The final declaration of victory on the Islamic State (IS) in Syria has sparked renewed hopes for Syrians whose family members were kidnapped by IS, with thousands asking the U.S.-backed forces to disclose the whereabouts of their loved ones.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) last week announced the complete removal of IS from its last stronghold of Baghuz in eastern Syria and the rescue of thousands of civilians used as human shields by the jihadists. Still, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), about 20,000 Syrians kidnapped by IS are missing.
“We have to know what happened to our loved ones,” said Ensaf Nasser, who has desperately searched for her husband since his abduction by IS in August 2014.
“The fate of my husband and thousands of detainees kidnapped by IS must be looked into now by the coalition and the SDF before evidences are lost,” she told VOA.
Nasser’s husband, Foad Ahmed el-Mohamed, was a local journalist taking pictures of wounded civilians at Aisha Hospital in Deir el-Zour city when IS militants broke in and took him away.
The extremists told Nasser that her husband was considered an infidel because he supported a secular and democratic state instead of a caliphate. He was also accused of breaking their strict Sunni codes by marrying Nasser, who was a follower of Syria’s Druze sect, and naming his son after the Argentinian Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.
“When the battle to capture Raqqa started, we all had high hopes to learn something about him. During the final battle to capture Baghuz, we also hoped that we would find or learn some news as thousands were getting out. But till now we haven’t heard anything,” Nasser said, adding that the recapture of IS's last territory ended in a crushing disappointment for her that her husband may still be alive.
The U.S.-backed battle to seize northeastern Syria from the grip of IS lasted five years. Over the years, the Islamist group lost large swaths of Syria it had once governed, including its defeat in its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, in October of 2017.
Earlier this month, the predominantly Kurdish SDF officially announced March 23 the defeat of the “caliphate” after weeks of fierce battles for the small town of Baghuz in far eastern Syria.
“We have freed 5 million people in Syria’s north and east from the grip of terrorism, we salvaged 52,000 square kilometers of land and removed the danger of terrorism over humanity,” the SDF said in its official victory proclamation.
As their mission enters the next stage, the SDF vowed to continue fighting the IS ideology and reconstruct damage caused by the war.
In the key city of Raqqa, the SDF said its focus for the post-IS period has been to bring normality back to daily life, not only by removing thousands of explosives left behind by the jihadists but also by helping Syrians find their missing family members. The group is asking families of the missing to register with the Public Relations Committee and Tribes Council in Raqqa Civil Council to investigate the fate of their loved ones.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights in a new report Thursday said that in Raqqa alone nearly 4,247 people are still missing nearly 18 months after IS's removal.
SNHR asked for international support in disclosing the fate of the missing Syrians, especially as local officials continue to find dozens of people buried in mass graves across the region.
“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,” SNHR chairman Abdul Ghany said in a statement.
“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,” he added.
Syrians who are in search of their missing family members say they are provided with little information when reaching out to officials from SDF and the U.S.-led coalition. Many hope their loved ones could be in refugee camps under the SDF control or IS prisons that were captured recently.
Amer Mattar, whose brother Mohammed-Noor Mattar has been missing in Raqqa since August 2013, said he was turned down by local officials when he requested to know about the fate of his 22-year-old brother.
“We have been waiting as prisons and detention centers are captured,” Mattar told VOA. “But we are learning that they are all going empty, and with IS-controlled territory shrinking, our questions on what happened to the missing are growing.”
Local officials say they are taking the plight of missing Syrians and their families seriously, but the process of identifying the victims can be challenging, especially as the SDF and the coalition try to expose IS fighters who are hiding among civilians in refugee camps. They are expecting to know more during their investigations with captured IS fighters.
"There is a large number of civilians evacuated from Baghuz, and they were all moved to al-Hol camp for security check and will be released to their families,” said Osama al-Khalaf, a spokesperson for Raqqa Civil Council, speaking of a major refugee camp in northeastern Deir el-Zour, where thousands of civilians and IS family members are kept.
“We are gathering information from witnesses to identity who has been killed among the detainees under IS,” said al-Khalaf, adding the results of their interrogations with IS fighters is kept confidential for security reasons.
According to Syrian organizations and activists, IS used to evacuate and relocate detainees from its prisons before losing an area.
They say the group kept thousands of prisoners under ground and used them as human shields to prevent coalition airstrikes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, said on Thursday the U.S.-led coalition is continuing to look for undiscovered underground tunnels and trenches in Baghuz in search of hiding IS fighters and kidnapped civilians.