August 20, 2018
Returning to Mass Graves in Raqqa
By Khalifa Al-Khudr
In April 2018, Abed al-Mufdi al-Ali, 42, is one of the many displaced Raqqa population that returned recently to the city. He returned in April 2017 for one main reason: to identify the body of his wife—one among approximately five hundred bodies—removed from a mass graveyard at the Rashid Stadium by the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (RRC), according to RCC communications official Abdullah al-Aryan.
The battle to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State (ISIS) took over a year; from October 2016 to October 2017. During this time, residents feared getting caught in the crossfire between Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and ISIS militants. This unstable situation forced residents to bury their relatives in makeshift grave sites that varied according to shifting battle fronts, such as in parks and public squares. The Rashid Stadium was one of many alternative burial sites chosen, because it was a fairly easy place to dig graves. Residents buried victims either in individual graves, mass graves, or pits where the remains of unknown bodies were collected in a bag.
ISIS controlled Raqqa city until SDF forces enforced a siege, and civilians found themselves trapped between an extremist organization and SDF forces. After more than six months of fighting, the US-led Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) and its SDF partners liberated Raqqa from ISIS on October 20, 2017 and slowly began to allow civilians to re-enter the city.
"ISIS members planted landmines on the roads and the entrances of the city in June 2017; a defensive strategy that served also to prevent residents from leaving," said Al-Ali. “My wife was killed by aerial bombardment from the international coalition. I was forced to bury her in Rashid Stadium before I left the city with my disabled son, whose leg was torn off in the coalition bombing."
During the coalition operation to retake Raqqa, around 1,500 civilians were killed and thousands wounded. More than forty-five thousand civilians fled from the city into the surrounding areas and countryside due to airstrikes carried out by coalition aircraft, which totaled over 3,829 as reported by Raqqa is Silently Being Slaughtered. Thousands of artillery shells launched by SDF forces targeted the city as ISIS carried out more than ninety suicide attacks. Of the estimated nine hundred thousand that lived in Raqqa province prior to the battle, only two thousand civilians were left and trapped between the two sides.
When Al-Ali buried his wife, Rashid Stadium was only partially used as a grave site and graves were distributed randomly. Most believed the battle would end quickly and they would be able to return to rebury loved ones properly. The whole stadium has now become a cemetery, and it is difficult to accurately identify remains. Al-Ali tried to find the body of his wife among the scattered graves, but was unavailable to identify her.
Before the conflict started, residents used the official Tal al-Bayha cemetery on the outskirts of Raqqa. They also used a second cemetery inside the city: the Hatin graveyard. A common ISIS strategy was to dress as residents and walk among civilians into SDF-controlled areas by day, and then attack at night. Therefore, SDF snipers started to target the Hatin cemetery to flush out the militants. It became too dangerous for locals to use, so makeshift graves began to appear elsewhere.
A mass grave was found in the Raqqa City zoo, where emergency workers recovered nearly three hundred bodies, according to the RRC. Assad forces also announced the discovery of a mass grave in western Raqqa countryside near the town of Rumthan. In the summer of 2014, ISIS militants executed regime forces and documented their deaths in a video after gaining control of Tabqa military airport. This recent discovery of mass graves raised the hopes of family members of ISIS prisoners across Syria; in that they might find their family members’ bodies and bury their remains in designated cemeteries.
Raqqa residents who stayed in the city during the fighting confirmed to this author that bodies were buried at night near the wall of the Rashid Stadium for fear of bombing by the international coalition. No location, symbolic marking, name, or tomb numbering system was used in the graveyards; which currently makes it difficult to identify many of the victims. ISIS militants also used the stadium to bury their comrades killed during the fighting.
With the discovery of the Rashid Stadium cemetery, many Syrians traveled to Raqqa to inquire about the identity of the relatives that ISIS detained, and whether they were executed without notifying the families. One of those people was Syrian journalist Amer Matar, whose brother, Mohamed Nour Matar, was imprisoned in August 2013 and whose fate remains unknown.
"After the discovery of a mass grave at Rasheed Stadium in Raqqa, I received messages from the families of kidnapped people who asked about the credibility of this news and the possibility of finding the bodies of their relatives inside this cemetery," said Matar, who cofounded the “Where are the Kidnapped by ISIS” ongoing campaign.
This campaign started after SDF forces gained control of Raqqa. The group released a statement demanding that all stakeholders call on relevant actors in Raqqa to provide any information on those who went missing and on ISIS prisons. By putting pressure on the SDF to reveal the fate of ISIS prisoners, people were allowed into the area to search for the remains of detainees.
ISIS maintained a policy of not burying detainees at all, even in mass graves, or handing them over to their families. ISIS judges justified these acts with religious texts that they claimed said the body of the apostate was not to be handed over to family members.
Since capturing the area in 2014, ISIS arrested dozens of notable activists, journalists, and prominent figures who opposed the group such as activist Firas Al-Haj Saleh, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, Dr. Ismail Hamed and Free Syrian Army trainer, Madthar Al-Hassan.
Matar explained that several media outlets claimed that only executed ISIS prisoners were buried in the mass grave, but that is inaccurate. "The buried are not only victims of ISIS, but also ISIS members themselves were also buried," he said. Matar stressed the need to verify the accuracy of news coming out of Raqqa.
Meanwhile, the search continues for those buried inside the cemetery. Remains are scheduled to be transferred to the Hatin cemetery. Families will be allowed to check for their relatives through officials from the RRC. The RRC’s Emergency First Responders team is unsure if other mass graves exist in the area, but affirm it is possible.
Khalifa al-Khudr is a Syrian writer and photographer, a former detainee in ISIS prisons, the author of the book “Stories from ISIS prisons in Syria,” and winner of the Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press and Media in 2017.