Beirut, Lebanon – The past nine years for the Palestinian-Syrian Siyyam family have been painful; praying they would see 42-year-old Wassim again after he went missing on April 14, 2013.
Last week, the family recognised Wassim Siyyam in a leaked video filmed just two days after they last saw him.
A Syrian intelligence officer in military garb orders Siyyam, blindfolded with his arms tied behind his back, to run forward. As he runs, the officer shoots him. He groans in pain and tumbles into a pit filled with 41 other assassinated men.
It was a massacre in the Damascus neighbourhood of Tadamon, just a 10-minute drive from the Yarmouk camp where the Siyyam family lived.
A horrified military recruit filmed the vicious incident and leaked the video after fleeing war-torn Syria. It shows intelligence officers of the infamous Branch 227 smiling and laughing as they assassinate the men before pouring gasoline over their bodies in the pit and setting it ablaze to hide the evidence.
“We weren’t sure it was Wassim when we first saw the video. We would zoom in to try and see if we could recognise him,” his sister Tasnim told Al Jazeera, her voice trembling.
“But then my father recognised him by the way he walked, mother recognised him by his body shape, his hair and the pants he wore, and I knew it was him when I heard his voice.”
Wassim Siyyam, a father of two who sells concrete blocks, went missing after delivering a load to the Internal Trade and Consumer Protection Ministry, his family told Al Jazeera.
The chilling footage explicitly reveals gruesome crimes that Syrian activists and international human rights organisations have accused the Syrian government and its allies of committing in the country’s uprising turned-civil war. Over the past 11 years, an estimated 500,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.
Syria today is reeling from a crippling economic crisis, while President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus remains in power with military support from Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.
Tasnim, Wassim’s parents, his two adolescents daughters, and extended family left Yarmouk a few years after he disappeared, reuniting in Frankfurt, Germany, with brother Khalid who left early on in the conflict. Just weeks before the family saw the footage of Wassim’s assassination, his daughters asked Tasnim if she thought they would ever see their father again.
Wassim, Tasnim, and their father left Yarmouk camp on April 14, 2013, not knowing it would be the last time they would see each other. The Palestinian district at the time was reeling from a vicious conflict and siege between Syrian government forces and allies, and the opposition Free Syria Army.
“That morning we agreed we would all return to the camp together just before noon, but he never showed up. At 12:30pm we were waiting for him at the camp’s checkpoint, and when my father would call him, Wassim would just quickly say, ‘I’m on my way, I’ll call you back’ and hang up.”
That was the last time they heard from him.
Fifteen minutes later, Tasnim and her father tried to call Wassim again, but this time his phone was switched off. At 2pm, they walked back into the camp without him before the Syrian army and opposition factions closed off the checkpoints.
The family searched for Wassim. “My mother even called all the security branches,” Tasnim recalled. “When she called the ministry where Wassim had delivered the load of concrete blocks, they said he arrived and left.”
There were some glimpses of hope for the family that Wassim was still alive. In 2014, his father saw the car Wassim used to make his deliveries. “It was with the regime’s republican guards, and the license plate was stripped off,” Tasnim said. “We even recognised the dent on the side from an accident he had.”
Wassim’s parents were too distraught to speak when Al Jazeera contacted them. His brother, Khalid, who over the years posted photos of Wassim on his social media accounts, praying he would be safe and sound, is still outraged.
The family says Syrian officers would tell them Wassim was alive and well, but would only help if the Siyyams paid them. After a while, they gave up and reunited with Khalid in Germany.
“They blackmailed us with 4 million Syrian liras [$7,500],” Khalid said. “But we realised we couldn’t fall deeper into this extortion trap. May Wassim rest in peace, he was such a hard worker like the entire family.”
More than 100,000 Syrians are missing, according to advocacy groups, including tens of thousands of children. The Syrian government holds the majority of them, but many families await the fate of missing loved ones who ISIL (ISIS) and other armed groups detained.
Ahmad Primo, Syrian journalist and founder of fact-checking platform Verify, based in Turkey, said mobile phone footage of atrocities has been used to spread misinformation but is also evidence of possible crimes that can be used for victims seeking justice.
“The Syrian regime over the past 11 years has done everything it can to cover up its atrocities – as have other groups in the conflict,” said Primo. “This footage could be used in opening cases for accountability, perhaps not now but maybe in the future.”
In the meantime, the family is trying to comprehend how Wassim’s life could have ended so viciously. Tasnim said she and her family are not just thinking about Wassim but about all the other men she saw killed in the video, and other victims of the conflict.
“This isn’t just about my brother or Palestinians in Syria, it’s about everyone,” she said. “It’s beyond savagery. God cannot create a more vicious regime.”