Reconstruction Should not Demolish Justice: Recovering the Bodies and Burying the Evidence in Raqqa

Syrian journalist and Syria correspondent for Reporters Without Borders

Syrian journalist and Syria correspondent for Reporters Without Borders

By Mansour Omari

In August 2017, Saudi Arabia said it contributed $100 million for “stabilization projects” in Northeast Syria, in areas that were controlled by ISIS and, now are controlled by US backed forces. The UAE also pledged $50 million.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington said the money “will save lives, help facilitate the return of displaced Syrians and help ensure that ISIS cannot reemerge to threaten Syria, its neighbors, or plan attacks against the international community”, according to CNBC.

However, there is one decisive factor that is missing from this supposedly well-made plan, turning it into wishful thinking.

The human “collateral damage” in the war on ISIS, are the victims whose lives were sacrificed to root out ISIS from among civilians and civil objects, including those who were used by its fighters as human shields. Those “accidental causalities” are forgotten, and their families are not redressed.

As the Saudi reconstruction plan seems to be running in leaps and bounds, ignoring the victims’ families’ rights widens its loophole and empty those “beautifully” stalked words “ISIS cannot reemerge to threaten Syria, its neighbors, or plan attacks against the international community” from their meaning.

Addressing injustices is essential in winning-hearts-and-minds strategy. However, leaving them unaddressed undermines the ideological fight against extremism and provide ISIS with one of its favourite recruiting tools.

So, what is the story behind underestimating the rights of victims of ISIS and the war against it. Is not it supposed that we are all against ISIS, and we want to expose its crimes and provide justice to its victims? Did not Iran kill many civilians with its “dump” missiles? Did not Putin confess he killed a hundred thousand “terrorists” in Syria (many of them were innocent civilians)? Is not it true that the US declared a specific number of civilian casualties the Coalition Against ISIS killed unintentionally?

This plan and declaration should include real steps to remedy the victims’ families.

Raqqa city is among those areas that were controlled by ISIS. Mass graves and bodies in the rubble have been unfolding in this city of since the expulsion of ISIS. Most recently, about 1,500 bodies were found in the Panorama area in Raqqa, including the bodies of more than 300 male children. Al-Raqqa has become a synonym with the term “mass graves.” Whenever you search Google for “Raqqa” it suggests “mass grave” and vice versa.

The city suffered long control by ISIS, during which the terrorist organization committed massacres and mass atrocities that words fail to describe their ugliness, targeting innocent civilians, media activists, medics and others.

Raqqa has witnessed the war of liberation from this obscurantist epidemic called ISIS, and its fierce battles included aerial and artillery bombardment, and the use of human shields by ISIS. These battles have left many dead, including civilians with large numbers of children and women. Their families have the right to demand justice and redress.

The “First Response Team”, local groups, in Raqqa are making great efforts to recover and document the bodies that appear in the mass graves in the city and in the rubble of the destroyed buildings. The team also appeals to families to give any information about the victims or their loved ones to recognize them, via a Facebook page with too limited outreach.

This appeal does not meet the conditions of a fair process of informing and reaching the families. There should be a plan to publish and to reach as many families as possible, throughout all of Syria and not only in Raqqa. The victims’ families and the kidnapped are from different regions of Syria.

Among the mechanisms of outreach to families, is announcing the appeal to the families of the victims of ISIS through radio programs, printed newspapers or TV channels, to reach the largest possible number of Syrians.

The response team also recover the bodies from the rubble of the destroyed buildings. This destroys the evidence on the crime or the cause and how the victims were killed. The dead bodies and their specific location and situation are evidence that should not be tampered with prior to forensic and legal examination in the context of investigations.

An investigation should be opened each time bodies are found, especially in places other than mass graves, to determine the causes of death of the victims and those responsible, in order to achieve justice. It is very important to employ teams of evidence experts, to find out why and how the victims were killed, to document them, and to claim compensation for the families of the victims.

Mass graves may contain the victims of ISIS who kidnapped and slaughtered, or those killed by air strikes or artillery, and dumped there by ISIS. But other places, such as destroyed buildings, may contain civilians who have been unintentionally killed by air raids or indiscriminate shelling, which entitles their families to demand accountability and compensation from the perpetrator or responsible for these military operations, states or groups.

A part of the funds provided for the reconstruction of Raqqa must be allocated to support the First Response Team’s efforts to reach the victims’ families, and to open investigations to find out who is responsible for the killing of innocent people. I do not think the efforts to bring Raqqa and its people back to normal life, would include organized or unintended practices to conceal evidence of war crimes or other violations, depriving the victims of their rights and denying them the right to justice, by recovering the bodes and burying the evidence.

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