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Syrian war atrocities catalogued online

December 29, 2016

Two Berliners have developed a new database to catalogue and standardize video footage of atrocities in the war in Syria. The Syrian Archive was presented at the Chaos Computer Club conference in Hamburg.

Syrien syrische Soldaten nach der Zurückeroberung  von Aleppo
Image: Getty Images/AFP/G. Ourfalian

Two young men working from their homes in Berlin with 3,000 euros ($3,130) in funding have created a database of atrocities in the Syrian war that is being used as a source by the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as lawyers and activists all around the world.

The Syrian Archive (syrianarchive.org), presented at the Chaos Computer Club in Hamburg on Wednesday, has so far documented more than 2,200 illegal actions in the ongoing five-and-a-half-year civil war with the help of a network of volunteers around the world, and especially in Syria, who verify the material.

The database collects raw and frequently gruesome video footage from Syria - often uploaded to YouTube - of the aftermath of airstrikes on hospitals, attacks with chlorine gas, cluster bombs, and other illegal weapons, by all sides, along with a location, date of recording and the source.

The archive can be filtered by various criteria, including types of weapons used, as well as categories drawn up by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria set up by office of the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). These include "arbitrary and forceful displacement," "plunder and theft," "hostage-taking," "torture and ill-treatment," and "massacres and other unlawful killing." There is also a special filter for "alleged civilian casualties from Russian attacks," which already returns several hundred results.

UNO verlängert Untersuchung zu Chemiewaffeneinsatz in Syrien
The archive has already documented dozens of chemical weapons attacksImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Dirani

Vetting sources

Hadi al Khatib, who came to Berlin from Syria in 2011, and Jeff Deutch say the main aim is to make individual atrocities verifiable for future legal investigations, though they hope the database will also be used by media outlets. As they explain, even though there is a massive proliferation of video evidence from Syria on social media across the internet, there is a lack of proper standardization and cataloging, and a lot of footage and the metadata that shows where it was taken, easily gets lost entirely.

Al Khatib and Deutch conceived the archive while working with human rights lawyers in southern Turkey in 2014. There Al Khatib, who does not belong to any Syrian opposition group, helped train Syrian lawyers and journalists to capture video evidence of human rights violations that could be used in court. "Since then I have been working with Syrian civil society - journalists, lawyers, and so on - on training related to how they can keep their communication more secure," he told DW.

The pair has long-standing relationships with certain sources: "We follow the social media accounts of particular people that we've vetted, and then we will download videos every day from those channels," said Deutch. But they are always looking for people in Syria such as "human rights groups, journalists, citizen reporters, lawyers, media offices/agencies and others," as the website's "Join Us" page says, to supply more evidence.

31. Treffen Chaos Computer Club Hamburg
The database was presented at the CCC conference in HamburgImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Heimken

But there is always the inevitable problem of verifying sources in a war zone. That's why they have a vetting procedure, Deutch explains, during which they look at "how long [the new sources] have been reporting on issues, where they've been reporting - we have a list of questions we have to go through - and we look at whether they're familiar to our network of activists, and whether the reporting they've been doing in the past has been reliable." Al Khatib and Deutch also check whether the new sources are actually providing original material, rather than just aggregating footage from elsewhere.

Committed to neutrality

The Syrian Archive is also at pains to underline that it reports atrocities from all actors in the war, though Al Khatib admits that some sources could have affiliations. "They could be part of specific groups, or they could have agendas," he said. "But this is not what we're looking at. We are looking at the visual evidence that they are publishing, so we can understand what's happening in specific incidents, and if it's related to any other incidents."

 "We're taking videos from all sides of the conflict, to try and be as impartial as possible," added Deutch.

The Syrian Archive is already sharing the evidence it collects with the OHCHR in Geneva, and has set up a partnership with Amnesty International's "Digital Verification Corps," a program where law students around the world sift through actual evidence from the masses of digital video footage proliferating from war zones around the world. Over the next year, the Syrian Archive intends to work more closely with lawyers who are building cases in Syria.