ISIL (ISIS) used a deep gorge in northeast Syria as a dumping ground and mass grave for bodies of people it abducted and executed, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report.
Authorities need to remove the human remains from the al-Hota gorge located 85km (53 miles) north of Raqqa city and preserve the evidence for criminal proceedings against the killers, HRW urged in a statement on Monday.
ISIL controlled the area around the al-Hota gorge from 2013 to 2015.
By flying a camera-equipped drone into the 50m (164 feet) deep gorge, HRW discovered the remains of at least six people floating at the bottom.
Based on the state of decomposition, the bodies were dumped there long after ISIL had left the area, HRW said. The identities of those victims and their causes of death remain unknown.
Geological maps and a 3D topographic model of al-Hota from the drone imagery suggest that the gorge goes deeper than the drone was able to see, so more human remains may lie below the water’s surface, HRW said.
“Al-Hota gorge, once a beautiful natural site, has become a place of horror and reckoning,” Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at HRW said.
“Exposing what happened there, and at the other mass graves in Syria, is crucial to determining what happened to the thousands of the people ISIS executed and holding their killers to account.”
Locals also recounted to HRW that when ISIL controlled the Raqqa area, its members threatened people with being thrown into al-Hota.
Three people told HRW they had been to al-Hota during the time of ISIL’s control and had seen bodies scattered along the gorge’s edge.
One man who had gone to collect desert truffles that grow in the area in March 2015 said he saw a body stuck on a protruding ledge.
“This was a dumping area for bodies from all over,” he told HRW. “They [ISIL] brought them in from Raqqa, Deir al-Zor – nobody knows how many bodies were there.”
An ISIL-recorded video posted on Facebook in 2014 shows a group of men throwing two bodies into the gorge.
HRW verified that the clothes on the men match those worn by two people who are shown in another video being executed by ISIL members.
More than 20 mass graves across Syria containing thousands of bodies have been found in areas formerly held by ISIL.
But efforts to exhume these mass graves have been faltering due to a fluid security situation, limited resources and minimal outside support, HRW said.
The al-Hota gorge is currently controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, while Raqqa city remains under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Kayyali said whichever authority controls the gorge has an obligation to protect and preserve the site.
“They should facilitate the collection of evidence to hold ISIS members accountable for their horrendous crimes, as well as those who dumped bodies in al-Hota before or after the ISIS rule,” Kayyali said.
HRW added that authorities need to ensure the area is clear of unexploded munitions so that forensic experts can descend into the gorge, remove the bodies and begin with identification.