An award-winning Palestinian photographer from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria has been confirmed dead years after his arrest by Syrian government forces, according to family members and close friends.
Niraz Saied, who was known for documenting life inside the camp in southern Damascus, was arrested by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in October 2015, shortly after being promised a secure exit from the country by the government.
After years of holding on to hope they would see their beloved relative again, family members in Syria’s capital received confirmation that Saied died about 18 months ago, Ahmed Abbassi, a childhood friend and fellow photojournalist, told Al Jazeera on Monday. He was 26.
Saied’s wife, who lives in Germany, wrote on Facebook her husband had been “killed in the regime’s prison”.
“There are no harder words to write than these,” Lamis al-Khateeb said on Monday.
“They killed my love, my husband, they killed Niraz, they killed you my soulmate,” added Khateeb, who fled Syria in 2011.
Abbassi said Saied’s family members believe he was tortured to death inside a prison in southern Damascus.
“After about four months into his arrest, we stopped hearing anything about Niraz,” said Abbassi.
“We tried to learn about his fate with various connections in the government but failed – they refused to say a word when they heard us inquire about Niraz, in particular.
“We knew then that something was not right.”
The Syrian government does not typically issue death certificates for detainees who die inside prisons, or deliver bodies back to the family for a proper burial, the UK-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria told Al Jazeera.
Abbassi said Saied’s parents requested his personal effects be returned to them, but they know it is highly unlikely.
Saied was born as a third-generation Palestinian refugee in Yarmouk, the largest refugee camp in Syria. His grandparents were driven out of their village Awlam in 1948 during the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, referring to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist paramilitaries and the near-total destruction of Palestinian society.
Together with Abbassi and a team of youth activists, Saied witnessed and captured in photos the changing stages of the camp.
Following the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Yarmouk remained neutral until the autumn of 2012, when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command allied itself with Assad’s forces.
Gun battles with opposition fighters ensued over the next few months, followed by government-led air raids. A full-fledged siege was imposed at the end of 2012.
Conditions worsened, with the camp completely blockaded. Its remaining 18,000 out of 160,000 residents were forced to scavenge for whatever food was available – weeds, cats and dogs.
“The siege did not spare anyone or anything,” recalled Abbassi, who recently resettled in Turkey. “For almost two and a half years, not one morsel of food was let into the camp.”
It was at the time of the devastating siege when Saied’s photography skills were truly put into practice.
His images documenting the hardships faced by thousands of Palestinian families living through one of the war’s deadliest blockades appeared in local and international media, including Vice News and Electronic Intifada.
“We took photographs and fed various news outlets with lines of what we saw – from the effects of the siege to on-the-ground fighting and government air strikes,” Abbassi said. “It was our duty.”
As fighting intensified, Yarmouk was reduced to a shell of its former self. Its buildings were destroyed, the main streets – largely devoid of life – were strewn with rubble, the broken asphalt occasionally cracking amid the sound of sniper fire.
By April 2015, Yarmouk came under the control of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
The seizure of the camp, coupled with the persistent lack of food and medicine despite 2014’s partial lifting of the siege and the heavy battles – including between rebel groups – pushed many residents to negotiate evacuation deals, with opposition fighters at one side and government forces on the other.
Saied and a number of colleagues continued working in the camp, but after receiving death threats from ISIL over the summer they decided to accept a political settlement offered by the government, which perceived civilian activists with suspicion.
“This [settlement] was not unusual, but there were some government sources who were fishy and you had to know who to trust,” said Abbassi, adding the deal included safe passage to Turkey and other neighbouring countries.
“When we left Yarmouk our psychological state was destroyed. Our homes and memories and entire lives were in Yarmouk, and leaving was not an easy thing,” said Abbassi, who left Yarmouk at a later date following a similar deal, as he explained why many wanted to flee the country once they were no longer able to ensure their own safety.
After leaving Yarmouk, Saied settled in a rebel-controlled area in southern Damascus, where he kept a low profile.
While nine of his colleagues left for Turkey and eventually Europe, Saied was not able to leave, faced with constant government delays in facilitating his departure.
