“We need answers. My brother’s name is neither with the living nor the dead. We want our right to know where the missing are.”
Yasmin Mashaan. Her brother Bashar went missing in May 2014 in Deir Ezzor.
In eastern Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are currently fighting to retake the last remaining territory held by the Islamic State (ISIS), a one-kilometre square area in Baghuz, Deir Ezzor. While the international media focuses on the military offensive and the fate of ISIS’s foreign recruits, the Syrian population that lived under the extremists has a more urgent need: To know the whereabouts of the thousands of people who went missing during ISIS’s rule.
As more and more territory is wrested from the group’s control, families, no longer fearing retribution, have been emboldened to speak out about their disappeared loved ones. The Syria Campaign has spoken to families, human rights organisations, and campaigners both inside and outside Syria. Their clear and urgent message is that the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and its SDF partners on the ground have not met their responsibilities to find the disappeared.
In the wake of ISIS’s retreat, mass graves have been discovered containing thousands of bodies. Local teams are exhuming the mass graves, but support and resources for their efforts have been woefully inadequate. The sites are not being dealt with in accordance to international best practices, therefore harming families’ chances of identifying their loved ones. Sources on the ground also believe that the SDF, which is in control of much of the former ISIS-held areas, has access to information that could help them learn the fates of at least 8,000 missing people. Interviewees told The Syria Campaign that the SDF has shown a consistent lack of cooperation with the families of the disappeared and mishandled vital evidence.
While the international community, led by the US, has provided some stabilisation funding for SDF-controlled areas, the plight of the disappeared has not been prioritised. Progress towards a more peaceful future cannot be achieved until the families of the disappeared have answers.
“The international coalition has been in negotiations with ISIS in Baghuz. The talks are about trying to get rid of ISIS from the area, there was no prioritising nor even mention of the disappeared.”
Ahmed Al-Nouri, project manager at Kesh Malek, a Syrian civil society organisation
From 2014 to 2017, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS spent an average of $13.6 million a day on its military campaign. Airstrikes against ISIS have been so extensive that huge areas of cities and towns have been utterly destroyed, most notably Raqqa itself. The cost to civilian lives has also been devastating; Airwars, a transparency project that tracks and archives international military actions, estimates the US-led coalition has killed between 7,559 to 12,156 civilians in Iraq and Syria since it began operations in August 2014, with between 5,053 and 8,291 of these deaths occurring in Syria alone.
In contrast to the huge amount of money spent on the military offensive, the amount of resources dedicated to supporting the communities affected has been comparatively small. The US has said it has so far spent $90 million in northeast Syria on counter-ISIS stabilisation initiatives, equal to a week’s worth of military action. Despite the US acknowledging that the region needs “extensive humanitarian assistance after the defeat of ISIS,” including “access to dispute resolution,” neither it, nor its SDF partners on the ground, are yet to prioritise the issue of those disappeared by ISIS.
The scale of the disappearance issue is vast. Though it is impossible to give a precise figure for the missing without a full and meticulous investigation, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has already documented 8,349 cases of disappearance.
Every day that passes means more torment for families and the risk that more vital evidence will be lost or destroyed, forever ruining the chances of a family learning the fate of their loved one.
The US-led coalition and the SDF still have the opportunity to take vital steps to support the families of their disappeared in their search for their loved ones. The Syria Campaign calls on them to:
1) Establish a channel to liaise with families and inform them of relevant information obtained from captured ISIS fighters
Interviews with captured ISIS fighters and officials are a vital way to obtain information on the disappeared. By prioritising questions on the whereabouts and fates of the missing, and sharing the findings with their families, the coalition and SDF can end families’ uncertainty and build trust within the community. At the moment, families and local activists say they’re aware of interviews being conducted, but still have no information on what has happened to the missing. They’re concerned that fighters are not being asked what happened to the captives, and the current lack of channels for sharing information on the disappeared is only exacerbating their concerns.
