Reports of the “Syrian Network for Human Rights” indicate that 8,648 Syrians, women, men and children, had been kidnapped, arrested or captured by the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-ISIS” during its period of control over areas in Syria between 2013 and 2019; they are still missing until this moment.
ISIS’s concealment of these people was motivated either with the aim of settling the socio-political and cultural ground in the areas it controlled to get rid of political activists and opponents of its control and ideology, or as a result of hostilities against Free Syrian Army groups and other armed opposition factions and soldiers of the Syrian regime army, or as a result of “Invasions” during which he enslaved and kidnapped female citizens on the grounds that they belonged to different sectarian or sectarian groups.
The families of the disappeared lived years of anticipation during the years that followed the launch of the campaign of the international coalition against ISIS. With each battle after the organization’s control of an area receded, the hopes of families and relatives focused on the possibilities of finding their missing loved ones alive in the organization’s prisons and prisons after they were abandoned and evacuated, but none of these hopes were fulfilled. However, the events of the last two years of ISIS control, 2017-2019, resulted in great disappointment, especially after the families learned that liberating or revealing the fate of the disappeared loved ones doesn’t belong to the objectives of the battle of expelling the organization from Syria. Moreover, part of the disappeared turned to be a paper to ensure the safe exit of ISIS members from inside the Syrian city of Raqqa in a shameful deal between the International Coalition, SDF and ISIS.
After the “Baghouz” battle, in March 2019 in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor, which announced the end of ISIS’s territorial control over any geographical spot in Syria, the hopes of the families of the abductees and prisoners of finding them alive evaporated. For this reason, their hopes were directed towards the mass graves left by the organization in the areas of its former control: perhaps those graves contained evidence of the fate of the missing.
However, once again the course of the battle and its aftermath indicated the absence of any will to address the file of the missing at the hands of the organization, while the military operations of the international coalition and the “SDF” created more mass graves.
The operations of the “International Coalition” and the “Syrian Democratic Forces” against the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-ISIS” in Raqqa Governorate ended on October 17, 2017, according to an agreement between the two warring parties requiring the safe exit of ISIS fighters from the city of Raqqa, the administrative capital of the governorate, accompanying nearly 400 civilians as hostages, to ensure that these fighters arrived at their destination safely, according to media coverage written about this event at the time.
The stage of expelling the organization from the city of Raqqa had begun on June 6 of the same year, and this stage was preceded by stages of military operations that ended the organization’s territorial control over areas in Iraq and other operations that expelled the organization from the northern areas adjacent to the Syrian-Turkish border. The military operations at this stage of expelling the organization from Raqqa were accompanied by a tight siege and daily aerial, artillery and missile bombardment of the city. This daily bombing by the coalition and its local supporters, in conjunction with the will of ISIS to keep civilians inside the city as human shields, pushed the city’s residents to follow forced and often random escape routes. However, if the lucky and able fugitives found escape routes through coordination networks between ISIS elements inside the city and “SDF” elements outside it, after paying agreed amounts of money to the members of this network, most of those fugitives improvised exit operations amid the bombing and sniper fire from the two warring sides, which increased the number of civilian casualties.
The hostilities and direct bombardment led to the destruction of about 80% of the buildings of the city; This, along with sniper fire on the outskirts of the city in the last days of the battle of storming it, also led to the killing and loss of about 6,500 civilians from the city’s residents, according to local estimates. This also resulted in having the residents getting out of the city. Later, they began a cautious and gradual return under the supervision of “SDF” to find their homes completely emptied, and to find the decomposing bodies of civilians and other members of the “ISIS” organization spread in the streets and under the rubble of destroyed houses.
Upon the return of the residents, the Raqqa firefighting team began, voluntarily, the operations of removing the corpses from the streets and from improvised individual or collective graves in the gardens and courtyards of homes and from under the rubble of destroyed homes and facilities. None of these graves deserved to be called a “mass cemetery”, either because of the limited number of bodies buried in them or because the identities of most of those buried in them were known, as the residents had to bury their dead wherever they agreed due to the siege of the city and their inability to take the funerals to the official cemetery located outside the city.
