The Identification of Bodies in Mass Graves in Raqqa Governorate is an International Responsibility

Nearly 4,247 Forcibly Disappeared Persons in Raqqa Governorate Whose Fate Needs to Be Disclosed

The Identification of Bodies in Mass Graves in Raqqa Governorate is an International Responsibility

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) announced in its latest report released today that the identification of bodies in mass graves in Raqqa governorate is an international responsibility, noting that there are nearly 4,247 forcibly disappeared persons in Raqqa governorate whose fate needs to be disclosed.
The report notes that as people began trickling back to their homes in Raqqa governorate after the defeat and withdrawal of ISIS from it in October 2017, mass graves were found scattered across several areas in the governorate, prompting the local council in early 2018, several months after the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ took control of the city, to form the initial response team.
The 16-page report explains that prior to ISIS seizing control over Raqqa governorate in January 2014, the people of Raqqa used to bury their dead in two main cemeteries in Raqqa city, the ‘Tal al Bay’a’ cemetery and ‘Hittin’ cemetery. Among those who were buried in these cemeteries were the victims of attacks by Syrian Regime forces on the governorate after the Armed Opposition forces took control of it, in addition to the bodies of local people who died naturally.

The report also notes that during the battle of ‘Euphrates Anger’ which began in November 2016 and concluded in October 2017, approximately 2,323 civilians were killed in Raqqa governorate, including 543 children and 346 women (adult female),with most of these people killed at the hands of Syrian Democratic Forces and International Coalition forces, with their families forced to bury them in local gardens and playgrounds, as well as within the yards of their homes, because it was extremely dangerous and virtually impossible for people to safely transport bodies to the Tal al Baya’a cemetery, given the military siege imposed by Syrian Democratic Forces, specifically on Raqqa city, especially since the cemetery is located in an open area, making the mourners vulnerable to being targeted by International Coalition forces and Syrian Democratic Forces.

The report reveals that preparation of this report took almost seven months, and that it includes four accounts obtained through speaking directly with eyewitnesses, in addition to other information gained from speaking with members of the initial response team, one of whose tasks is the exhumation of mass graves. This report records only those civilian casualties killed in Raqqa governorate, omitting the demise of Raqqa residents elsewhere in Syria. In addition, SNHR also analyzed videos and pictures that were published online, or sent to us by local activists via e-mail, Skype or social network platforms, as well as comparing satellite images of the sites of these mass graves taken at the end of 2017 with similar images taken in 2013 or 2014. The comparison shows the excavation of trenches where the victims were buried.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, Chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, states:
“The Central Tracing Agency, run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), should begin to assist in the search for thousands of missing persons in Syria, try to identify their fate, and provide expertise and logistical support to the Syrian community and local organizations in this field, particularly in northeastern Syria, after the defeat of ISIS. It is possible that the contribution of international actors in this field can help Syrian society to determine the fate of tens of thousands of disappeared people.”

The report stresses that that most of the bodies in the mass graves belong to victims who were killed at the hands of Syrian Democratic Forces and International Coalition forces following ISIS’ seizing control over Raqqa governorate; however, there is also a possibility that the mass graves also contain the bodies of other kinds of victims who were killed or disappeared. The report summarizes the most notable of these possibilities in the following options:
1. People killed as a result of air strikes by International Coalition forces or as a result of artillery or mortar shelling by Syrian Democratic Forces.
2. People killed by ISIS forces, who buried their bodies in these mass graves.
3. Victims among the hostages who were arrested by ISIS during its battles with factions of the Armed Opposition in areas such as the cities of al Bab, Manbej and Ein al Arab town; we believe that ISIS transferred some of these bodies after killing these individuals and buried them in these mass graves.
4. Members of ISIS who were killed during clashes with Syrian Democratic Forces or as a result of air raids by International Coalition forces. We believe that most of these individuals were buried in al Panorama mass grave.
5. Members of Syrian Regime forces who were arrested by ISIS and then executed.
6. Civilians or fighters arrested by Syrian Regime forces or subsequently by factions of the Armed Opposition during the consecutive periods when each controlled the area one after the other, or others arrested by ISIS, who subsequently disappeared and whose fate has not been revealed to date.
In addition to the above, the mass graves also contained the bodies of civilians who died of natural causes, as well as the bodies of premature babies who died after birth.

The report includes the toll of civilian victims killed in Raqqa governorate, providing some sense of the magnitude of the human catastrophe suffered by the governorate. According to the report, the toll of civilian victims killed in Raqqa governorate at the hands of the parties to the conflict from March 2011 to March 2019 reached 4,823 civilians in total, including 922 children, and 679 women (adult female).

