Mass graves… Recounting tragedies of war in Raqqa

Mass graves… Recounting tragedies of war in Raqqa

Reports | 25 05 2020

With all the possible ways, Umm Abdullah, a woman from Raqqa, made efforts to reach the dead body of her brother, who was killed during the fighting in the city against ISIS that held control over the city until October 2017.

Umm Abdullah, who was trapped with her brother in the Bedouin neighborhood of northern Raqqa under intense air force shelling and bombs, said she was hanging on to her brother for her extreme fear from the bombs in mid-October 2017.

Shortly before sunset, a mortar bomb was dropped near them, throwing the shrapnel in her brother's chest and killing him immediately. "After my brother died, good people helped me bury him in one of the Arab houses of the Bedouin neighborhood. I was then able to flee the city. In July 2018, I returned to Raqqa to recover my brother's dead body and bury him in a proper way so that he can have a tombstone and a witness on his death," Umm Abdullah added in an interview with Rozana.

The quest the woman started ended with an unexpected surprise. When she arrived at the house in which, according to confirmed information, her brother's dead body was, she discovered that it turned into a large mass grave that contained 14 graves spread around, and where 30 unidentified dead bodies were buried, making it impossible for the forensic team at Raqqa to recognize the dead body of the lady’s brother.

However, Umm Abdullah insisted on identifying the dead body of her brother through the color of the clothes he was wearing (coffee-colored clothes), and confirming the place of his burial.

On August 2, 2018, the page of the Reconstruction Committee of Raqqa Civil Council published a video entitled "Grave House" showing Umm Abdullah as looking for her brother’s dead body at the house. The video shows at then how Mrs. Umm Abdullah sadly and bitterly bade her brother goodbye, when they put his dead body in the ambulance and waved her hand at the ambulance, crying, and saying "Goodbye dear!.”

Many families have not been able to get out of the hell of battles in Raqqa and stayed until the end, to be later hit by the tragedies of the mass graves in the city, after being uncovered successively.

Sadly and bitterly, Mazen remembers his relatives from al-Badran family in Raqqa, from which entire families had been killed as a result of the International Coalition Air Force strikes on Raqqa during the battles against ISIS in the summer of 2017.
Mazen al-Khidr, 36, a cousin of al-Badran family, told Rozana how International Coalition aircrafts killed 42 of his relatives, “most of whom were women and children.” “None of our cousins has remained. The war took most of them. They had tried to flee from Raqqa when the battle started but could not. Each time they tried to escape ISIS prevented them from doing so."

Mazen added that, in the middle of July 2017, the family fled into the city of Raqqa as a result of heavy bombing. The first part of the family went to Nazlat Shahada neighborhood and another part was displaced to Harat al-Sakhani in Moataz Street. On one terrifying night, International Coalition aircrafts bombed the house where the family was hiding in Nazlat Shahada neighborhood, killing the first group of the family of ten people.

He continued: "The bombing was random and caused the death of thousands of residents, women and children. On August 20, 2017 International Coalition fighter aircrafts bombed Harat al-Sakhani, killing the rest of al-Badran family in Raqqa."

Mazen went on by saying:, "After the withdrawal of ISIS and the Kurds' control over Raqqa, we returned to retrieve their dead bodies from the rubble. We buried them in the cemetery of Tell Bi'a, and while searching for their dead bodies under the rubble, we found a cell phone of one of the family’s girls containing a video clip, which she filmed during the siege, showing women from the family making bread in the Tandoor in a primitive way to fill their hunger."

Amnesty International published a video documenting al-Badran family’s tragedy in June 2018. In a report released in April, Amnesty International reported that 1,600 civilians were directly killed by the US-led Coalition air strikes on Raqqa during battles of the city’s recovery from ISIS.

The organization called on the Coalition to stop the denial that has lasted for nearly two years on the number of civilian deaths and the great destruction it inflicted on the city of Raqqa.

More mass graves discovered

Although more than a year and a half has elapsed after the end of the war and the withdrawal of ISIS from Raqqa, mass graves continue to be consecutively discovered in the city and its countryside. 16 mass graves have been discovered, of which more than 4,500 corpses were recovered, according to the Initial Response Team, which is in charge of dead bodies’ exhumation and burial.

On the ground of al-Talai' military camp, which is located in the south of the Euphrates River and three kilometers away from the south of the city of Raqqa, a mass grave containing the remains of civilians, journalists, and activists executed by ISIS was found, said Yasser al-Khamis, leader of the Initial Response Team.

The Initial Response Team started on June 10 working on the exhumation of dead bodies from the mass grave of al-Talai' military camp. About the issue, al-Khamis told Rozana that the grave, from which they are currently working on the retrieval of the dead bodies, is different from the other graves, as it consists of holes, each one containing more than 10 dead bodies.

"Most of the dead bodies recovered from the mass graves in Raqqa are “unidentified”. About 1,000 out of a total of 4500 dead bodies were of ISIS armed men. This is discovered through their clothing, military equipment or identity documents. We bury all the dead bodies, whose relatives are unknown, in the cemetery of Tell Bi'a and another cemetery near al-Shamiya Mountains in the village of al-Kasrat in the south of Raqqa."

The Syrian Democratic Forces took full control of the city of Raqqa on October 17, 2017 after fierce nearly 100-day battles with ISIS.

