As local authorities in northeastern Syria announce the discovery of new mass graves belonging to the victims of Islamic State in Raqqa, families whose loved ones disappeared during the group’s control over the region hope they might finally get some answers.  

The First Responders, a rescue and recovery team in northeastern Syria, earlier this month announced finding a mass grave in the western outskirt of Raqqa’s Farusiya, raising the number of discovered sites to five this year. 

Raqqa Syria

Following the announcement and the recovery of 16 bodies from the grave, the families of the victims are calling on authorities to prioritize a speedy identification process of the remains.   

“The coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) must support The First Responders team with technical support so they would be able to verify the identities of the bodies found in mass graves and under the rubble of buildings that were destroyed during the battle to defeat IS in the city of Raqqa,” said Ensaf Nasser who has been looking for her husband since IS kidnapped him in 2014.  

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. She has since relentlessly perused threads leading to the whereabouts of her husband, without much luck.

Foad Ahmed el-Mohamed, was a local journalist in Deir el-Zour. Here holding a twin born in the hospital he used to work at in 2014. (Photo courtesy Ensaf Nasser)

Nasser told VOA she has learned that the extremist group accused her husband of infidelity because he advocated for 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.  

“I have knocked at every door and followed every lead through official channels or personal connections, but I still have no evidence of what happened to him,” Nasser said. 

While still hoping to find him alive, she added that if he is found dead, she can at least find closure and honor his memory.  

Islamic State kidnapped thousands of civilians, mainly activists, to hush any opposing voice as it prepared to impose its control in 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report earlier this year. The watchdog said that many victims have vanished during IS expansion in 2014.   

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has registered 8,648 cases of kidnapped people, including 319 children and 225 women. Local authorities suspect that many of the missing have likely been killed by IS and buried in graves across the mostly desert terrain of eastern Syria.   

Raqqa Civil Council said it has found 28 mass graves since defeating IS’s physical caliphate in 2019. The sites allegedly contain about 6,300 bodies and belong mostly to people executed by IS. 

A member of The First Responders team in Raqqa seals a bag containing a body recovered from a mass graves. The exhuming operation use primitive means, as the team lacks technology to analyze the remains. (Photo: Osama al-Khalaf)

Location and recovery

The First Responders told VOA they have found some of the graves after receiving information from local residents about human remains. The team will begin exhuming the remains following an investigation and verification process.

The First Responders was established in September 2018 by Raqqa Civil Council to exhume the mass graves and as an emergency response team. In 2020 alone, the team found five mass graves and exhumed about 300 bodies.   

“Once a body is found, the team will record the basic information on the date and location of the recovery, sex, apparent cause of death and any personal belongings. The recovered human body will be assigned an ID number and preserved in another location,” said Osama al-Khalaf, a spokesperson for Raqqa Civil Council.  

Al-Khalaf said that if a body is identified, it will be handed over to its family for a proper burial. For those not identified, local authorities have dedicated two graveyards outside Raqqa, he added.    

“The work to exhume and identify the human remains is done by primitive tools like shovels, and they lack equipment to analyze the bodies’ DNA,” he said.  

Local authorities say they need international support and technical assistance to properly identify victims and preserve the bodies as evidence of IS crimes. 

Families’ pleas

Activists supporting relatives of the victims say the families are growing weary over officials’ reluctance to share with them any information on the fate of the discovered graves. They say families deserve to know if IS prisoners have been interrogated about the fate of the disappeared, especially as some of the detained foreign jihadists are repatriated to their countries while others flee northeast Syria.  

Laila Kiki, executive director of the Syria Campaign and an advocate of the families, told VOA that local authorities are yet to establish a formal system to communicate with the victims’ families. She said the authorities needed to make information-sharing a priority.  

“One of the main demands of our campaign is to create a mechanism of communication between the families and the authorities on the ground. Currently, there is no two-way communication between the families and local authorities in northeastern Syria,” said Kiki, adding that the international community also needed to step in to help in the process.    

"It is important for the families to get the answers they need. And it is important for the international community and the U.S.-led coalition to take the demands of the families seriously and to interrogate IS fighters. IS has impacted every Syrian family, and we need answers from those involved,” she said.