Members of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee pull human remains from a mass grave located in the Al-Rashid Stadium. Image via RCC.

‘A city full of flies’: The crews digging out bodies in Raqqa

Written by Samual Oakford and Abdulwahab Tahhan on May 30, 2018


Three months after the capture of Raqqa from so-called Islamic State, the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (RCC) began the hard job of helping to resurrect the largely destroyed city, while recovering the remains of thousands killed in heavy fighting. RCC’s work is often dangerous. Since the end of hostilities in October 2017, hundreds of civilians have been wounded or killed by mines and IEDS left behind by ISIS. Still, the committee works daily to uncover the dead, seeking out mass graves and informal burial sites across the city. The mental and physical challenges faced by recovery crews are extraordinary. There is still little reprieve from death in this city.

In late May, Airwars spoke at length with a key member of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee. For security reasons, they have asked to remain anonymous. The interview was originally conducted in Arabic and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Airwars: Please tell us about the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee?

Raqqa Reconstruction Council: The reconstruction committee receives a lot of help through the Civil Council. We’re not sure where the money originates, but it’s all through the Council.

We started with the most important things to do after liberating the city. The civil defense duties were the most important. There were so many dead people – whether civilian or militant – so we made a team and called it the First Responding Team. It included Civil Defence duties such as the fire department and first aid.

We worked on getting people with relevant experience in these fields. Since we did not have forensic doctors, we had to bring [them in] from outside to supervise the process of collecting bodies. At first the team was made up of volunteers, and then we got financial support. We were asked by families – at the beginning we used unsophisticated tools and when we got funding we were able to buy better tools to dig, and a bulldozer, all the cars and bags and everything else we needed. And now we are expanding.

After attending to individual requests, we were faced with mass graves. We developed teams that would roam the city and make initial assessments. We had an initial evaluation of gardens, parks and empty lots and other related areas. We then made estimates about where there might be bodies. We started this on January 8th 2018.  

Airwars: You’ve said that there are thousands of open reports of bodies in Raqqa. How many bodies have been recovered and how many people do you think died in the city?

RRC: Since we began working, we have recovered almost 700 bodies, but we don’t have an overall estimate of the number of people who died in the city. There are estimates on social media about Raqqa which put it at two, three or four thousand, but as a team we can’t tell how many civilians were killed overall. I can refer you to the UN, which mentioned that 80 percent of the city was destroyed as of April 1st. As a personal estimation, when I entered the city – I was among the first people to enter on October 21st, 2017 – I made the same assessment.

From the northern side it’s even worse, and could be 90 or 100 percent, but [the level of destruction] goes down when you move south and east, to 40 percent or 10 percent. But in the city generally, it’s 80 percent.

Airwars: Have you found mass graves?

RRC: There were buildings where we recovered 10 bodies and other buildings were we got 20 and 30, but we wouldn’t call it a mass grave. Mass graves are bodies buried by people, not under the rubble.

Some people came and told us they have someone buried in a specific park and asked if we could remove the body and rebury them. Then we asked why they were buried in the park, and they would tell us: during the final stages [of fighting] when there was heavy bombardment of cars, people couldn’t move the bodies in a normal fashion. They would gather all the bodies together and in the evening ISIS would bury them in the closest place.

Bodies would be put in bags and the ground was already dug so they would bring the bodies – they would put two, three, four bodies together and bury them in this ground. So it was due to initial assessments in the city and people’s testimonies and from working in the city. Once we started working on day one we started uncovering other places.

Airwars: The bodies in the mass graves, are they women, men, children, civilians, or fighters? How many are there?

RRC: The bodies belonged to women, children and men – for the latter we can’t tell if they were civilians or fighters. Some of them were militants but very few. The rest of the men, we can’t tell who’s a militant and who is a civilian.  It’s written on the bags [by whoever buried them] ‘a man, a woman, a child, a civilian.” Very, very few had written that this was a militant. But this does not mean that the rest are not militants.

We don’t have a final death toll of the number of women, men and children but we have so far recovered 150 bodies from Al-Rashid Stadium, and 27 bodies from  Hadika Baiyda [“White Garden” – a residential garden area of the city] where the second mass grave is.

Workers dig out bodies in a mass grave at the al-Rashid Stadium (Image courtesy of Raqqa Reconstruction Committee)

Airwars: Are bodies still being recovered from under the rubble?

RCC: We are still recovering them. Lately we’ve been busy with mass graves. We have more than one team – most of the team members are directed to the mass graves specifically, because it’s summer and the way they were buried was not 100% proper so sometimes there’s a smell. We try to allocate most of our efforts towards the mass graves but there is another team working on people under the rubble.