Mass graves were formed in the city during the battles, for the families were unable to bury their loved ones once killed because of the shelling and fighting between the two parties in the two main city graveyards due to the violent clashes and raids. Instead, their bodies were buried in public gardens, parks, playgrounds, and houses.

Searching for relatives inside mass graves..

Before the beginning of the battle in Raqqa, Zakaria Shekhani, 37, decided to leave with his wife and children and take shelter in the areas held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). He asked his father and sister to go with him but they refused to leave their homes and insisted on staying.

"I tried to take them out with me, but they were not convinced. They believed that Raqqa would be delivered without the need for war. Many people believed ISIS will not be able to fight international coalition and would finally withdraw. Everyone started considering this possibility when ISIS was evacuating the families of its members to Deir ez-Zor," said Shekhani during an interview with Rozana describing his failing attempts to convince his family to join him and leave the city.

"The members of my family were convinced they should stay when the families of the ISIS members started to retreat, because delivering the city seemed easy and did not necessitate war. Unfortunately, they were killed during an air raid carried out by the international coalition aircraft in early August 2017."

"I was a displaced when I learned about their death through a news page on Facebook. I learned that my father, my sister and her little niece were the victims of the bombing of the US air force. After SDF held control over Raqqa, I went back to search for their bodies under the rubble, but I could not find them," he said.

However, intensifying his research among the mass graves enabled him to find their bodies in the Panorama Park. Then, he buried them in the cemetery of Tell Bi'a next to his mother.

He recalled the many tragic stories of the families that have not been able to find the bodies of their relatives until this day in Raqqa.

The body of Noura al-Hussein, 85, is still buried today in the garden west of Bāb Baghdād in the center of the city of Raqqa. Her children refuse to exhume her body so as not to violate the sanctity of their mother's grave.

Umm Yasir, the eldest daughter of Noura al-Hussein, recounts the way her mother was killed on 12 June 2017, when a fragment of an artillery shell struck her neck, killing her immediately.

"Because of the intensity of the shelling and the clashes, my mother was hastily buried in Bab Baghdad garden located across our house. My brothers were digging the grave during the shelling. My mother used to take walks in this garden for years, and was doomed to be buried here," said Umm Yasir.

Young man Wabsa al-Shaykh, aged 25, recalls his family struggling to search for the bodies of his brother and father who were trapped in Raqqa in the summer of 2017. They were unable to join the rest of the family who escaped to Manbaj.

"My mother, siblings, and I were supposed to be the first to leave then my father and my brother would join us and bring the necessary things we needed for our displacement journey. However, after we left, they could not join us because ISIS prevented them from going out. Leaving Raqqa to SDF held areas was banned by ISIS members because they considered it as movement to “Dar al-Kofr" (the land of blasphemy). Therefore, people would resort to smuggling in order to leave," said al-Shaykh.

"After we arrived, my father and my brother maintained communication with us via the Internet. There were only a few cyber cafés inside the city. They told us they were trying to get out and they would join us soon. After that, communication with them was interrupted, then the news came that our house was bombed and my father and brother died. When we returned to Raqqa, I searched for their bodies under the ruins of the house but I couldn’t find them. We searched the mass graves and told the Initial Response Team, but we couldn’t find them until this moment."

"16" mass graves..

According to statistics Rozana received from the Initial Response Team, the team managed to exhume 16 mass graves in the city, the outskirts, and from under the ruins of buildings and demolished houses.

According to the statistics, 402 bodies were exhumed from a mass grave near al-Taj wedding hall in south Raqqa, 793 bodies from the cemetery of the Panorama Park, 94 in the square of the Great Mosque, 33 in the white Garden, and 27 in a small garden at al-Najareen neighborhood in north Raqqa.

In the courtyard of a large traditional Arab house at al-Badou neighborhood, the team exhumed 41 bodies identified as the owner of the house, Fayyad al-Akkari, his family, and relatives. Five other bodies were found in the children's garden and 9 others found next to the ancient Bāb Baghdād and exhumed by their relatives to be buried again after the war in the main cemetery in Raqqa in Tell Bi'a.

At the Rashid Stadium in the center of the city, 550 bodies were recovered, while 35 others were found in a park near the automated oven at al-Badou neighborhood. Twenty-three bodies were found in the yard of a house belonging to Ahmed Shihab, who died along with his family members during coalition bombing. The team also recovered 12 bodies from a small garden at al-Badou neighborhood, 19 other next to Jawad Anzour school, and 7 other bodies near Bilal bin Rabah Mosque at al-Jazara junction.

The last mass graves the team has checked are the cemetery of agricultural research in al-Fakhikha village in the southern countryside of Raqqa, which contains the bodies of ISIS fighters and civilians who died during the war as well as unidentified bodies making the total number of bodies recovered from there reach 637.

While the work is still being carried out on the exhumation of the cemetery of the camp Talai'i in the southern countryside of Raqqa, 132 bodies were retrieved so far.

According to the head of the Initial Response Team, there is no expected number of bodies in this cemetery, but preliminary estimates indicate the existence of a large number of bodies.

The team is due to move on after finishing the work at the cemetery of the camp Talai'i to another mass grave in the Bain al-Jisreen neighborhood south of Raqqa city center. 

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