Missing Persons

The conflict in Syria has led to the forced disappearance of tens of thousands of civilians. While the majority of these people were disappeared by the Syrian government, substantial numbers have also been kidnapped and detained by non-state actors. Justice in Syria will require that detainees are released and families learn the fates of their loved ones. While SJAC works on justice for missing persons across the country, its missing persons program focuses specifically on the fates of those who went missing in Northeast Syria due to ISIS crimes as well as anti-ISIS Coalition airstrikes. The relative stability of Northeast Syria allows for in-depth investigations that are not currently possible in much of the country. SJAC is hopeful that the lessons learned from this program will someday inform a country-wide missing persons program to investigate the fates of and pursue justice for all of Syria’s missing.

The program consists of three main areas of work:

Investigating mass graves

Since 2018, a local team of first responders has been responsible for opening mass graves in Northeast Syria. These graves hold evidence which could help to identify bodies, return remains to families, and lay the groundwork for criminal accountability and other justice efforts. However, to achieve these goals, graves must be opened in accordance with best practices and carefully documented. To this end, SJAC has partnered with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), one of the foremost organizations worldwide working to apply forensic science to the field of human rights. SJAC and EAAF are working to provide trainings in forensic science to the First Responders’ Team, ensuring that they open graves, document remains, and process the resulting data in accordance with best practice. You can learn more about SJAC’s collaboration with the First Responders’ Team in its report, ‘Searching for Missing Persons in Northeast Syria.’

Documenting and analyzing cases of missing persons  

In addition to collecting documentation from graves, SJAC is also collecting documentation on missing persons in Northeast Syria through interviews with witnesses and family members, and processing the resulting data in the missing persons section of its database. Once sufficient documentation has been collected, SJAC staff will be able to utilize the database to conduct searches, identify new gravesites, and share relevant documentation with justice mechanisms investigating ISIS crimes.

Elevating the voices of families of the missing

Many families of those who are missing in Northeast Syria are working tirelessly to search for their loved ones and advocate on their behalf. SJAC collaborates closely with these families to elevate their demands and connect them with opportunities for advocacy. SJAC, in collaboration with the Syria Campaign, provides trainings in media engagement and advocacy skills, psychosocial support, and opportunities and necessary resources to participate in events.

How to get involved

You can read SJAC’s publications on missing persons here. If you have a loved one who is missing from Northeast Syria you can find out how to get involved in SJAC’s advocacy and/or documentation efforts here, or contact us at [email protected].