A month and a half since digging in one of Raqqa‘s largest discovered mass graves began, grave diggers continue to exhume bodies, with one official saying that more than 500 bodies have been so far recovered.
The operation in the city in northern Syria, once the de facto capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group, is being undertaken by local groups and first responders amid concerns regarding the preservation of bodies and evidence for possible war crimes trials.
Raqqa was taken from ISIL in October 2017 after a fierce US-backed campaign, but recovery teams continue to locate mass graves in and around the city.
The Panorama mass grave, named after the neighbourhood where it was found, is one of the largest of nine mass graves discovered so far, and is believed to contain around 1,500 bodies.
Hammoud al-Shawakh, a local official involved in the work, was quoted as saying by The Associated Press news agency on Tuesday that 516 bodies believed to be of ISIL fighters and civilians have so far been exhumed.
The work to exhume the bodies, which are believed to have been buried there in the last days of the four-month campaign to capture Raqqa, is painstaking and the task is huge.
Abdul Raouf al-Ahmad, a deputy forensic doctor, said local teams start their work at 8am and work for more than seven hours straight each day.
“After we extract the bodies from this grave … we document whether it belongs to a fighter, child, baby, an adolescent or woman or an ordinary person,” he told AP.
“We document clothing, ornaments, height, type of injury, cause of death and how it was covered, what the person was wearing, with what it was wrapped and its position in the grave,” he added.
International human rights groups say they are concerned that local groups are not getting the support they need in terms of forensic expertise and human resources.
“We’re in a race against time. These bodies are decomposing at an exponential rate,” said Sara Kayyali, of Human Rights Watch.
“If these bodies are not preserved in the correct way, in the way that’s been established, then it does mean that much of this evidence might be lost when we’re seeking accountability for crimes committed either in the context of the battle or before it,” she added.