RAQQA, SYRIA -- Hameed, 40, puts down his shovel and shows us a picture of his cousin on his Facebook mobile phone app. Ahmed Deebo is on his knees, blindfolded and wearing a track suit.

"I show this picture to everyone who works here," Hameed says. "They are looking to recognize his clothes."

Since the beginning of 2018, more than 5,000 bodies have been uncovered in and around Raqqa, all believed to be dumped in mass graves by Islamic State militants. But without the resources for DNA or forensic testing, most remains have not yet been identified.

Hameed excavates mass graves in Raqqa, Syria, and at the same time tries to find the body of his cousin who was killed by IS, pictured Sept. 1, 2019. (Yan Boechat/VOA)

Hameed saw his cousin shot in the head by the militants, when they held Raqqa, after Deebo was accused of blasphemy. Now Hameed wants to return the body to his cousin's children.

As a worker for Raqqa's Civil Defense Force, Hameed is one of many employees who have volunteered for this duty. The men work eight-hour daily shifts digging up bodies, often finding more than a dozen each day. 

So far the remains of about 700 people have been returned to families, according to Yasser Khamis, the Civil Defense Force's chief. But without financial support for more advanced testing, he adds, the only current way to identify bodies is by items of clothing or hair.

Yasser Khamis, the director of Raqqa’s Civil Defense Force, says more than 5,000 bodies have been recovered from different mass graves in Raqqa, Syria, Sept. 1, 2019. (Yan Boechat/VOA)

"Many people have lost sons, daughters or brothers," explains Khamis in his Raqqa office.  "They need to bury them in a good way."
At one of the mass grave sites just outside city, bodies are lined up in white plastic bags on Monday and a doctor in blue scrubs records bone measurements and collects samples.

The samples are packed in plastic bags, and body bags are labeled with the hope that they will one day be tested. Unclaimed bodies are buried individually in one of Raqqa's graveyards.  

As workers break for prayers, one man admits the months of digging has worn him down psychologically. He says that he no longer eats meat. 

"It's sad work but this is our humanity," adds Hassan, 35, another digger. "We want to save people, alive or dead."

Employees of Raqqa’s Civil Defense dig in a garden looking for corpses of IS fighters and their families in Raqqa, Syria, Sept. 1, 2019. (Yan Boechat/VOA)

Gardens of graves

Inside the city, a residential compound appears to have once been a school but now the yard is dug up as the search for bodies continues.  

A colorful class schedule is posted on a wall inside. Many are religious classes typical of an IS school, and workbooks scattered on the floor bear nicknames typical of foreign IS fighters.  Workers tell us they believe it was an "Ashbel Khilafa" school, meaning "Sons of the Lions of the Caliphate."

Schools like this were set up to train the next generation of IS. Authorities believe this school may have also been the last IS command center as the militants were driven out of Raqqa in 2017.  

A doctor examines bodies that were found in a newly-discovered mass grave on the outskirts of Raqqa, Syria, Sept. 1, 2019. (Yan Boechat/VOA)

The corpse of an IS fighter lies wrapped in a white body bag on the patio as workers continue to dig. But these are not just fighters' bodies that have been found in this garden. Thirteen other bodies have been dug up, including women, children and at least one militant buried with part of a land mine.

"Neighbors told us that during the battles, militants made graves in the garden," says Khamis, the Civil Defense Force chief.

In and around Raqqa there are 16 known mass graves being excavated, he tells us. They have found bodies of civilians, prisoners, soldiers, children and fighters on both sides. Hundreds of families have registered on a database in hopes their loved ones' remains will be identified one day.

They cannot be sure how many more grave sites they will find in the coming months, Khamis says. But healing for Raqqa will not just come from locating the missing and burying remains.  

Raqqa is safer than it was under IS, but the city remains tense and the fear of IS's return is palatable. "We are relatively safe," Khamis says, "but in the future we hope to be truly safe."

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