He began looking for another way out to join his wife in Germany, but on October 2, 2015, Syrian security forces raided his residence and took him to an intelligence branch in Damascus.
Destroying ‘civil society’
Saied’s name was among the most prominent in Yarmouk – and his work struck a chord with viewers far beyond.
In 2014, the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, awarded him with the youth prize for best photograph for his image titled, Three Kings.
The photograph depicted three boys with shaved heads who, according to Saied, were denied permits to leave the country in order to get medical care in Europe.
“Their pale and tired faces tell the story of Yarmouk,” Saied said in a 2014 interview with Electronic Intifada. “But I haven’t been able to see the children again and no one knows anything about them.”
Saied’s footage also appeared in Letters from Yarmouk, a critically acclaimed 2014 documentary he co-produced, while his photos were displayed in exhibitions in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem.
According to Abbassi, Saied’s work, which documented the different stages of the siege from 2012 until 2014, was a threat to the Assad government and prompted it to push for “as many political settlements as possible”.
“They (the government) wanted no one to stay and wanted to destroy the presence of civil society in the camp,” said Abbassi.
’10 out of 100 cases’
So far, the Syrian security services have kept quiet about the number of Palestinian prisoners and their fate.
Ahmad Hosain, head of Action Group, said details about detainees in Syrian prisons – whether dead or alive – are never officially made public. Instead, the group obtains its information from family members or from reporters on the ground.
According to Action Group, at least 527 Palestinian Syrians have died as a result of torture in government jails. At least 1,680 Palestinians are still in detention, and hundreds more are missing, Hosain told Al Jazeera.
Government sources may, on occasion, inform families directly of the death of their loved ones, however, that only occurs in “10 out of 100 cases”, Hosain said. Saied’s family was one such example.
“Throughout the last eight years, there has never been an official way in which families can seek information about the fate of their detained child,” he added.
The act of not returning the bodies of detainees to their families is common practice across Syria’s prisons, said Hosain. Many of these bodies are then “set on fire” in the respective detention facilities, usually to cover up mass killings, he said.
Last year, the United States accused the Syrian government of installing a crematorium in a military prison in order to destroy the remains of thousands of murdered prisoners.
‘Repay owed debt‘
Another prominent case in Yarmouk is that of actor and filmmaker Hassan Hassan, a friend of Saied’s.
Hassan used humour as a means to mock the siege and portrayed the reality of life in the camp by acting in comedic skits. He liked to joke that his grandparents spent their honeymoon ethnically cleansed from their village in Palestine.
In October 2013, he and his wife decided to leave the camp. But he was arrested by Syrian government forces and days later, he died from torture in prison, according to Action Group.
Hassan’s father was informed about his son’s death two months later.
When asked why the Syrian government is targeting critical Palestinian civilians, Action Group’s Hosain argued some in the Assad government expected the entire diaspora in Syria to “repay owed debt”.
“It’s like they expected them to side with Assad since it was the state that welcomed them into Syria, and since it was the state that granted them with many rights,” he said.
At least 3,826 Palestinians have been killed as a result of the war in Syria over the past seven years, according to Action Group.
While more than 1,100 lost their lives as a result of government air raids, others died from lack of medical attention, artillery fire, assassinations, execution and suffocation from suspected chemical weapons.
Action Group said it has for years faced various obstacles during the course of their documentation process, the most prominent of which is the families’ hesitation to speak out about violations inflicted upon their relatives out of fear of reprisal.
By observing the “traits and actions of the regime”, the group has deduced the biggest faction of society targeted by the Assad government is not the armed rebels – it is journalists and humanitarian workers.
“What we saw in Yarmouk made this quite evident,” Hosain said. “Niraz was the one who insisted to show the world the reality on the ground … he believed in what he was doing and considered taking photographs as his duty towards his people.”
Abbassi said Saied will always be remembered for his “calm and humorous” character.
“It hurts, so much,” he said of his friend’s death. “We were living on the hope that we would meet again tomorrow – but unfortunately it turns out that there is no tomorrow.”