According to the report, the Syrian regime killed 1,829 civilians, while Russian forces killed 241 civilians, ISIS killed 942 civilians, and factions of the Armed Opposition killed three civilians, with another 308 of the civilians killed at the hands of Syrian Democratic Forces, and 1, 133 civilians killed by International Coalition forces, while at least 367 civilians killed at the hands of other parties.

The report reveals that at least 4,247 of the persons from Raqqa governorate categorized as disappeared, including 219 children, and 81 women (adult female), are still listed as forcibly disappeared at the hands of the main parties in Syria from March 2011 to March 2019, including 1,712 persons who have been disappeared at the hands of Syrian Regime forces, 2,125 at the hands of ISIS, 288 at the hands of Syrian Democratic Forces and 122 at the hands of factions of the Armed Opposition.

The report also stresses that the initial response team needs logistical support and other forms of expertise due to the multiple challenges the team faces in its work in research and exhumation, most notably the significant delay in demining operations in various areas in Raqqa governorate, which has severely hampered the ability to have safe access to mass graves, noting to the deaths of 229 civilians as a result of the explosion of mines in Raqqa governorate between October 2017 and March 2019.
The report also notes that the biggest challenge facing the team is that it has only manual and rudimentary excavation equipment and lacks any expertise in exhumation and transportation of bodies without destroying forensic evidence, in addition to a severe lack of specialist forensic pathologists, and of a specialist laboratory or other facilities available which the working team could use to collect and store samples taken from the exhumed bodies (such as bones, hair and teeth) for documentation in archived records so that corresponding samples can be taken from families and DNA tests can be conducted for comparison and matching.

Having reviewed several copies of the reports issued by the initial response team documenting the exhumation process, the report describes these as weak, explaining that they lack any additional information or details of distinguishing marks, even failing to attach photographs of each victim’s clothing and possessions found near his or her body that could help in identification.

The report points out that Rule 113 of Customary Humanitarian Law provides that ” Each party to the conflict must take all possible measures to prevent the dead from being despoiled. Mutilation of dead bodies is prohibited “, while Rule 115 states that ” The dead must be disposed of in a respectful manner and their graves respected and properly maintained “. It is vital in all cases to ensure that the remains of the deceased can be identified, which is simultaneously a humanitarian, judicial and social issue.

The report stresses that customary international humanitarian law, in Rules 112-116, provides for special measures in the processes of searching for dead persons, preventing the pillaging of their bodies and prohibiting their mutilation. Also, the 1977 Additional Protocol to the four Geneva Conventions (Protocol II) notes in Article 8 the need to search for the dead. There are also binding general rules, such as the prohibition of assault on personal dignity and inhuman treatment.

The report further states that the process of transporting bodies to the main graves without taking samples of bone or hair remains problematic, and the absence of a specialized team of forensic doctors with extensive professional experience in this field may expose the sites of mass graves to unintentional pollution, all of which is considered potentially distorting and damaging to evidence, making it difficult for future identification of the bodies, and leaving tens of thousands of families in a state of fearful suspension about their ‘disappeared’ loved ones’ whereabouts.

The report notes that the de facto local authorities, the Syrian Democratic Forces, have apparently failed to take all possible measures to ensure that this process is carried out in such a way as to ensure the preservation of evidence and the preservation of the victims’ rights and to identify the perpetrators of such violations if they occur, as well as showing little sensitivity to the extent of damage and violence suffered by the governorate. The military forces in control bears the main and direct responsibility for all these acts and their consequences.

The report calls on International Coalition forces to provide more logistical and material support to help in the exhumation process and put pressure on Syrian Democratic Forces to allocate a larger proportion of material resources in this regard, so that this process is not later deemed to be mismanagement of the remains and forensic mishandling, and to take all possible measures to protect bodies and make every effort to identify the dead and provide appropriate burial in clearly marked graves.
The report stresses that it is necessary to establish a laboratory where samples taken from the bodies can be collected to compare these with samples from the families of missing persons and to help to establish a central general register of missing persons, as well as to contribute to accelerating the demining process, which would have a significant positive impact on the return of civilians to Raqqa city and on the exhumation process.
The report further calls on the OHCHR to highlight the issue of mass graves, follow up the process of excavation and exhumation of bodies, and issue a report clarifying its position on these operations and make recommendations to the UN Security Council to make progress in this field in order to reveal the identity of tens of thousands of missing Syrians.

The report also recommends that the International Committee of the Red Cross should visit Raqqa governorate and contribute expertly to the process of assisting in exhumation, preservation of criminal materials and prevention of the exposure of burial sites to pollution.

In conclusion, the report calls on the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) to conduct a training workshop for the local initial response team, to provide them with the necessary consultation and expertise, and to make every effort to help identify the missing and disappeared, which will enhance the process of transitional justice in Syria, as well as to assist in the work of the Central Tracing Agency to ensure a greater ability to search for the disappeared in Syria as soon as possible.