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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

HRW: Syrian team uncovering ISIS mass graves needs help

The HRW said that help was needed to preserve evidence of possible crimes and identify the remains

In this photo released on December 30, 2017, by the Syrian official news agency, Sana, Syrian security forces work at the site of two mass graves believed to contain the bodies of civilians and troops killed by ISIS, in the village of Wawi near the northern city of Raqqa, Syria. AP
In this photo released on December 30, 2017, by the Syrian official news agency, Sana, Syrian security forces work at the site of two mass graves believed to contain the bodies of civilians and troops killed by ISIS, in the village of Wawi near the northern city of Raqqa, Syria. AP

Human Rights Watch says that that a group in Syria which is working to uncover mass graves in areas until recently controlled by ISIS needs international support.

The watchdog, which is based in the US, said on Monday that help was needed to preserve evidence of suspected crimes and identify the remains found in Syria’s north-eastern provinces.

“Without it, families whose loved ones were disappeared or killed by ISIS or who died in attacks by the US-led coalition, will live in anguish not knowing their fate and without hope for justice,” said HRW in a video posted to its website.

Thousands of bodies of both civilians and extremists remain to be recovered in an unknown number of mass graves in Raqqa city – which was the self-declared capital of ISIS for more than three years until the US-led coalition drove them out in October 2017.

The HRW said that the Raqqa Civil Council “is struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of collecting and organising information" on the bodies recovered and providing it to families searching for missing or dead relatives.

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Yasser Al khamis, head of the first responders team in Raqqa city, said that the local group – which includes 38 rescuers, firemen and excavators – is working 24 hours a day.

“As of [May 16, 2018] we’ve pulled 106 bodies out of this [one] grave,” he said. “The majority of the bodies are civilians, mostly women and children.

“Families are hearing about the grave from one another.”

Mr Al Khamis said that his team does not have the modern tools to identify the bodies. Most of his team are volunteers with no forensic training.

“We don’t have a lab [for analysis]. We just rely on basic information,” he said.

“Families help us identify the civilians [by telling us] what the person was wearing or by describing a ring, a watch or a tattoo.

“We identify a lot of the bodies through the hair because hair [doesn't disintegrate].”

Mr Al Khamis said that every body found, whether civilian or fighter, is given a number. His team records the clothes they are wearing and any items found on them in the hope that they would be identified.