Raqqa… The city of mass graves
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Nour Dalati | Diaa Odeh | Reham Assaad | Hala Ibrahim
ISIS withdrew from Raqqa, leaving behind it thousands of proofs of a three-year dark era that ravaged a Syrian town and turned its monuments into ruins thrown on thousands of dead bodies.
A year after the city became under the Syrian Democratic Forces’ control, which entered Raqqa in October 2017, these evidences did not reveal a crime that many parties have connived to cover, and even started to hide the crime without any remarkable reaction.
Under the destruction documented by aerial photos and satellite images, there were dozens of hidden mass graves, containing large numbers of the dead bodies of the city’s residents. These bodies may be important proofs that would reveal the causes of death and the culprits, and thus can open the door to accountability.
However, there are unremitting activities of moving the graves in the city, which warn of attempts to cover up the crimes committed by several parties, most notably ISIS and the International Coalition.
Dead bodies buried under rubble
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimated that between November 2016 and October 2017, more than 2,323 civilians, including 543 children and 346 adult women, were killed during the battles of “liberation” of Raqqa.
The Network’s report, published in December last year, documented 99 massacres during the operations and the arrest of at least 1,896 people, including 33 women and 28 children, by the parties involved in the conflict: the International Coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces and ISIS.
“Initial response” to ten graves
Since the departure of ISIS combatants, Raqqa Civil Council has constantly been announcing the detection of mass graves, especially in the public squares and gardens. With the beginning of 2018, the Council has formed a team named the Initial Response Team (IRT) to find mass graves, transport the dead bodies and identify them.
The Team said in a statement published in August that it had found ten mass graves in the city of Raqqa and it had already finished working in five of them. It had also excavated dead bodies from the rubble in the destroyed houses.
The most notable graves the Team had uncovered include the Panorama cemetery, where the Team has started its work in early October, amid expectations that it includes more than 1,500 dead bodies. The Team had earlier uncovered the cemetery of the Great Mosque of Raqqa, where the excavation of dead bodies was finished in September, as well as the cemetery of Hadiqat al-Atfal, al-Hadiqa al-Bida cemetery, the Old Mosque garden cemetery, the cemetery of al-Jumaili Building Park, al-Taj cemetery, al-Salhabiya al-gharbia cemetery, al-Fakhikha cemetery, the brick factory cemetery, some civilian’s houses in al-Badu neighborhood and al-Rasheed cemetery.
The leader of the Response Team, Yasser Khamis, said that the transfer of the dead bodies from the mass graves stems from a humane act to “honor, organize and bury the bodies in the dedicated graveyard of the martyred civilians in the war at the hands of ISIS.”
Khamis added to Enab Baladi that the Team’s work on excavating and transferring the dead bodies is triggered by health consideration, as the disintegration and decomposition of the dead bodies lead to the emission of odors from buildings and installations and raises fears of the spread of diseases and epidemics.
However, a 2009 World Health Organization report said there was no clear evidence linking the dead bodies to the spread of epidemics, but paramedics who often deal with the bodies are often at risk of being infected with tuberculosis and intestinal infections, in addition to impacts on their mental health.
Perhaps the excavation of the bodies and the discovery of mass graves come as a step to reconstruct the city, especially that the Initial Response Team is affiliated to the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee. The Raqqa Civil Council announced early the formation of this committee to work on the opening of roads and the removal of mines that ISIS left.”
According to Khamis, the Initial Response Team specializes in discovering, documenting and burying the dead bodies in mass graves in numbers and registers of unidentified bodies to be recognized later by their families.
Mechanism of the dead bodies’ transfer
When the transfer of mass graves starts, the bodies are put in special bags in a precise order, with the documentation of anything the body contains, including personal belongings or papers, in accordance with registers that document the place, time and belongings of the body.
Khamis explained that most of the dead bodies are buried in the public cemetery of Tell Bi’a that is located five kilometers away from the east of Raqqa.
“The work is done with the participation of a complete team, in addition to forensic doctors and their assistants, and we document all the information about the excavated dead bodies in official records,” he said.
