RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The death toll in Syria's civil war has reached more than 170,000 - a number compiled by human rights monitors. There have been indiscriminate shelling, barrel bombs dropped by helicopters, evidence of chemical weapons. Now there are allegations of torture and killing of political prisoners and, apparently, evidence in the form of thousands of pictures. The man who says he took those pictures worked as a military police photographer for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The photographer defected last year. NPR's Tom Bowman joined him at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., where he screened some of those images which, we caution you, are disturbing.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The pictures are horrific. Faces appear then fade, one after another, during a brief film created by Syrian activists. The victims bear the marks of beatings and torture - eyes gouged out. Burn marks are deep wounds. Each corpse has a number next to it on a white card. In some pictures, there are more than a dozen bodies, naked in the dirt. A narrator describes it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: There are children, under the age of 18, starved to death.
BOWMAN: He said children, starved to death. The man who took many of these pictures is slight and he's wearing a baseball cap and large tinted glasses. He goes by the name Caesar to protect his identity. He also didn't want his voice to be recorded, so we hear his translator - an advocate for the Syrian opposition. Caesar recalls a time when his job was normal.
CAESAR: (Through translator) I used to take pictures of regular accidents - somebody drowns, there's a burning building, something like that. That was my regular routine.
BOWMAN: He said there were occasional photos of dead prisoners - that number quickly grew to dozens and then hundreds, as opposition to Assad intensified.
CAESAR: (Through translator) I've never seen anything like this in my life. There are pictures of children. There are pictures of the elderly. And there's a picture of a woman. And at times, I would actually see pictures of my own neighbors and some people from my own village.
BOWMAN: He says he wanted to keep records so families would know what happened. But he never contacted anyone.
CAESAR: (Through translator) I was terrified. I couldn't reach out to any of them.
BOWMAN: Eventually, Caesar says his conscience couldn't bear the work. He contacted a member of the opposition, saying he wanted to defect. He was urged to stay and collect evidence. Caesar says he began smuggling out thumb drives of the pictures he took with a team of photographers, between the fall of 2011 and the summer of 2013. Some 55,000 photographs of nearly 11,000 people - all photographed at a military facility in Damascus. The Syrian regime says the pictures are fake, but an international team of investigators authenticated them. And now the FBI is examining the pictures, too. Stephen Rapp is a State Department's lead official on war crimes. He told NPR, back in May, that he has seen hundreds of these pictures.
STEPHEN RAPP: This represents killing on an industrial scale - but not just killing, the most gruesome sorts of acts. It's like the Nazis keeping track of the people that they've killed in the Holocaust. We're talking here about a volume of material that's almost impossible to imagine that it could be created out of whole cloth.
BOWMAN: Rapp says these pictures, should they be authenticated by the U.S., could be used as a basis for war crimes charges against members of the Syrian regime.
RAPP: It may not happen immediately. But that expectation is there.
BOWMAN: The man who translated for Caesar is Mouaz Moustafa with the Syrian Emergency Task Force. That's a nonprofit group seeking support for the moderate Syrian opposition. He hopes the pictures and Caesar's visit here will focus attention on what's going on inside Syria.
MOUAZ MOUSTAFA: There needs to be pressure from all the free world and the international community. In modern history, we see quite a few never again moments that have happened. And in here, not only do we see a never again moment, but we see a never again moment that is - continues to this day, while we all sit here.
BOWMAN: So far, the Obama administration has slowly been increasing military support for the Syrian opposition. But they're still seeking congressional action to do more. Meanwhile, Caesar is scheduled to hold private meetings this week with lawmakers, State Department officials, as well as the FBI, who want to learn more about those pictures. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.