With the return of more residents and the decline of the authority of the organization and the decline of the region’s residents’ fear of it, as well as with the expansion of excavations and exhumations, a series of mass graves, truly worthy of this name, began to unfold in Raqqa and its nearby suburbs. In parallel with the discovery of new mass graves, the work of the volunteer local firefighters began to organize, especially after their efforts attracted the attention of the “Local Council” that was formed in November by the “SDF” and the American Organization “Star”. Both of these parties wanted to invest in what they saw as a “success story”, but they each have a different perspective. While the “Star” seemed to want to develop the work of the fire brigade into an independent, professional and impartial “civil defense” organization, the “Local Council” tried to include this group of volunteers under the name “Initial Response Team.” This has really been done, and funding for the Initial Response Team has begun to come from organizations which are mostly American through the Local Council.
This “Initial Response Team” was prompted to open more than 20 large mass graves and a greater number of individual graves and small mass graves inside and outside the city without investigating the factors that led to these graves: when they were formed, who created them, who caused the death of those buried there, what are the possible identities of the victims buried there.
The exhumation was carried out with rudimentary equipment, bulldozers, shovels and axes for digging and exhumation, and rented cars to transport the bodies to new mass graves for reburial. The problem doesn’t lie in the fact that the work of the team was never professional or legal, but it lies in the fact that in most cases it took place in complete absence of the families of the missing and kidnapped and without any regard for the dignity of the deceased.
There seemed to be a will somewhere that the mass graves in Raqqa be erased. While local activists see that it is the will of some countries of the international coalition to absolve themselves of the responsibilities of what happened in Raqqa before they take their hands off the Syrian file, some families of the missing persons link the hurry to exhume, extract and re-bury the dead in mass graves in this area, to the efforts of some coalition countries to find bodies of western citizens, journalists and civil officials, who were killed by ISIS in its prisons after their kidnapping, and were probably buried in one of these cemeteries.
The exhumations of mass graves in Raqqa also did not take into account the issue of pre-mortem investigations, nor did they seek to build a “central database” to take samples from the families of the missing in order to match the DNA in case it was not possible to identify the bodies using their belongings, documents or distinguishing marks that could assist in this in case they were available. This “Initial Response Team” admits that it did not take samples from more than a third of the bodies exhumed.
The common information among those concerned with the mass graves file- among the residents of Raqqa- is that there are graves that were undoubtedly formed during the control of ISIS over the province and that the organization is responsible for killing those who were buried there, such as the mass grave in the Agricultural Scientific Research Center and the mass grave in The Vanguard Camp,” all of which were exhumed in accordance with the unprofessional and illegal method described above. The same team also plans to exhume a mass grave in “Tel Sheikh Al-Khader” in the village of “Al-Salhabiya Al-Gharbiyye”. However, graves, such as the mass grave in Al-Rasheed Secondary Stadium, the mass grave in Panorama Park, the mass grave near the “Taj Restaurant” and a large number of other small individual and group graves inside the city were formed during the hostilities and the siege of the city between June 2017 and October of the same year, so it is likely that the international coalition and the “SDF” are responsible for killing part of those buried there, if not all.
According to the Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS, which has been working closely with the Initial Response Team in Raqqa governorate for the last three years, whether through the Civil Raqqa Council or by communicating with members of this group, the results of the exhumation and reburial of mass graves in this governorate show the following:
- Within the city of Raqqa and in its nearby countryside, the “Initial Response Team”, composed of a day laborer and firefighters, as well as one GP, all unqualified, non-independent and impartial by virtue of his dependence and funding, explored sites of mass graves that were previously known by residents or were somehow discovered, recovered and reburied with rudimentary tools and methods of work.
- The “initial response team” takes what they find in the deceased’s clothes as proof and the doctor writes a report describing his examination of the body. These actions are everything the team does to work on the identification of those killed.
