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Exclusive – Mass Graves in Raqqa Uncover Post-War Traumas

Exclusive – Mass Graves in Raqqa Uncover Post-War Traumas

Tuesday, 18 June, 2019 - 08:00
Doctors inspect a corpse that was retrieved from a mass grave in Raqqa, Syria. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Raqqa (northern Syria) – Kamal Sheikho
In a field dotted with pine trees on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa, a rapid response team from the Raqqa Civilian Council uncovered a new mass grave in the Fakhikha village holding some 3,500 corpses. Members of the team work tirelessly in digging up the grave from among the thorny weeds and wheat stalks. The grave was hidden underneath a large cement block and the team found the first of the bodies buried some two feet below the surface. They found skeletal remains of one victim covered in a damp grey cloth. They removed the remains and placed it in white and blue body bags.

The bag was marked with a tag indicating an unknown corpse, as well as the date it was uncovered. The team discovered a tag that was attached to the body, identifying him as a fighter, nicknamed “Abu Luqman al-Malizi”, meaning he had hailed from Malaysia. The name of his battalion and his codename were also written on the tag.

The mass graves are a morbid reminder of the three and a half years, between 2014 and 2017, when the ISIS terrorist group ruled Syria. Even though a year and ten months have passed since the group’s defeat in its former stronghold in Raqqa, mass graves continue to be unearthed from beneath the rubble and cement blocks that remain from the bloody battles that were waged to oust the terrorists from the city.

Unidentified bodies

Sand barriers were set up around the 10 acre grave site from which more than 700 bodies have been unearthed. They are likely the remains of ISIS fighters.

Since ISIS’ defeat by a campaign spearheaded by the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), nine mass graves were uncovered in Raqqa alone. They include the “panorama” grave from which more than 900 bodies were retrieved.

Work at the Fakhikha grave began on January 9 and is still ongoing.

Head of the rapid response team at the site, Yasser al-Khamis told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We were surprised at the massive number of bodies buried here. We have retrieved more than 750 corpses in the first section alone. Fifty-one have been identified and handed to their lived ones.”

The second section of the grave is located in the Fakhikha suburbs. Work there began on June 10 and based on testimonies from nearby residents, Khamis estimates that some 3,500 bodies are buried there. The bodies are probably the victims of field executions committed by ISIS against its own members. They also include journalists, relief workers and anyone executed in Raqqa’s squares, Khamis said.

The team has been working on unearthing mass graves in Raqqa since January 2018. The team consists of excavators, a lawyer and forensic doctors. From among the nine graves, the team has retrieved 4,550 bodies, 900 of which have been identified and handed over to their families. The team is set to begin work on four mass graves during the second half of the year.

Despite its modest means, the team seeks to identify each body it uncovers.

Khamis, who hails from Raqqa, explained that the forensic doctor retrieves three samples from each body, assesses the state of the corpse, how the person died and where it was buried. He determines the extent of the decomposition of the corpse, its gender, whether it belongs to a child or an adult, fighter or civilian. He also determines its nationality. The corpse of Asian fighter, he explained, is different than a European one and they can be set apart by the features of the corpse.

At this, he pauses as he watches the number of new bodies that have been retrieved.

“I never expected so much destruction to happen to my city and to see so many corpses, the majority of which are unidentified,” he lamented.

Fatima, 55, has spent days lingering around the Fakhikha grave, waiting and hoping to find out the fate of her husband, an ISIS fighter who went missing after the battle for Raqqa ended. She has rejected accounts about his death.

Fatima, who hails from the city of Aleppo, has made her third visit to Raqqa in 2019 in search of her husband.

“I come here whenever I hear about the discovery of a new mass grave,” she told Asharq Al-Awsat. “I have been heartbroken for years and yearn to find out his fate so that I can give him a proper burial.”

Khamis explained that excavating graves is a complicated process that requires the right skill to dig up the corpse, identify the body and determine the cause of death.

“Relatives seek out our office on a daily basis in order to ask about their loved ones,” he said. The victims could have died under the rubble or by landmines or explosives.

“The majority, however, were killed by ISIS and buried in mass graves. We are working tirelessly to determine the fate of every missing person,” he stressed.

Raqqa is located on the northern banks of the Euphrates River. Prior to the eruption of the anti-Syrian regime protests in 2011, 300,000 people, a mix of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Christians and Turkmen, all lived in the city. They fled when ISIS transformed it into its stronghold.

The team has set up two cemeteries for the burial of identified corpses retrieved from ISIS graves. The first cemetery was set up at the Tall al-Baya area northeast of Raqqa. The second cemetery is new and was set up after the discovery of the Fakhikha mass grave.

Ahmed, 12, heads to Tall Baya as soon as he finishes school. He dutifully heads to his work of digging graves at the cemetery in the hope of receiving some financial reward from the relatives for his efforts. The money goes into supporting his own family. He starts his day at school and ends it at sundown at the cemetery.

Despite the scorching heat, he wanders barefoot among the graves. Equipped with a large shovel and bucket of water, he sets out to his task, which also includes cleaning graves and watering the grass and flowers.

“When a family arrives to bury a loved one, they usually search for a proper burial site, but I would have already dug one up. I receive some money for my efforts,” Ahmed said.

He revealed that he was forced to work at the cemetery after his father lost his job during the Syrian war.

“All that matters is that I am working and earning money. In the future, I will not work as a gravedigger,” he added.

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