Airwars: How do you think people died in Raqqa? From airstrikes, artillery, from being shot?

RRC: Most likely, the majority died from aerial bombardment. Of course there were those who died from artillery but we could tell the difference with artillery. If there is partial destruction in the building then it’s artillery, but when it’s completely destroyed it is an airstrike. 

Airwars: Do you know how much artillery and how much airstrike destruction there was?

RRC: Probably 35% by artillery and the rest is airstrikes. It’s just an estimation.

Airwars: You told us that it’s summer, and that you want to recover the bodies. Could you please tell us more about the possible diseases you face from the heat and the decomposition of the bodies?

RRC: On the ground, until now we haven’t seen signs of diseases. But from initial assessments in the streets, there are areas where there’s a smell and other places there isn’t a smell but one thing that’s common is that the city is full of flies.

Airwars: What is the process when you recover bodies? When you have recovered 150 bodies from the stadium, what do you do to document those you have recovered?

RRC: When we recover multiple bodies [usually in bags], we put them near where they were recovered. With the presence of the forensic doctor, we open the body bag, and we try to identify the body. Then we write down what is written on the bag – whether it’s a number or a name. We identify the body if we can, as belonging to a woman, a child, a militant or a civilian; if the body is wrapped [in a Kafan] or wearing clothes.

We write the description of the clothes or the Kafan. Of course we haven’t seen a full body recovered. By that I mean that bodies have started to decompose even though they are in bags, but decomposed so you wouldn’t be able to tell what kind of injury the body had, whether it’s a head wound, or shrapnels or a cut. We write the condition of what we’ve seen. We place the remains in another bag which does not leak smells, and then transfer it to the cemetery and bury it properly.

Airwars: How much of a problem are unexploded munitions in Raqqa?

RRC: This is a very important point. The war has ended but a new one has just started. If you follow what ISIS releases [electronically], ISIS sent a message to the SDF and the civilians in general – people in this area – that we have left this land but will fight you for years. This was a remark alluding to the explosives which were intentionally planted, and other unexploded munitions.

For example, a few days ago, a guy was driving a bulldozer to help build a new house. There was an explosion while he was on the bulldozer, and in a 300 meter perimeter — or even half the perimeter was 300 meters — we couldn’t find him.

The danger is huge. Civilians have suffered badly, especially in the beginning when they entered the city in the first two months, when people returned to their homes. Explosives and mines were left in ways you wouldn’t imagine. Like if you opened the fridge, or the house door, or a window, and sometimes even if you opened the water tap or turned the switch or the water meters in the buildings – these are places that wouldn’t occur to you.

They even put explosives wired to a loofah. There was a woman with her children. They left Ain Essa camp and went back to her house in the city. After almost a week, she needed to use the loofah, so she moved it and it exploded and she died with her children. This danger is there from the beginning and it’s still present in the city and even the countryside. We have plenty of water stations that we have to rebuild and make work again, also power cables, government and public buildings, streets and even barriers. We assume that mines are everywhere.

Airwars: What about unexploded bombs and missiles?

RRC: There’s not a lot, only a few. ISIS’s strategy was to leave ammunition which would explode. We have discovered more than one ammunition factory. There is also some unexploded ammunition still in some parks, though not as many as the mines. They could be from SDF or anyone. We can’t tell whose ammunition it is. 

Airwars: When you recover the bodies and bury them again, do people know the location of the new graves? Or if people want to know if you have recovered a body, can they find out? Is there anything online or names in the new cemetery?

RRC: They are buried in a part of the city’s cemetery designated for these new bodies. It’s east of the city in a place called Tal Al-Bai’ya. We bury them individually. We leave marks here; if we have names [from the bags] we write them down. If not, we write numbers and we have in our files that body number X was found in such and such an area, and buried in this new area. If someone gives us information about a specific person, we would check and see if we have a match.

Airwars: Has anyone been able to identify or claim bodies? For example has anybody come to you and told you about a family member, and then it was possibly to identify them subsequently?

RRC: People can sometimes identify bodies while we are retrieving them, particularly where we recover the dead after receiving a family request. So we’d give people an appointment, for example a Saturday, so they would come and we then recover the bodies.

[Conversely] the bodies we recover from the rubble, nobody can identify even family members. The bodies have been exposed to the air and have decomposed, with only a few pieces left which cannot be identified. Not even their parents can identify them.