According to Khamis, when the identity of the body is confirmed by personal evidences and witnesses, they hand it over to their relatives, but in case the body is unidentified, it is buried according to the customs.
Priyanka Motaparthy, Director of Emergency Department of Human Rights Watch, said in July that “there were at least nine mass graves in the city of Raqqa, each of them contained dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies, making the excavation process a difficult task.”
She stressed that technical assistance is essential to provide answers to families and not to harm or “destroy critical evidence that are important for the future justice.”
In a report published by Amnesty International, Motaparthy called the members of the international community, especially the United States, to “support local authorities in developing and maintaining a more accurate system of storing information of missing persons.” She also called on “international organizations with forensic expertise to provide technical support, including the expedition of forensic experts to support operations of identification and the excavation of dead bodies.”
A random process that covers the crime
Despite what the Initial Response Team calls an attempt to preserve the environment and “honoring” the dead in Raqqa by moving their bodies from mass graves and burying them, this process leaves many doubts and fears of hiding important evidences of why and how people were killed. The dead bodies, the places where they were found and their look are evidences that must not be messed up before being feloniously and legally examined in the context of investigations.
These fears were expressed by Human Rights Watch, which stressed in its report, “Mass Graves in Former ISIS Areas,” published in July, the need to support and train the activists who work to uncover mass graves in the preservation of evidence and the identification of human remains
The organization called to further expose the “unspeakable” atrocities committed by ISIS while it was there, and appealed to the international community to intervene and provide support to local authorities.
This support includes machinery and equipments that allow the exhumation of bodies from the rubble, technical assistance and capacity-building of relevant organizations, including DNA laboratories, training personnel, taking photographs of corpses and identifying their identities, in addition to the collection and storage of information in a way that they would be accessible in the future.
The process of extracting and analyzing skeletal remains of mass graves requires experience in collecting information about missing persons, the ability to conduct excavations, and skills in identifying dead bodies and determining the cause of death.
When the case involves violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, exhumation without forensic experts can destroy important evidence and complicate the identification of dead bodies.
According to Bassam al-Ahmad, the director of the “Syrians for Truth and Justice” (STJ) organization, international law treats mass graves as “a crime scene.” Therefore, the causes of death must be considered, whether by the Coalition’s bombing or those who were buried after being detained by the Islamic state, and were killed and buried in those graves.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Ahmad pointed to the need for technical teams, which apply the rules of dealing with mortal remains, because “the identification of the causes of death is essential for accountability.”
How do families recognize the bodies of their relatives?
The Raqqa Civilian Council (RCC) continues publishing the news of the transport of dead bodies by the “Initial Response Team” through its Facebook page. It states with every piece of news that “the dead bodies will be handed over to their relatives after being identified. The unknown bodies will be buried in the cemetery of the martyrs in Tal al-Baya.”
The dead bodies can only be identified by the presence of the families of the dead, which means that the dead bodies whose families have not been able to reach the city or the cemetery will be buried in mass graves.
Dr. Mohammed al-Kahil, former head of the forensic medicine committee in Aleppo, explained to Enab Baladi some mechanisms that help the victims’ families to identify the bodies of their relatives and children.
Al-Kahil advised people who search for the bodies of their children in mass graves to try to keep calm, and said that “the family should not be emotional during the exhumation of the bodies, because preserving the clothing or belongings of the victim is very helpful in identifying them and dispenses with high-cost DNA screening.”
He emphasized the need to be careful in the exhumation of the bodies, and pointed out that “the clothes of the deceased who were buried in mass graves can be very indicative of their identities.” He added: “I once kept a pocket from the coat of one of the bodies for years and it was the way for his family to identify his body.”
The clothing of a person reveals his or her identity whether civilian or military, old or young, man or woman, in addition to other items, such as a ring or a watch.
It is also possible to identify the body from bones, as the existence of an old fracture on the bones of one of the bodies indicates the identity of the person, or teeth, such as the presence of artificial teeth made of gold or other metal.
Al-Kahil clarified that “it is necessary to rely primarily on these criteria to detect the identity of the dead body, especially since the analysis of DNA is very expensive, and is available only in the regime-controlled areas, or outside Syria, such as Turkey. The DNA from a member of his family must also be available, and the degree of Kinship must be significant, so that the two DNAs are compared to identify the corpse identity.
