Press Release

September 10, 2020

New campaign reveals mass graves continue to be discovered in northeast Syria 

Five mass graves found this year alone with many more expected to be uncovered 

Twenty-eight mass graves have been discovered since the territorial defeat of ISIS in northeast Syria three years ago, report local First Responders who continue to exhume new graves in the search for thousands of missing people. 

Fifty-seven former detention centres where ISIS held thousands of civilians have also been identified, some in schools and a children’s hospital, across Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir Ezzor.

New maps published today based on The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) data show that three of the mass graves are located on former prison sites, increasing fears that many of the missing might have been killed in detention. 

However families searching for those kidnapped by ISIS are left without answers and continue to demand international support to preserve and examine evidence that risks being neglected or mishandled in mass graves and detention facilities. 

Many of the mass graves have been discovered in cemeteries but some are in parks or homes, including a children’s playground. More than 4000 bodies have so far been found in the 28 mass graves but little progress has been made to identify them. Individual or mass graves are still being discovered every week, sometimes in people’s gardens or farmer’s fields. 

A new campaign launched today by The Syria Campaign and SJAC calls for the trials of ISIS fighters, both in Syria and around the globe, to collect vital evidence on missing people and for authorities in the northeast to commit to the search for the missing. Thousands of Syrians are believed to be missing after having been kidnapped by ISIS, though the real number is difficult to estimate.

Yaser Khamis, Head of the First Responders team said: 

“The most important part of our work is to identify the bodies. After three years of working, we still receive so many questions from families about their missing loved ones. It is our duty to identify the bodies so we can help give them some answers.”

Psychologist Ensaf Nasr’s husband was kidnapped from a maternity centre in Deir Ezzor in 2014. “Since his arrest, we have not known anything about him,” she said. “I always felt that Fouad was still alive and until now, I live with this hope. But the search creates pain that no one can describe. I say to the International Coalition Forces and the SDF, you have the only reliable information about the kidnapped by ISIS, so where are they?”

Many would have been held in a network of at least 57 prisons set up in the municipal stadium in Raqqa, old commercial buildings, basements in the centre of town right next to bakeries and shops, homes and mosques and schools – even the basement of a children’s hospital and a village clinic were turned into detention centres.  

In some cases, former prisons are once again being used as public buildings or homes, some have been damaged by bombing and others remain derelict. None of the former detention facilities are being protected or investigated for crucial evidence that might help families find answers about their loved ones. 

Mohammad Al Abdallah, Executive Director of SJAC said: 

“The families of the missing have spent years knocking on doors and speaking to authorities but they find scant information and very few people willing to help them. A team of incredible local First Responders are working day and night to search for clues and preserve evidence and while we are working to provide them with support, a successful investigation also requires access to detained ISIS fighters. At the moment crucial evidence about disappeared people, mass graves and other human rights abuses is being overlooked.”

As well as evidence taken from graves, information, or antemortem data, about the missing from families and witnesses is crucial to identifying bodies. It could be a photo of the clothes their son was last seen in or medical records about tooth fillings or broken bones. Families give this information to the First Responders Team at their centre in Raqqa, but many families have been displaced and only a small number can get there. Families abroad need to be connected to the work on the ground so they can report their missing loved ones.

Laila Kiki, Executive Director of The Syria Campaign said: 

“The world may act as though ISIS has been defeated but for families whose loved ones have been kidnapped, they live with constant pain and uncertainty. Their loss is unimaginable but with support, putting families first and most importantly political will, the search for those kidnapped by ISIS can bring answers to the families.”

Watch Ensaf and other families of those kidnapped by ISIS describe their search for answers here

For more information or to organise an interview contact [email protected]

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About The Syria Campaign

The Syria Campaign is a human rights organisation that supports Syria’s heroes in their struggle for freedom and democracy.

Rooted in human rights we combine the best elements of creative communication, digital mobilisation, storytelling and political analysis to support the demands of some of the most courageous frontline humanitarians in the world.

About SJAC

The Syria Justice and Accountability Cenatre (SJAC) strives to prevent impunity, promote redress and facilitate principled reform. SJAC works to ensure that human rights violations in Syria are comprehensively documented and preserved for use in transitional justice and peace-building. SJAC collects documentation of violations from all available sources, stories it in a secure database, catalogues it according to human rights standards, and analyzes it using legal expertise and big data methodologies. SJAC also supports documenters inside Syria, providing them with resources and technical guidance, and coordinates with other actors working toward similar aims: a Syria defined by justice, respect for human rights, and rule of law.