The First Responders Team excavates a Raqqa grave in August. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Civil Council’s Reconstruction Committee.
AMMAN: A grim smell hangs in the air around the battered streets of northeastern Syria’s Raqqa.
“You’d think it was an animal carcass,” one Raqqa resident, Hassan al-Mashadani, tells Syria Direct.
And yet that smell usually means there’s a mass grave nearby, he adds.
Nearly a year after the United States (US)-led international coalition ousted the Islamic State (IS) from Raqqa on the back of a ruinous months-long aerial and ground offensive, countless bodies still remain unidentified in shallow mass graves dotted across the city and outlying countryside—leaving residents with never-ending questions about the fate of their loved ones as well as the hopes for Raqqa’s post-conflict recovery.
The city’s post-IS local authorities are starting to act. Made up of 20 to 30 people, Raqqa Civil Council’s First Responders Team has been tasked with uncovering mass graves, and extracting and identifying the bodies of the deceased, before re-burying them in the Martyr’s Cemetery in the Tal al-Biiah area that lies approximately three kilometers east of Raqqa city.
With only modest equipment and minimal expertise, the group has to identify the dead before the decay of their bodies makes it impossible to tell one from the other.
“Our tools are simple,” says Yasser al-Khamis, who leads the team, explaining that identification is based on assessing the visible characteristics including hair color, clothing or personal items found on the body.
“There’s a file for each body with a name—if there is one—or a number if the name is unknown,” al-Khamis adds.
According to Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW) who has documented recovery efforts in Raqqa, local authorities in Raqqa neither have the equipment or the technical expertise necessary to carry out DNA tests of the bodies. Her research in Raqqa earlier this year found that al-Khamis’ team—contrary to international forensic standards—does not take any photos of the bodies or maintain a digital database of its files.
The First Responders Team only has one doctor who works in the role of a forensic expert though, as a general practitioner, has no previous experience in forensic analysis.
“As far as we know, no international organization has—beyond sharing flyers with this group and having conversations on the phone—provided any kind of training or guidance to this group,” says Kayyali.
The First Responders, part of the Raqqa Civil Council established by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) last year to govern the city after the IS defeat, was originally funded by the US as part of its stabilization and recovery programming. But it has been badly affected by the US State Department’s decision in March to freeze all funds. And on August 17, the State Department announced that it would terminate the funds completely.
“The needs are so urgent, but the humanitarian response to those needs is lagging behind,” Kayyali adds, suggesting that this leaves local groups “between a rock and a hard place.”
The First Responders Team extracts bodies in Raqqa in July. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Civil Council’s Reconstruction Committee.
According to al-Khamis, so far the First Responders Team has uncovered 10 mass graves, in addition to a number of smaller burial sites, containing bodies of civilians either executed by IS or killed in bombardments by US-led forces. The exact number of bodies retrieved by the team remains unknown, but several news outlets reported in July that more than 1,200 bodies had been retrieved since the beginning of the year.
However, with the lack of resources, things are only progressing slowly, and thousands of bodies are still thought to remain buried in mass graves and under the rubble of demolished buildings. And so, residents continue to live with the stench as well as health risks—including leishmaniasis, an infectious disease—emanating from the graves.
“You are surrounded by death,” says local resident al-Mashadani. “You often think [to yourself], ‘Maybe we’re standing on a dead body’.”
Even so, he says, “what scares me the most is that we have grown used to these things.”
Evidence of war crimes forever lost
As Raqqa recovers from years of brutal IS rule, the inability to identify bodies accurately could have long-lasting consequences for the city’s future.
“Much of the evidence for…human rights violations or war crimes is actually in the bodies that are in the mass graves,” Kayyali explains.
When IS captured the province in 2014, and declared Raqqa the capital of their so-called “caliphate,” the group imposed hardline Islamist rule and meted out brutal punishments for people seen to deviate from its ideology.
During its rule, IS transformed the city’s a-Rashid Stadium into one of the central prisons in the region, where it reportedly held people captive and tortured them for even minor offences. The a-Rashid Stadium was the first of the 10 mass graves to be uncovered by the First Responders Team.
But the campaign to retake the city also came at a huge cost for civilians. The US-led aerial and ground offensive that ultimately routed IS from Raqqa last October has also been fiercely criticized by human rights groups for inflicting unimaginable destruction on the city and not taking sufficient precautions to protect civilian lives under bombardment. There are no exact numbers of civilian deaths—however, some human rights groups and conflict monitors estimate between 6,375 and 9,790 were killed during the offensive to retake Raqqa.
“In order to understand what violations were committed in the context of the battle and even beforehand, that would require digging up these mass graves and identifying the bodies in a way that is accurate and just,” says HRW’s Kayyali.
In addition to broader concerns about human rights, the inability to identify Raqqa’s bodies can have palpable legal ramifications for the families of the victims. Obtaining an official death certificate is usually necessary in order to establish property ownership or inheritance rights.
“As long as a person is missing, disappeared or kidnapped, there's very little that you can actually do with their property… or inheritance,” Kayyali explains.
For residents, proving the deaths of their loved ones is crucial for the return of ordinary civilian life in Raqqa. However, the alternative is never knowing what happened to friends, family members and neighbors.
According to al-Mashadani, whenever a new grave is discovered residents flock to the site for answers, fearing that they might find someone they know among the dug-up remains.
“They have no way of knowing the fates of their loved ones is until those bodies are identified,” Kayyali says.
As Raqqa slowly recovers from the destruction of the bombs and the trauma left behind by IS rule, the presence of decaying bodies in Raqqa not only affects local infrastructure but also has a significant impact on the “psyche of the city,” says Kayyali.
“For these families to be able to move on and for the city to be able to move on, these bodies have to be uncovered and identified.”
This report is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.