As for the mass grave, if someone had left a mark — some families for example left a mark in front of a hole, saying that a person related to me died in this hole —  then they can guess which person it is from the exact spot. When we find documents then some people recognize the victims – or from their clothes or the personal items they have on them. But these situations are very rare and only for those under the rubble, not the mass graves. Nobody was able to identify any body [in the mass graves].

Recovery crews handle a previously buried body at the Al-Rashid Stadium (via RRC).

Airwars: You have recovered 150 bodies from the stadium and 27 from Hadika Baiyda. Were you able to identify anyone?

RRC: No, not at all. We ourselves couldn’t identify them but there were some individual cases, I mean, for example Al-Rashid Stadium is different from Hadika Baiyda (White Garden).

Al-Rashid Stadium burials were done by ISIS members, because it is very close to the National Hospital in Raqqa. but  Hadika Baiyda was among many residential buildings. This area was besieged and bombarded especially in the last phase [of the battle for Raqqa.] People here were buried individually but there were also mass burials as well. Due to the bombardment, people weren’t able to take them to the cemetery, but buried them in the garden temporarily and left a mark.

Those buried individually, most people know who they belong to. Some people came back and were able to recover the body of their family because they were buried individually by their families, so these graves are known. But the bodies which weren’t recovered, we think their families left Raqqa and left Syria and never came back. If they went back, they would have recovered these bodies and reburied them properly.  

However, Hadika Bayda burials were carried out by the families. Due to the bombardment, they couldn’t go to the cemetery, which is almost 3km from the city center. People couldn’t transport the dead bodies in cars, because the cars were targeted by aircraft thinking they belonged to ISIS.

So people started digging in the garden to bury their families, and the same applies for other gardens and parks. Many of these people who buried their family members and and left the city, or who managed to flee, later came back and recovered the body even before we had started our project, and sometimes they ask us to recover them and rebury them in the city cemetery.

However for those who went to Turkey or Lebanon or any other country and couldn’t come back, they couldn’t recover the body. While they of course know where they buried their relatives, that knowledge is lost to us in Raqqa.

Airwars: Family members who come to ask you to recover their loved one’s bodies, do they tell you how they were killed?

RRC: Of the people coming to us, we don’t have statistics about how their loved ones died. But some have told us they were killed by ISIS snipers, when civilians tried to leave in the last days before the city was given to the SDF. Some said their relatives were killed by [air] bombardment, some by artillery. It seems to me the majority were killed by either air or artillery attacks. There are so many killed and under the buildings.

These graves – people used parks and stadiums due to air strikes. The bodies there definitely were not killed by ISIS because ISIS when they killed people, they had no manners. If you remember what they did in Shehaytat, in Deir Ezzor, they killed 750 people in cold blood, ISIS would show them in videos and on their media. But these people [in Raqqa] were killed in bombardments.

Airwars: You mentioned that the bodies in the stadium are not identified?

RRC: Yes, and I will tell you a story, A mother came looking for her son. He left the city when the SDF created a safe passage for civilians to leave. This guy took one of those passages, but he was shot by a sniper, that’s what his mother told us, so his friends who were with him took him to the National Hospital, but he died in the hospital and was buried at night in Al-Rashid Stadium.

His mother came to ask about him and gave us his name, but we didn’t have names. We showed her the documentations and marks of the bodies we found, a woman here, a child there, a man there, but there are no features, so she couldn’t tell where he was buried and even if she sees all the bodies, she wouldn’t be able to identify her son [due to the state of the remains]. If the body was not left with a mark from the person who was burying it, it is impossible to identify it at all. This was for Al-Rashid Stadium.

Airwars: You work with dead bodies on a daily basis. This must be very difficult for you due to the number of those killed, and the families who come to ask about their loved ones. How do you cope with this kind of work?

RRC: It’s such suffering. Working with dead bodies is still dangerous because you’re recovering bodies and you don’t know what’s buried inside. The mine removal teams are active in the city, but small things might put people in danger. We have recovered militants’ bodies and the explosive belts were still on them, and this puts the whole team in danger. Thank God, it still hasn’t happened [an explosion].

This job is difficult and dangerous. We’re still doing it and adapting, but working in the mass graves is highly dangerous both physically and mentally for team members. We have given days off to members of the team. We transfer them to another team to search for bodies under the rubble, and step away from the mass graves.

Working in mass graves creates a shock and leaves you in a state where you don’t want to eat or drink or even have a healthy life. So in order to adapt, we rotate the team members, some of them work in the mass graves, some search for bodies in the city, others recover bodies from under the rubble, and that allow us to keep a minimum effect mentally and physically on team members.