- The “Initial Response Team” transports the exhumed bodies in this way either to the city cemetery in Tel el-Ba ‘a or to an established cemetery near a landfill and reburies them in mass graves or delivers the known bodies to the dead persons for burial.
- The total number of bodies recovered from these graves following the methods and practices described above as of today’s date is 6072.
- The number of bodies whose owners’ identities were identified and subsequently handed over to their parents for burial was only 629. Most of these bodies are civilians; Most of the burial places were previously known by the dead’s parents, either they were the ones who buried them hastily or they were told about the burial places by those who did. These bodies are likely to fall into three categories, depending on the killer’s party.
(a) – Persons killed by the anti-ISIS “international coalition”. They were killed by aerial and artillery bombardment during the siege of the city and the final days of the battle for its control.
(b) Persons killed by the “Syrian Democratic Forces” militia. They were corpsed by artillery shelling during the last days of the siege of the city or by a sniper while they were leaving the city.
(c) The bodies of persons killed by ISIS as they took crossings dedicated to their departure from the city “International Alliance” and the militia “Syrian Democratic Forces” in the final days of the battle over Raqqa in autumn 2017.
- Only 35 bodies were identified and buried by the initial response team at the request of the dead’s parents.
- Next, the number of bodies recovered, whose owners’ identities were not known either because the dead man’s parents did not know where he was killed or because there was no evidence or data to help identify the body, was 5,404.
- So, more than 88% of the owners of the recovered bodies remained anonymous.
Next, it can be concluded that the exhumations and re-burials of bodies from mass graves in this area do not help to uncover the fate of the abductees and absentees by ISIL or others buried in these graves; They also contribute to obliterating their fate and that of thousands of civilians who are victims of the battle to expel ISIS from Raqqa after their bodies were mixed with those of the group’s fighters. Further research on the graves created to bury these bodies may be difficult if not impossible in the future for political, moral, cultural and legal reasons. Moreover, the detection and exhumation of mass graves and the reburial of bodies in this image appear to be a confusion of papers, tampering at the crime scene, altering and obliterating its landmarks.
Given today’s distribution of control over Syrian territory among four major intervening States and the use of local proxy parties contrary to each other and bearing opposing political agendas, and because of the fact that all these parties have records of violations, including abduction, extrajudicial killings, torture and murder under torture the file of missing, abducted and forcibly hidden persons, including the file of mass graves scattered throughout Syria should be addressed in a comprehensive, independent and impartial United Nations approach that takes it out of the irresponsible circle of absurdity and out of the race for donor countries’ funding and from a game “Post-conflict actions” by some of Syria’s conflicting parties to improve their image and strengthen their role in the final solution formula.
- The immediate stoppage of any ongoing work to explore the graves in Syria and the fact that the initial response teams and local councils associated with the de facto forces are sufficient to delineate and protect the graves until appropriate security, political and legal conditions are in place to open them in a professional and legitimate manner;
- Establishing an independent and impartial international mechanism to ensure its work by the United Nations to detect the fate of all missing and forcibly hidden persons and abducted persons in Syria and in all parties. Such a mechanism should express international political will to ensure that all States concerned are involved in the smooth functioning of such a mechanism. Such a mechanism should provide the legal framework for self-disclosure processes, including the opening of cemeteries and the requisite legal procedures and compatibility with transitional justice requirements. This mechanism must also provide the necessary technical framework for self-disclosure, pre-mortem investigations, structural investigations, a central database, sample storage warehouses and testing laboratories, and use professional and impartial professional institutions for this purpose.
- This mechanism must be built on a humanitarian approach that takes the victims’ and their families’ perspective as a humanitarian and moral prominence for its work without dropping the right to accountability and effective redress for victims.
Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS
 – It was reported at the time that these civilians were taken from the “National Hospital” in the city of Raqqa. Local activists speculate that they were kidnapped by ISIS who were held in the basements of this hospital.
– A “mass grave” is often described as a burial place that contains more than one person in number, but forensic and human rights experts require that the site be linked to mass human rights violations, where its victims were killed or arbitrarily executed, which creates an obligation to conduct an investigation.