2) Urgently deploy international forensic experts and investigative teams to support the exhumation of mass graves and avoid the potential destruction of evidence
Both Syrian and international organisations have a vital role to play in gathering and archiving evidence from mass graves and other sites of ISIS detention. Syrian human rights organisations with knowledge of the context and a track record of monitoring human rights violations in Syria can play a critical role in investigations. But the work of exhuming mass graves and preserving evidence to identify victims and support accountability also requires the deployment of specialist investigators, per ICRC and UN guidelines. In their absence, non-specialists are currently exhuming the graves, which is likely causing the inadvertent destruction of evidence. The deployment of forensic experts, with unfettered access to the sites, will help preserve vital evidence before it is destroyed, which can be used to help the families of the disappeared in their search.
3) Handle evidence of ISIS atrocities with care and allow families of the disappeared access to the evidence
Evidence from former ISIS prisons, which may range from documentation left behind by ISIS to the names of prisoners written on the walls, might hold the clues needed to reunite families or provide them with answers. Preserving this evidence is a top priority and it is important that investigators are allowed full access to these sites, some of which have been taken over by SDF forces.
The families of the disappeared require access to information on their loved ones, and experienced forensic investigators can draw on international guidelines to develop appropriate channels for communicating with them. At presence, the absence of such channels of communication is causing significant distress to the families, who themselves must be recognised as victims of ISIS.
“It is hard to estimate the total number of the places that ISIS has turned into detention centres; the cell I was held in was actually the kitchen of a countryside house surrounded with prison bars.”
Syas*, survivor of ISIS detention
In 2014, ISIS announced Raqqa as the capital of its so-called caliphate. By the end of 2014, the group controlled a third of Syria, as well as significant parts of Iraq, and a population of around 12 million people. ISIS ruled this territory with brutality and cruelty, arresting and detaining at least 8,349 Syrians who were sent to its prisons and detention centres. According to SNHR, who documented how these centres operated in their 2016 report The Black Bottom, “ISIS had no less than 54 official detention centres located in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Aleppo.” Often these were warehouses or even homes that were converted into detention centres.
People who lived under ISIS’s control have likened it to being in prison. Hisbah, ISIS’s religious police, controlled everything and terrorised civilians. They punished and detained people for innumerable reasons—smoking cigarettes, listening to music, browsing the internet and not adhering to ISIS’s strict dress code. Ensaf Nasr, a member of Families for Freedom, an organisation that campaigns for freedom and justice for Syria’s detained, says ISIS arrested her husband Fouad “for daring to be a media activist, secular, for calling his child Guevara, a supposedly ‘infidel’ name”.
Though ISIS is infamous for its public displays of violence, many families whose loved ones were detained weren’t told what had happened to them or where they had gone. Often, families weren’t even sure where ISIS’s prisons were. “It is hard to estimate the total number of places that ISIS turned into detention centres,” says Syas*, a survivor of ISIS captivity. “The cell I was held in was actually the kitchen of a countryside house surrounded with prison bars.”
Yasmin Mashaan’s brother Bashar went missing in 2014 when he went to give blood at a hospital. She still doesn’t know where he is, nor why he disappeared. “We need answers, it has been easier for me to think that my brother is dead instead of relying on fake hopes,” she says. “My brother’s name is neither with the living nor the dead, and we want our right to know”.
“We want to have answers and ISIS might be holding them.”
Ensaf Nasr, a member of the Families for Freedom, which campaigns for freedom and justice for Syria’s detainees
The SDF has captured numerous ISIS fighters, and states that around 800 of these are foreign nationals. Local activists say that interviews have taken place but it is not clear how closely the detained fighters were questioned; already a number have been released. So far no information has been shared with the families of the disappeared about any relevant discoveries from the investigations of the US-led coalition or the SDF.
Family members who spoke to The Syria Campaign said that community members have repeatedly gone to the SDF to ask for information about their loved ones, but have received no response. “Neither the US-led coalition, nor SDF, nor any other side has helped us or done anything for the people that might still be detained by ISIS,” says Matar, from the Where Are the Kidnapped by ISIS campaign. “We don’t know what information they are sitting on regarding the disappeared because they have told us nothing.”