In the war of the Coalition and ISIS…
Most of the victims in Raqqa are civilians
At a time when human rights organizations assert that most of the victims of mass graves in the city of Raqqa are civilians, speculations about those responsible for the massacres differ, even though two main parties are accused: the International Coalition and the militias which support it on the one hand, and the Islamic State on the other, as they are the main parties to the conflict in the Raqqa battles.
Civilians or military officers
In a detailed report published on October 12, 2018, Amnesty International said that more than 2,500 dead bodies have been exhumed from the city of Raqqa since the withdrawal of the Islamic state in October 2017, until the report was issued.
Amnesty International stressed that most of the exhumed dead bodies are of civilians who have nothing to do with the conflict, but they were living on the battlefield. The organization believes that some 3,000 dead bodies are still under rubble or in mass graves, most of whom are civilians.
The Initial Response Team at the Raqqa Civilian Council, responsible for the exhumation, estimates that the total number of victims of mass graves so far is 2,520, and the causes of death vary between burning, drowning and shelling.
Yasser Khamis, commander of the Initial Response Team, said that the exhumed bodies were of civilians and military officers. He pointed out in an interview with Enab Baladi that “the bodies of civilians are known through their civilian belongings, such as personal identity or any personal evidence, in addition to bodies belonging to women and children, which are bodies of civilians of course.”
He said that the bodies of the military officers are recognized through the uniforms and weapons in their possession, and pointed to the presence of bodies of ISIS detainees in more than one site.
There is no exact statistics on the number of civilian and military bodies, but most human rights reports indicate that the majority of victims of mass graves are civilians.
The US-led Coalition admits reluctantly
The US-led Coalition has not denied the killing of civilian casualties during its military operations against ISIS in Syria. However, these confessions are akin to a state of denial because of the difference between the figures the Coalition recognizes and those published in human rights reports.
Amnesty International has strongly accused the Coalition of ignoring the real number of civilians killed in Syria. As such, the human rights organization stated that the Coalition admitted responsibility for the killing of only 100 civilians in Raqqa, and “refused to fulfill the necessary duties it owes to those casualties, despite admitting the fact that the Coalition’s military operations resulted directly in killing Syrians. Such behavior is atrocious.”
Amnesty International pointed out that the continued denial of the US-led Coalition is an “insult” to survivors, demanding its officials to conduct investigations in order to determine the actual number of civilians killed during the operations against ISIS in Raqqa specifically.
The Coalition regularly publishes periodic reports in its official website to specify the number of civilian casualties left behind during its operations in Syria and Iraq. The latest report, released last September, indicated that 1,114 civilians were killed in both countries during the period between 2014 and August, 2018.
It also declared receiving more than 219 reports about civilian victims killed in the course of the US forces’ armed raids, and that 60 reports have been examined in August, noting that only nine reports can be considered credible.
Nonetheless, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has condemned the International Coalition for the death of more than 2,286 Syrians, including 674 children and 504 women, from the start of its operations in 2014 until 2017. The operations under question were intended to back the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in its armed struggle to control of the city of Raqqa.
Air Wars, an organization which documents the strikes of the US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq, said that more than 6,000 civilians were killed in both countries during the military operations, from 2014 until 2018.
The organization works in collaboration with the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths University of London, and consists of a team and volunteers based in the Middle East and conflict zones. Accordingly, the organization aims to monitor and document the killings during the international military air action in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
On the other hand, ISIS denies any responsibility for the victims buried in mass graves, while human rights organizations and activists documented that the terrorist movement conducted public executions in the city of Raqqa during the period of its dominance over the area from 2014 to 2017. As a result, hundreds of people were buried in mass graves during that specific time lapse.
The international law considers the act of deliberately targeting civilians as a war crime, even if they were in proximity to legitimate military targets. But unfortunately, several gaps in these laws have been exploited by conflicting parties. In fact, Article 23 of the Hague Convention states that “during a strike against military targets, the attacking party must be aware not to exceed expected collateral damage in comparison to the anticipated military advantage.”
