RAQQA, Syria – At Raqqa's zoo, families once visited the peacocks, gazelles and leopards.
They are long gone now. What remains between the pockmarked structures that once housed them are trenches, a dozen of them about 200 yards long, where workers extract bodies thinly covered by topsoil.
The zoo is one of the sites where nine mass graves have been found, say local authorities and international observers. It's where the most heartbreaking of work goes on as Raqqa struggles to dig itself out from the legacy of the Islamic State and the campaign to oust it.
“Usually we find one or two bodies wrapped in a blanket, but in one of these trenches three to four bodies were found barely covered by a single shared blanket," Mohammed Assad, the on-site doctor, said as he supervised exhumations for the Raqqa Civil Council Emergency Team.
And then there are even more chilling finds. “There was what seemed like an executed body, where the head was placed separately from the body,” he said.
For nearly three years, this city of 300,000 in north-central Syria served as the capital of the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate, a territory spanning Syria and Iraq and nearly as large as Italy.
Liberated in October 2017 by a coalition campaign after three years of being terrorized by the militant group, the local population is now trying to rebuild from rubble and restore basic services such as water and electricity. But first, many say, they must find their loved ones and bury their dead.
Since this spring, Assad and other members of the team have found hundreds of bodies buried by IS fighters and civilians caught up in the conflict. Tens of thousands remain missing as corpses continue to decompose in public parks and under the rubble of homes – mines placed by IS make it difficult to access some of the dead.
Still, most of the attention is focused on the sites of the mass graves that were used by IS but also by families.
“Because of the intense fighting, both victims’ families and the Islamic State fighters buried people in the quickest and simplest way possible, digging shallow graves and wrapping bodies in blankets,” Assad said.
Less than a mile away from the zoo, Raqqa physician Abdul Rauf Ahmed supervises the exhumation of bodies at the city’s Al-Rashid Stadium, where thousands once gathered to cheer on their team.
But that ended when IS took over the city almost four years ago: During their rule, IS commanders turned the stadium’s gym and team locker rooms into prison cells and interrogation rooms.
Now, doctors and team members are looking for those prisoners.
“There are at least 600 bodies in this area alone,” Ahmed said. “Most of the bodies are of women and children and are totally unrecognizable.”
Among the many gruesome slayings, one stands out in the memory of Raqqa’s survivors – the July 2016 execution of four members of the popular Al Shabab soccer club who played at the stadium.
The soccer players were accused of spying for a secular Syrian Kurdish group. Children were brought to witness the executions.
“Later they savagely murdered hundreds of other civilians who wanted to flee to areas under SDF control,” said Ahmed, referring to the predominantly Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces – a U.S.-backed military group. "Many of these people were thrown by IS into mass graves."
Still, some worry about the excavations: Human Rights Watch, which has sent observers to Raqqa’s mass grave sites, says the local teams are in dire need of technical assistance.
“If workers continue to exhume the graves without adequate technical training, equipment, and support, families may lose the opportunity to accurately identify the remains of their loved ones,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Evidence regarding crimes in the area, including IS crimes, may be lost.”
Meanwhile, team members say they expect to find hundreds more bodies as residents clear rubble from the estimated 11,000 buildings damaged or destroyed after more than 30,000 artillery rounds and several thousand airstrikes hit Raqqa during the coalition's anti-IS campaign waged from June to October.
Mahmoud Salah died in that fight. His brother, 45-year-old shopkeeper Mohammed, goes to the excavations regularly, hoping to find him.
On a recent day, Mohammed Salah stood at the edge of a newly opened ditch and instructed the team to dig at a specific spot in the trench. He pointed to a decomposed body shrouded in a polyester blanket. He then asked the team to cut the pants off a recovered body.
“You can identify my brother by a metal plate in his fibula,” he explained.
The team examined the leg but didn't find a metal plate.
Walking away from the trench dejectedly, he said he will continue to visit the sites.
“I hope to give my brother a proper burial,” he said. "Hopefully, God will give Mahmoud something better in paradise.
“If IS had not been here, the international coalition airstrikes would have not taken place – and my brother Mahmoud would still be alive.”
In June, rights group Amnesty International said the U.S.-led coalition against IS may have broken international law by endangering the lives of civilians in Raqqa.
Amnesty called on the coalition and member states to acknowledge the scale of devastation, make public necessary information for an independent investigation and pay compensation to victims.
Still, in March, the U.S. froze roughly $200 million set aside for Syria's recovery, money budgeted to help restore electricity and provide potable water, clear mines and remove rubble from towns like Raqqa pummeled by coalition airstrikes.
As team members tally more than 1,200 bodies from cleared bomb sites, Ahmed Halaf, an engineer working with the emergency team, says the city has taken steps toward recovery. Markets are open and a number of hospitals are functioning.
Still, the rubble, the mines and bodies remain.
“The majority of bodies are still under the rubble of residential buildings – many of them under up to five floors of collapsed debris,” Halaf said. “Right now we are doing this job with our own hands. We need equipment including excavators and jackhammers not only to find the bodies but also to rebuild the city and bring back services.”
Finding the remains of their loved ones and giving them proper burials remains a top priority for many Raqqa residents, and not only because Islamic tradition demands it.
At the zoo, the team members, some of whom are looking for family members themselves, say they are exhausted and grief-stricken by their finds. But they add they are motivated because they are able to provide some closure, and find it for themselves, too.
“When the city was surrounded, people couldn’t go to the cemetery to bury their relatives, so they came here to the zoo,” said Hamed Mustafa Hassan, 23, of the Raqqa Civil Council Emergency Team. “We thank God it’s now safe to bury them in a dignified place.”
Wirtschafter reported from Cairo.
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