“The interviews should include a process of passing on a list of names of the missing to the captured ISIS members and asking them for concrete answers. We want to have answers and ISIS might be holding them,” says Ensaf Nasr, whose husband was kidnapped by ISIS from a field hospital in Deir Ezzor where he was volunteering in 2014. “For years I have been trying to get any piece of information regarding the fate of my husband. He just vanished in 2014 and since then we have heard nothing about his fate. Nobody is thinking of the ISIS disappeared, they seem to be forgotten. However, we are still here waiting for answers about their fates. Finding the ISIS disappeared should be a priority for the coalition.”
Families have also expressed concern that ISIS fighters are being freed by the SDF forces too soon and without trial, denying families precious information. One local person said he’d heard that some ISIS fighters were released by the SDF after 10 days. Another said he’d heard of “emirs” or senior officials within ISIS who had been released after several weeks of detention. “It’s impossible that these ISIS fighters don’t have information on the disappeared,” says Maher, an activist living in Raqqa. “We hold the US directly responsible for getting these answers. Where are our loved ones? Where are the secret prisons?”
Some of the families maintain hope that their loved ones may still be alive and are being held by ISIS in its last remaining holdout in Baghuz. If this is the case, there is still scope for the US-led coalition to prioritise their release. But according to Ahmed Al-Nouri, a project manager at Kesh Malek, a Syrian civil society organisation: “The Global Coalition has been in negotiations with ISIS in Baghuz. The talks are about trying removing ISIS from the area, there was no prioritisation nor even mention of the disappeared.”
“There isn’t any kind of methodology nor professionalism in exhuming the mass graves. There is no care towards these graves.”
Qutaiba Meshaan, brother of Bashar Meshaan, who disappeared in 2014 in Deir Ezzor.
In October 2017, SDF forces captured Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’ caliphate. Since then, ISIS fighters have been squeezed into ever smaller territory. As the group has retreated, mass graves have been uncovered in areas they once held. In February 2019, the largest one to date was discovered in a suburb of Raqqa, containing an estimated 3,500 bodies. Activists believe the mass graves likely contain victims of coalition bombings, ISIS fighters as well as people disappeared and executed by ISIS. The team working on the discoveries of the mass graves has been the First Responders Team of the civil defence in Raqqa, a part of the Reconstruction Committee of Raqqa Civil Council, which receives US funding.
The investigators working on the graves understand the terrain and are dedicated to finding answers for their communities. However, the scale and complexity of the task is overwhelming and they are in desperate need of further support. In July 2018, a Human Rights Watch report found that when the first responders exhumed a mass grave: “They did not take photographs in accordance with international forensic standards, an important practice in working towards a more reliable record of the dead. Most team members were volunteers who do not have forensic expertise. The team’s forensic doctor had been a general practitioner before ISIS was driven from the area and had no prior experience or formal training in forensic analysis.”
Amer Matar, who leads the ‘Where Are the Kidnapped by ISIS?’ campaign says: “For us as families, the work of the first responders team has lacked transparency. All the information they have uncovered to date is unavailable to us and we can’t get hold of it. The tools and methodology they’re using for documentation are unclear, and I suspect not up to professional standards. The bodies that are exhumed from the graves are being moved to other locations and that is unacceptable. This work bears huge risk to our hope and desire to learn the fate of our loved ones.”
“Opening up these mass graves without the needed expertise might be destroying evidence of what happened,” says Yasmin Meshaan. “We need urgent international support documenting and collecting evidence from mass graves in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.”
Qutaiba Meshaan, Yasmin’s brother who went back to Deir Ezzor after it was liberated from ISIS to search for his brother Bashar, says: “There isn’t any kind of methodology nor professionalism in exhuming the mass graves. There is no care towards these graves. News comes out about mass graves being discovered and you never know what happened after and the story disappears.”
Other family members of the disappeared also expressed concerns about how the graves are being handled. A family member present in Raqqa for the exhumations was incredulous when asked by The Syria Campaign if the First Responders Team was preserving DNA samples from the mass graves. “In some cases they’re not even writing down what the person was wearing,” he said.
