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The Importance of Protecting Mass Graves in Syria

A mass grave in eastern Bosnia. Photo from Wikimedia

As Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advance on Raqqa, Kurdish sources have reported the discovery of an alleged Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) mass gravesite four kilometers east of Tabqa. According to a 2016 Associated Press survey, ISIS has commonly used mass graves since 2014; the survey estimated ISIS has 72 mass gravesites in Iraq and Syria containing up to 15,000 bodies. Satellite imagery and other documentation indicates that both the Syrian government and ISIS use mass graves and burn sites to dispose of dead bodies, making victim identification difficult – but not impossible. Forensic DNA testing can aid in victim identification and crime scene investigation for use in future accountability efforts, but the ongoing conflict in Syria poses challenges to the proper preservation and analysis of mass graves. To avoid mishandling of dead bodies found in and around Raqqa, SDF forces, the US-led coalition, and the international community must commit to protecting the integrity of sites to eventually allow forensic experts unfettered access in conducting accurate investigations that yield evidence for future justice mechanisms and the safe return of bodies to families.

The United Nations (UN) considers a mass grave to be a location with three or more victims “of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions” who have not died in combat. Under international humanitarian law (IHL), conflict parties should “take all possible measures” to prevent bodies from being despoiled and make all efforts to identify the dead and provide proper burials in marked graves. The use of mass gravesites hinders the accurate identification and recovery of remains, compounding the widespread missing persons crisis the Syrian conflict has produced.

It is difficult to know the exact number of missing persons in Syria because the country lacks a systematic or formal reporting system, but groups like the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) approximate it at 60,000. Since missing persons could be in secret government detention, abducted by an armed group, dead, or simply out of the country without means to contact their kin, families are often desperate to know what happened to their loved ones. Uncertainty as to the whereabouts of family members contributes to the mental health challenges of an already traumatic war.

The desire of families to know their loved one’s location poses a challenge to protecting mass graves. Local residents may tamper with the sites in the hopes (and dread) of locating missing family members. While this desire is understandable, premature exhumation or alteration of a mass gravesite can transfer outside DNA to the crime scene that prevents accurate victim identification and evidence gathering. The issue of contaminated mass graves is already a concern near Sinjar Mountain in Iraq, where local residents and Kurdish forces improperly exhumed bodies believed to be Yezidis.

“If you want these cases to go to court, then anything that leads to the destruction of evidence makes it more difficult to paint a picture of what happened at that site and determine who could have been the perpetrator,” said Kathryne Bomberger, Director-General of ICMP.

While having trained, independent forensic experts enter Raqqa to conduct DNA testing is ideal, unstable governance may hinder access to the gravesites due to safety concerns. In April, the SDF demonstrated willingness to create formal governing institutions in post-ISIS Raqqa by announcing the formation of a local civilian council. In addition, Kurdish officials reported that the US is training a police force in anticipation of Raqqa’s liberation from ISIS. These steps toward reestablishing safety and security in Raqqa are reassuring, yet there is no indication as to how the local civilian council or police force will facilitate protection of mass gravesites and access to investigators.

Even if Raqqa quickly regains security and stability, forensic experts need financial and logistical resources.  A lack of international support could delay action to recover and examine bodies. This was a major issue during the Balkans conflicts. The international entity tasked with managing missing persons cases, the Special Process on Missing Persons in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia, only received 5 percent of its initial promised funding.

To preserve mass graves in Syria for forensic analysis and body repatriation, the US-led coalition and international community first must encourage SDF forces to protect mass graves from tampering by local residents. Armed groups must also be discouraged from exhuming bodies to appease the local population or to advertise their defeat of ISIS. Realistic steps to maintain the integrity of such sites are outlined in the Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death. For example, the guidelines state that a mass gravesite “and any evidence within it should be protected by the use of a cordon.” A cordon may not prevent all local residents from contaminating a gravesite, but it will at least provide a deterrent.

While deterring local residents is essential, it is important to also address any potential anger or frustration individuals and families may have in not being able to locate their loved ones.  International humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross can provide psychosocial support to help families deal with grief, facilitate mourning rituals, and provide safe spaces. This support can also educate civilians on the importance of allowing trained forensic experts to conduct formal investigations into missing persons without contamination by untrained civilians.

“It is a conundrum,” Bomberger said. “To tell families who are in a state of trauma, ‘wait.’ It’s a difficult issue and the longer the conflict goes on, the more difficult it will be to tell families to wait. But it’s a crime scene so you have to be very strict about who accesses it.”

The issue of mass graves in Syria is complex. Civilians and armed groups alike have a stake in quickly recovering bodies. Given that achieving stability and legitimate governance in Raqqa and throughout Syria is so indeterminate, families may grow frustrated and impatient with the prospect of justice. But if victims’ families are to truly benefit from an effort to search for the missing, local and international stakeholders must work on creative solutions and grassroots education efforts to encourage patience and professionalism.

“People often talk about the identification of bodies as a means for closure,” Bomberger said. “But closure is not the same as accountability. Identification is only the first step and leads to other rights like right to the truth, right to justice, right to inheritance. Proper crime scene investigation can open the door for accountability, not merely closure.”