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"This was a systematic machinery of death": Syrian eyewitness details crimes against humanity

Eyewitness recounts atrocities in Syria
Eyewitness known as "The Gravedigger" recounts atrocities in Syria in first U.S. interview 00:56

A key eyewitness to Syrian crimes against humanity is speaking out for the first time on CBS News, describing the atrocities he witnessed at a pivotal moment — as the West sounds alarms about civilian deaths in war-torn Ukraine.

"The Gravedigger," a codename he is using because of ongoing threats against him and his family, described in an interview the wrenching details of the Russian-backed assaults on the Syrian population, and said they provide worrying indications of what is to come. 

"I see the news coming out of Ukraine, my heart hurts because I know what Russia has done in Ukraine — what it can do — because I know what it's done in Syria," he said. 

Russia's support has been critical for years in keeping the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in power. The human cost of the more than decadelong civil war has been staggering: United Nations estimates put the number of Syrians dead at 400,000 in the conflict that followed the peaceful Arab Spring pro-democracy movement.

"As far as Putin and Assad are concerned, they should go to the trash bin of history for what they've done in the world," the eyewitness told CBS News. 

Earlier this month, he spoke to committees on Capitol Hill about the heinous crimes in Syria, including the dumping of thousands of bodies in mass graves. CBS News has learned that he also briefed officials at the White House and the State Department. He is working with the advocacy group, the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

In a landmark decision in January, a German court found former Syrian colonel Anwar Raslan guilty of crimes against humanity, based on the Gravedigger's account and other evidence.

"Twice a week, multiple trailer trucks would come and each truck would have upwards of 100 to 400 or more bodies," he said. "They were tortured to death, you could see clearly the signs of torture on their bodies. … This was a systematic machinery of death." 

At one point during the interview, he put his head in his hands, saying one prisoner dumped at the mass grave was not yet dead.

"When the intelligence officer saw that this person was alive, he ordered the bulldozer driver to drive over the body and killed him on the spot," he said. 

He pointed CBS News to a site called Al Qutayfah near the Syrian capital, where satellite images show its transformation from a barren field to a series of trenches. 

"Everything that was going on, the mass graves, were systematic and were part of what the Assad regime wanted to do," he said. 

Watch more of this interview and how Russian President Vladimir Putin's playbook for Ukraine was written in Syria on Monday on "CBS Mornings." 

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