A journalist from AFP who observed the opening of the mass grave discovered in February in Raqqa was told by the First Responders Team that they had exhumed more than 3,800 bodies since they began working in January 2017. “Among them are 560 [bodies] that were identifiable and were handed over to their families for a proper burial,” the article read. If the figures in the report are accurate, that means at least 3,200 bodies may have been reburied as unidentified victims. Their families may never obtain answers.
In recent years, forensic experts have been developing procedures and protocols for the scientific investigation of mass graves. Groups such as the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) have investigated mass graves in countries around the world. The development of new guidelines has been done to ensure that evidence uncovered from sites can stand up to legal scrutiny and also provide the answers that the families of the disappeared need. It is critically important that, in the case of the mass graves in Syria, experts with the experience and knowledge of the latest procedures and protocols are deployed. If not, there is a serious risk that evidence will be lost.
Both the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have published guidelines on the investigations of mass graves. The ICRC states that both “state authorities and armed groups bear primary responsibility for proper handling of the human remains and of information on the dead.” It also states: “The families of missing persons must be recognized as victims. Their right to information, accountability and acknowledgment must be upheld.”
“We are in a race against time because the evidence is being destroyed constantly.”
Local activists in Raqqa with the Where Are the Kidnapped by ISIS campaign
When ISIS forces were defeated and pushed out of Raqqa and other cities, locals found the group’s prisons and detention centres empty of people. Even Raqqa’s two major prisons, Malaab Al Baladi and the Governor’s Palace were empty.
The SDF do not seem to have kept records when they entered the detention centres. According to SNHR, some activists found documents independently and posted them online but they’re too piecemeal and not collated in one area. It is possible that ISIS destroyed evidence of what happened in their prisons, especially evidence of executions. It is also possible that evidence was destroyed in the US-led coalition’s bombings. On 15 March 2017, the coalition targeted the tower prison in Tabaqa city near Raqqa, killing some of the people inside.
Members of the Where Are the Kidnapped by ISIS campaign who are on the ground in Raqqa have visited former prisons to take forensic photographs. “We are in a race against time because the evidence is constantly being destroyed,” said one of the members in Raqqa. He recounted that once, when they were inside a prison photographing a solitary confinement cell, an SDF fighter showed up and began trying to remove the metal for his use. “Civilians in Raqqa are concerned by the destruction of these prisons. There are hundreds and hundreds of names of prisoners on the walls.”
“Nobody is thinking of the ISIS disappeared, they seem to be forgotten. However, we are still here waiting for answers about their fates.”
Ensaf Nasr, Families for Freedom
It’s been five years since ISIS started seizing territory in Syria, inflicting unimaginable suffering on civilians and sending shock waves around the world.
The families of at least 8,349 Syrians who were kidnapped by ISIS are looking for answers on their disappeared loved ones.
Crucial evidence, and with it the right to know and the chance of closure for families, is being lost forever.
This needs to change now. If the international community acts fast, there is still the chance to preserve evidence and help families be reunited with their loved ones, or at least learn what has happened to them.
The crisis of forced disappearance has touched nearly every Syrian family. No progress can be made towards a lasting peace in Syria without justice for those families, and it starts with their right to know about their loved ones. Let’s help them get answers.
* Names of some interviewees have been changed upon request.
For more information or to contact experts on the issue, email [email protected]
There are many Syrian organisations who have campaigned on or researched the issue of human rights abuses and detention by ISIS. They include:
Where Are the Kidnapped by ISIS: A campaign that includes activists from Raqqa—some of them living in exile—who launched an online project searching for answers regarding the whereabouts of the kidnapped by ISIS.
Syrian Network for Human Rights: A non-governmental organisation, founded in June 2011, which monitors and documents violations committed by any and all parties in the Syrian conflict.
Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression:An independent non-governmental non-profit organisation founded in 2004. SCM seeks to build a society that guarantees freedom of expression and belief, human rights and justice.
Families for Freedom: A women led movement founded in 2017 that demands freedom and justice for all of Syria’s disappeared.
Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently: A campaign launched by a group of non-violent activists to expose the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime and ISIS on the civilian population in Raqqa.