This article summarizes a well-known international norm known as proportionality, following which the percentage of civilian casualties is measured against military advantage. Ironically, the US-led Coalition has justified the violations against civilians with this specific principle.
Raqqa: The city of Harun al-Rashid is no longer the same
Language dictionaries define Raqqa as “a soft land sometimes flooded by water and other times water recedes.” However, this city which was located for many centuries on the east bank of the Euphrates was flooded in the times of Bashar al-Assad by gunpowder and dynamite, leaving massive devastation behind.
The resort of the Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, and the city of Harun al-Rashid was destroyed during unfortunate times. The city’s most prominent historic monuments were smashed and thousands of its inhabitants were buried as unidentified bodies under piles of rubble.
The governorate that welcomed the Syrian revolution with open arms and sacrificed its history and people for the sake of freedom, ended up as the capital of one of the most radical Islamic organizations in modern times.
Over the three years of ISIS dominance, Raqqa was labeled as a terrorist incubator, in contrast to its past glory and great historical prestige for its unique geographical location and interesting archaeological features.
Being labeled as a source of terrorism is the outcome of the contradictory years during which Raqqa was ruled by different military forces, most notably ISIS in 2014. Yet, before ISIS, the city was seized by other Islamic factions at the beginning of the Syrian revolution and after the withdrawal of al- Assad forces.
2013 was the turning point in the history of the governorate, as it fully got rid of the Syrian regime’s control. Such event came after the takeover announcement made by al-Nusra Front, the Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, in addition to the Owais al-Qorani Brigade and the Farouq Brigades. By then, the aforementioned armed groups captured the governor of Raqqa and the secretary-general of the Baath Party, destroyed the largest statue of Hafez al-Assa, and freed all the prisoners of Raqqa prison.
Before the Syrian revolution, the number of inhabitants of Raqqa was slightly less than one million, according to official statistics. However, after the arrival of ISIS, the demographic structure of the city, which is mainly tribal, changed. Most of the population migrated and they were replaced by Mujahideen from all over the world.
Amid the movement of migrants and the new comers, Raqqa witnessed the death of more than 2,800 civilians during the period between 2014 and 2018, in addition to thousands of locals whose bodies are still under the rubble, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Most of the city’s neighborhoods have been completely destroyed, and many of its historical monuments were also eradicated due to the brutality of war. Since the beginning of ISIS occupation of the city, archaeological sites in Raqqa have been subjected to numerous violations by the various parties engaged in the conflict. Such devastation was initiated by ISIS under the pretext of diminishing cult images which stand as pagan symbols. Yet, the process of erasing the city’s history was carried out by means of the aerial bombardments and artillery attacks led by the Syrian regime and the US-led Coalition forces under the pretext of eliminating terrorism.
In addition to the ruins, Raqqa has been concealing a lot of wealth throughout history as it was considered the richest agricultural land in Syria. The fertility of this land has increased thanks to the three dams located on the Euphrates. The most important of these is the Euphrates Dam, which was damaged by the shelling of the International Coalition, during the battle of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in addition to Tabqa Dam, which was previously supplying the city of Raqqa and Aleppo with water and electricity, and finally Baath Dam (al-Mansoura).
However, Raqqa which is now held by the Syrian Democratic Forces is concealing “mass graves, where corpses were buried along with their secrets, instead of treasures.”
Homs, Aleppo, Ghouta and Deir ez-Zor…
Public transfers and exhumations of cemeteries
The process of transferring mass graves in the city of Raqqa managed to meet half of its target mission, which consists of covering five graveyards out of a total number of 10, according to the Initial Response Team. Despite concerns raised as regard to this process, the pressure exercised by human rights can be fruitful and contribute to preventing concealing the traces of crimes and information that corpses can reveal about the killers and the method of killing.
With regard to this issue in the city of Raqqa, hope, which did not find room in any other Syrian cities and regions, can be transformed into reality. Much of the graves in these cities have been tampered with and no one reacted to stop this, including:
Homs .. The destination of the bodies is unknown
The Syrian regime forces carried out several exhumations of the graves in the governorate of Homs, including ones documented by human rights organizations and others reported by eyewitnesses.
