Over 500 bodies exhumed from Syrian mass grave in Raqqa
Amnesty says US-led coalition that did most of the bombing did not try to protect civilians
This grab from a video shows Syrian workers of a Raqqa group carrying human remains at the site of a mass grave believed to contain the bodies of civilians and Islamic State militants in Raqqa. Photograph: AP Photo
More than 500 bodies have been exhumed this week from a mass grave near the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the former capital of Islamic State, which was liberated by US-led forces in October 2017. The excavation site has been named the “Panorama mass grave” as it is located in a district of this name.
This grave alone is believed to contain 1,500 bodies, more than the original estimate of 1,400 for all civilian fatalities made by human-rights monitors.
The process of recovering and identifying Raqqa’s remains has been assumed by local groups and first responders concerned about the deterioration of both bodies and evidence that could lead to war-crimes trials.
“We’re in a race against time. These bodies are decomposing at an exponential rate,” said Sara Kayyali of Human Rights Watch. Since nine mass graves containing both Islamic State (also known as Isis) combatants and civilians have been discovered around Raqqa so far, the number of bodies can be expected to rise greatly.
Deputy forensic doctor Abdul Raouf al-Ahmad said the team had dug trenches to recover bodies. Once a body is removed, the teams “document whether it belongs to a fighter, child, baby, adolescent or woman”. They register height, type of injuries cause of death, clothing and other personal items.
During the campaign to liberate Raqqa, 80 per cent of the city – 11,000 buildings – was destroyed and civilian casualties were high. Isis had fortified defensive positions, ringed the city’s perimeter with mines and other explosive devices, and used residents as human shields. Ground fighting was conducted by Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces militiamen trained, armed and paid by the US.
The US initially said the civilian toll was 23 but raised it to 100. So far this year 2,600 bodies have been unearthed. Amnesty International’s Milena Marin argued the number already exhumed was “just the tip of the iceberg”.
“The coalition’s blatant denials and shoulder-shrugging are unconscionable – their military offensive killed and maimed hundreds of civilians and then left the survivors to pick up the pieces.” She argued the coalition, which includes Britain and France, did not try to protect civilians.
The US, which carried out 90 per cent of air raids and shelling, and its allies have adopted a policy of conducting body counts only for their troops. They have applied that policy to the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq war and “pacification campaign” as well as Raqqa.
Amnesty has launched a global appeal called Strike Tracker to enlist internet users to help create a picture of the largely US-executed bombing during the four-month Raqqa offensive. Amnesty and its partner Airwars seek volunteers to go through satellite pictures of Raqqa during the battle and identify when each building was destroyed. This will help investigators research potential war crimes.
“There is a mountain of evidence left to sift through, and the scale of the civilian devastation is simply too large for us to do this alone,” Marin said.
“With thousands of Strike Trackers on the case to help us narrow precisely when and where coalition air and artillery strikes destroyed buildings, we can significantly scale up our ability to map out the apocalyptic destruction in Raqqa,” she said.
Amnesty aims to compel the coalition to assume responsibility and ensure victims receive assistance and compensation for their losses. While conducting investigations in the Raqqa area, Amnesty has already concluded there is “compelling evidence of apparent violations of international law”.
In response to Amnesty’s effort, coalition spokesman US army colonel Sean Ryan said the fighting “to liberate the citizens of Raqqa was often house to house against an enemy with no regard for human life”.