In the aftermath of the battle to liberate Raqqa from ISIS control, the local population started identifying mass graves throughout the city. Local leaders looking to move past the era of ISIS control, as well as families desperate to know if their missing loved ones are inside these graves, have demanded immediate exhumation. These demands are understandable. There is an urgent need to investigate these sites and bring closure to families who are waiting to hear the fate of their loved ones. However, immediate exhumation is not the best way to achieve this goal. If investigators open graves without an understanding of who they are searching for, there will be no identifications. This is why investigators must first focus on contextual investigations, collecting documentation on the larger context of each grave and the related crimes, in order to build hypotheses regarding the possible victims inside. This contextual understanding allows forensic experts to open graves with a clear goal and maximizes the possibilities of identifying victims.
The newly re-launched Syria Missing Persons and Forensic Team (SMFT) is dedicated to investigating the fates of missing persons in and around Raqqa, including through forensic investigations of mass graves. However, in close collaboration with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and SJAC, the team decided to halt the exhumation of new graves in February 2021. The only graves the SMFT is currently exhuming are those that are blocking critical reconstruction work or where remains are in immediate danger. Instead, the team is shifting its focus to preservation of graves and the contextual investigations necessary to support identifications. Local communities, families, and policymakers need to understand this choice to pause exhumations and why it is critical for future identifications.
How do contextual investigations support identification?
Forensic archeologists and anthropologists have a wide variety of skills at their disposal in order to support the identification of human remains through methods including sex identification, age estimation, and DNA analysis. Many of these skills were first developed for investigations in a ‘closed identification universe.’ This means that the identity of the individuals in a particular grave is known, and it is the job of the forensic team to correctly assign those identities to each individual remains, so they can be returned to families. This may be the case, for example, in an extrajudicial killing where a witness was present and able to identify all victims. In such cases, investigators compare the biological profile and DNA of remains in a grave to the profile of the missing persons believed to be in the grave, in order to find matches.
The challenge that teams like the EAAF has been tackling for over thirty years, is how to apply forensic skills to cases of massive human rights violations, in which thousands or even tens of thousands are missing, and there is little or no information on who is dead or alive, let along inside particular graves.
Northeast Syria is an example of one of these more complex cases. Thousands are missing, there is little evidence on who may be dead or alive, and it is difficult not only to link individuals to particular grave sites, but even cities or countries. ISIS detainees were moved between cities and across international borders, and SJAC is collecting interviews from families of the missing not only in Raqqa and its surroundings but also in Idlib, Aleppo, and northern Iraq. Comparing data or even DNA from each recovered remains with information on all of those missing individuals would be a massive and inefficient undertaking.
Opening graves in this context is unproductive. If investigators do not know who they are searching for, there will be no identifications. Investigators must first focus on understanding which victims may be in each individual grave. Doing so necessitates investigating every grave and building a hypothesis regarding the identity of those inside before it is opened. This, in turn, requires extensive contextual investigation into the history of each grave site as well as overall patterns of crimes, transfer of detainees, and the nature of individual disappearances.
Are investigations happening in Northeast Syria?
Yes. Following its recent training with the EAAF, the Syrian Missing Persons and Forensic Team will be focused on contextual investigations of identified grave sites when not actively engaged in exhumations and forensic analysis. Their work will supplement the work of SJAC’s documentation team, which conducts interviews with families of the missing, former ISIS detainees, and perpetrators. The team is also utilizing ISIS documents, satellite imagery, videos, and other open-source evidence. All of this evidence will be centralized and used to build hypotheses about the fates of specific individuals, which can then allow for future exhumation and identification.
Will evidence decay while exhumations are delayed?
Many families worry that the evidence needed to identify their loved ones will decay if graves are not opened promptly, but this is not the case. In fact, burial is one of the best ways to preserve human remains. There are of course other reasons for urgency. Most importantly, families are desperate to discover the fates of their loved ones, and ever-shifting conditions on the ground could also mean that exhumation is not possible in the future. However, as long as identification is the goal, there is no benefit to exhuming graves before there is a clear hypothesis regarding who may be inside.
How long will it take?
Unfortunately, the process of identifying missing persons on the scale necessary in Northeast Syria will take many years. Families in Bosnia are still today receiving identification of their loved ones who were killed in the 1992 massacre at Srebrenica, and this timeline is not unusual in such massive cases. This is why it is so important that families understand and are engaged in each step of investigative processes, allowing them to manage their expectations about receiving an identification and participate in decision making processes.
After a conflict, the exhumations of mass graves often hold symbolic meaning for communities as they shine a light on and move past the atrocities they experienced. Such exhumations are also often seen as a metric of success by donors and policymakers. However, exhumations alone provide little to families and communities. Through the efforts of the Syrian Missing Persons and Forensic Team, SJAC and its partners are hopeful that when exhumations re-start in Raqqa, they will be part of a larger investigative process allowing families to learn the fates of their loved ones and receive their remains.