The governorate was the first to witness exhumations of civilian graves. In 2015, the Syrian Network for Human Rights issued a report entitled “Even Cemeteries are not safe,” stressing that on January 22, 2015, the forces of the regime surrounded the area of Manzul al-Rujoub in Bab al-Duraib neighborhood and Sheikh Kamel Mosque in Bustan al-Diwan neighborhood, and imposed a curfew in the area. Then, the forces dug up and exhumed the graves and stole about 20 bodies.
The report, which documented the incident through photographs and testimonies, did not tackle the reason why the regime forces carried out such operation, but rather, it has stressed the unreliability of the settlements and treaties that the regime was seeking to pass there. The destination to which these bodies have been taken was not revealed too.
About three years after that incident, the regime did the same thing, but this time it has targeted the graves of the members of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Homs reported on September 24 that the graves that were exhumed were located in the town of Deir Foul and the village of Izz al-Din in the northern and eastern part of the countryside of Homs, which was held by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham when the opposition factions were in charge.
The correspondent explained that the regime is carrying out such movement searching for weapons on the one hand, and bodies of foreign leaders and members who have been working for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, on the other.
Aleppo .. Transferring bodies following a fatwa
Last April, Mufti of Aleppo, Mahmoud Akam, has issued a fatwa permitting the transfer of the bodies of war victims to other graves.
The fatwa, which dates back to April 5, was leaked through social media websites and consisted of a written letter through which Akam was addressing the head of Aleppo Burial Office and allowing the opening of the grave of the deceased before eight years, which is the period determined by Sharia.
Akam added that Sharia does not allow the opening of graves and that each dead person shall be buried independently, only in case of an urgent need and the body of the dead has been worn. Decomposition of the body in Syria takes about eight years.
This fatwa came about three months after the largest and most obvious transfer of graves in Syria, following a decision issued by the governorate of Aleppo. During this process, some 5,500 “random” tombs were transferred from the eastern areas, held by the opposition factions between 2012 and 2016, to the Islamic cemetery in the eastern part of the city.
In response to the decision issued by Aleppo governorate, Forensic Medicine Authority in Aleppo called all civil society organizations and human rights organizations not to allow the transfer of these graves, except for under the supervision of neutral human rights organizations and bodies.
The Authority’s appeal, issued on February 16, called for “the need to document all transfers according to the standards of documentation recognized at the international level in order to preserve the minimum human rights of the dead persons and their families.”
Deir ez-Zor… Transferring corpses is a “reform” act
In February, the Syrian regime began transferring about 1,000 bodies buried in seven gardens within the residential neighborhoods of Deir ez-Zor, after it had established full control over the area.
At that time, the correspondent of Enab Baladi in Deir ez-Zor reported citizens’ testimonies which confirmed the transfer and stressed their fears that were triggered by concealing the trace of the dead people amid the difficulty of identifying their identity.
Although this transfer comes within the framework of the municipality’s work to repair the roads, clean the gardens and remove the rubble after the departure of ISIS, some residents believe that this move aims to obliterate memory, according to testimonies reported by Enab Baladi’s correspondent.
East Ghouta… Covering up the chemical crime through hiding bodies
After taking control over Eastern Ghouta last April, the regime moved on several levels to hide and obliterate any proof of the chemical massacre it has committed in 2013.
One of these means was trying to transfer the graves of some of the victims who were killed following the chemical attack to prevent any possible intervention of any international bodies aiming at investigating or holding the regime accountable, according to what similar sources in Eastern Ghouta confirmed to Enab Baladi.
Journalist Montaser Abu Zeid, from Eastern Ghouta, confirmed that al-Assad forces and the security branches of the Syrian regime carried out arrest campaigns targeting young people in Saqba, Hamouriyah, al-Marj, Duma and Mesraba. The cities of Zamalka and Arbin had witnessed the largest campaigns. The regime interrogated these young people to locate the graves of the victims of the chemical massacre.
The regime seeks to change Eastern Ghouta tombs in general and move them to the area of Najha near al-Kiswah in Rif Dimashq, according to Abu Zeid.