnaya prison often appeared to be recent deaths, he said, adding that some had what looked like rope marks around their necks or gunshot wounds.
Sometimes, his team dumped the bodies in trenches and covered them with dirt, or stacked up to eight bodies in graves meant for one, he told the newspaper.
A bulldozer driver who worked at the Najha site in 2012 said intelligence officers overseeing the burials told him to dig large square pits.
After the corpses were dumped into them, he told the newspaper, he would roll his bulldozer over the ground, packing it down tightly to prevent dogs from digging up the bodies.
Cover-up of mass murders
In May 2017, the US State Department released satellite images that it said backed up reports of mass killings at Saydnaya, AFP reported.
The images showed the Iran- and Russia-backed Syrian regime had installed a crematorium at the prison in order to destroy the remains of thousands of murdered prisoners, it said.
One commercial satellite photograph from January 2015 showed snow melting on the roof of a building attached to the Saydnaya complex, while another, earlier photo, showed heavy-duty ventilation systems on the structure.
This appeared to support earlier claims by rights groups that Saydnaya is an execution centre.
"Beginning in 2013, the Syrian regime modified a building within the Saydnaya complex to support what we believe is a crematorium," US diplomat Stuart Jones said at the time.
The facility was built in "an effort to cover up the extent of the mass murders taking place in Saydnaya", Jones said.
Inside Saydnaya, up to 70 prisoners were held in cells meant for five, he said, adding that "according to multiple sources, the regime is responsible for killing as many as 50 detainees per day at Saydnaya".
'Policy of extermination'
In a February 2017 report, Amnesty International revealed that the Syrian regime had executed around 13,000 prisoners at Saydnaya since 2011, and accused the Syrian regime of pursuing a "policy of extermination".
"Human Slaughterhouse: Mass hangings and extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria" is based on the testimony of 84 witnesses, including former prison guards, prisoners and judges.
Between 2011 and 2015, the report states, groups of at least 50 inmates at the prison were taken out of their cells every week, beaten and then hanged in the middle of the night in "utmost secrecy".
Amnesty said such practices constitute "war crimes and crimes against humanity".
Speaking to Al-Mashareq's sister site, Diyaruna, in 2017, a former prisoner at Saydnaya who asked to remain anonymous described his arrest in Damascus in March 2011 by Syrian intelligence forces who were deployed in the streets.
He said he was interrogated at a security centre where he remained for a week, during which time he was subjected "to the worst kinds of torture", and was transferred to Saydnaya prison, where he spent close to three months.
Most prisoners were tortured on a daily basis, he said, especially new arrivals who were detained after the start of the Syrian uprising.
"The jailers subjected the prisoners to various kinds of torture and beat them around the clock," he said. "Life had no value for them and death was present at all times, as every hour or so, news spread of a prisoner dying from torture or an announcement was made of his execution."
Since the start of the Syria war in 2011, Iran has remained a steadfast supporter of the Bashar al-Assad regime, providing it with political, financial and military support.
Russia, which joined the war in 2015 on the regime's side, has stymied several efforts to hold the Syrian regime accountable for war crimes it is accused of committing against its people.