A Grave of Smoke

On 16 April 2013, in Tadamon, a district of Damascus, members of the Syrian armed forces shot dozens of civilians one by one in a mass grave and then incinerated them. Images of this massacre leaked in April 2022 led to war crime complaints in several European countries. Elias Khoury remembers.

Tadamun, April 16, 2013
Posterization of an image from the video released on April 27, 2022 by The Guardian

Yesterday, I felt like I no longer had eyes to see.

I had been tossed into a pit in the neighborhood of al-Tadamon in Damascus. I had become a handful of ashes.

They led me blindfolded and handcuffed. I walked where they ordered me to. Faster! they said, so I ran, unable to see in front of me. I lost my voice, my eyes were wiped out and I entered the fire that fused me with the smoke of rubber tyres coming from the bottom of the pit.

I want no tomb, for my grave is made of smoke. I want nothing. I am not soliciting sympathy from anyone.

I am the blind man amidst the blind, one murdered man amidst of the murdered. I am merely black smoke rising up from the pit. So I was and so I shall be. I want nothing, and I seek nothing.


These are the words spoken by the smoke, and now I betray the smoke. I betray myself because I have seen and I have read. I betray life because I am still able to breathe. I betray the dead instead of dying along with them.

Were I to tell you that I was unable to sleep, I’d be acting like someone making a fool of himself; even if I didn’t sleep yesterday, I’ll sleep today. Or tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow.

I do not mock you, but rather myself, and my ability to forget. I will forget the massacre of al-Tadamon just like I have forgotten Sabra and Shatila. Just as I have forgotten Deir Yassin, al-Bayada, Tell al-Zaʿtar and al-Damour.

The memories pile up over the blood, to erase the latter before erasing themselves. They turn into mere fleeting moments that we recall when we want to cover up forgetting, by pretending that we haven’t forgotten.

The massacre of smoke that took place in the Damascus suburb of al-Tadamon, this Syrian chamber of horrors whose details were [first] published by the website al-Jumhuriya and videos of which were posted by the British newspaper The Guardian, is the defining symbol of the catastrophic age of Nakbas that we live in.

There is no room for words. Every description of the massacre is incapable of expressing it. All words have become cheap and meaningless. What description is there for graves of smoke?

Massacres killed language, and forgetfulness killed memory.

Today, we scream like those who cry out in their sleep, and are heard by no one. We scream voiceless and throatless.

As I read and watched, it was myself that I asked: How could I possibly live in this ditch that is called my country? How can I walk in streets crammed with the dead? How do I dare to speak in the presence of silence?

I don’t know how I was able to look into the face of the murderer, nor how I was able to stomach the image of his hand carrying the gun that opened fire on the victims. But I looked and I saw. The curiosity about the crime is in proportion to the monstrosity of the crime itself.

Have we turned into monsters? Innocent ones, who watch other monsters as they design their crime like engineers. Is this the destiny we are to be content with? In the meanwhile, we let ourselves be slapped by a memory that awakens and then goes back to sleep. A memory whose only task is to remind us that we are not innocent.

We, the survivors from the massacre of smoke, are not innocent. Because the witness becomes an accomplice, even when he or she mourns, denounces, or repudiates it.

What are we to do with this darkness that has settled in our souls? How can we survive?

The word survival, meaning to simply continue to stay alive, is now the key to understanding the times we live in. How can we survive and preserve our mental and spiritual sanity in the middle of this rising wave of despair and sorrow and a feeling that it is all pointless?

We survive because we forget, but the crime cannot be effaced because it is taking place right here and right now.

We live with the crime, by which I mean we internalize a morality that is immoral. We justify the unjustifiable, reminding ourselves that it is better to be alive than dead.

It’s bullshit. We break down in bullshit. We have no choice. We want to survive because we do not have the right to die. Death has become so cheap that it is nauseating, for it was not enough for tyrants and thieves to make life cheap. They made death cheap as well.

Are we to survive as zombies in our wasteland countries? Or do we recover our voices?

Do not say that the voices have become faint echoes, for these echoes that reverberate in our souls are the voices of the victims. Come, let us recover the silence of the victims so that we may discover our own voices. Let us read the signals coming from the smoke of death that seeps out from the mass graves found everywhere.

The smoke recounts that the crime was not one of an individual, the result of a rush of blood or a quest for vengeance, as claimed by the butcher Amjad Yousef. Nor was it simply pathological pleasure, as the photograph of Najib al-Halabi indicated. The crime was a regime and a system.

Yes, we live in a regime of crime, a regime that resembles chaos but in fact is a comprehensive system calibrated to the rhythm of the nonstop debasement of people. It is not a foreign occupation which has a clear, well-defined plan and implements its objectives with a rationality that is excessive in its brutality and kills for specific purposes. Rather, it is an occupation of another sort whose actions are comparable to those of gangs and mafias, who have no purpose but to plunder, kill and take revenge.

This regime of crime is governed by a single idea: to take revenge on people by giving them a humiliating death. This is what can be summed up by the images leaked by Caesar, which are recalled today alongside those of the Tadamon massacre.

The killers are not mentally ill, nor are they individuals transformed into human monsters; they are part of a gigantic machine, a grinding mill of death that does not cease to go around.

This machine has manifested itself in its highest form in the ongoing Syrian holocaust. Today, it controls the entire eastern half of the Arab world, from the Mediterranean coast to the beaches of the Red Sea, having transformed our countries into one massive graveyard for humans and words alike.

It is a graveyard without gravestones, where smoke engulfs speech. And then, silence.

The graveyard of smoke in al-Tadamon has reminded us that we live at the absolute nadir of ruin, and that we must resist with our hands. If we are unable to use our hands, then with our voices. And if not with our voices then with our death.