Raqqa’s for­got­ten victims

Fam­i­lies ap­peal for help in trac­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple de­tained by Isis

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Ka­reem Sha­heen Ah­mad Haj Hamdo Is­tan­bul

The fam­i­lies of hun­dreds of civil­ians who were seized by Is­lamic State and held in the group’s no­to­ri­ous jails have urged the mil­i­tary fac­tions that ousted Isis from its de facto cap­i­tal in Syria, Raqqa, to help them find out what hap­pened to their loved ones.

Rel­a­tives say hun­dreds, pos­si­bly thousands, of peo­ple re­main un­ac­counted for de­spite the group’s re­treat to desert hide­outs. “We have hun­dreds of names, pic­tures and ar­rest dates. There is no full list but we are dis­cov­er­ing new names ev­ery day,” said Amer Matar, a doc­u­men­tary film-maker from Raqqa, who lives in Ger­many and started an on­line cam­paign to raise aware­ness about the de­tainees. Matar’s brother, Mo­hamed Nour, was de­tained by Isis in Au­gust 2013 and is still miss­ing.

“None of the mil­i­tary or ju­di­cial or­gan­i­sa­tions have dealt se­ri­ously with the is­sue of those kid­napped by Daesh [Isis], and we have had no re­spon­sive­ness from them,” he added. “Our fam­i­lies are sec­ond-class ci­ti­zens to every­one con­cerned.”

The Isis caliphate has col­lapsed un­der a mul­ti­pronged as­sault in Iraq and Syria by Kur­dish mili­tias, Turk­ish­backed rebels, the US-led coali­tion, and the Iraqi and Syr­ian armies. The mil­i­tants have claimed sev­eral high­pro­file pris­on­ers, in­clud­ing Fa­ther Paolo Dall’Oglio, a dis­si­dent Ital­ian Je­suit priest who lived in Syria. His fate re­mains un­known. Many Syr­i­ans who lived in fear were de­tained on a daily ba­sis for in­frac­tions rang­ing from smok­ing to protest­ing against the mil­i­tants’ ac­tions, doc­u­ment­ing abuses and “apos­tasy”.

Matar has teamed up with a net­work of ac­tivists on the ground who have vis­ited abandoned Isis prisons to pho­to­graph them and gather any doc­u­men­ta­tion that could il­lu­mi­nate the fate of the pris­on­ers. Some of those de­ten­tion cen­tres have al­ready been con­verted into hold­ing cells for the con­quer­ing forces.

Among the things they found were the mem­oirs of an Isis jailer, ver­dicts handed down by the group’s courts – in­clud­ing an ex­e­cu­tion order against a nurse who al­legedly con­fessed to curs­ing God – etch­ings by pris­on­ers on the walls, and abandoned orange jump­suits that they sur­mised were re­moved be­fore Isis killed pris­on­ers.

The Syr­ian Net­work for Hu­man Rights has doc­u­mented the names of at least 8,119 in­di­vid­u­als who re­main miss­ing, in­clud­ing 286 chil­dren and more than 300 women. The SNHR said Isis ran at least 54 de­ten­tion cen­tres at the height of its power, with many more se­cret prisons and cells.

A spokesman for the net­work said that at least 1,600 in­di­vid­u­als had died in­side Isis prisons from a num­ber of causes, in­clud­ing tor­ture, mass ex­e­cu­tions, the tar­get­ing of prisons by the US-led coali­tion dur­ing ter­ri­to­rial retreats by Isis forces, and me­nial labour they forced pris­on­ers to carry out near the front­lines as pun­ish­ment.

The spokesman said the re­spon­si­bil­ity for ver­i­fy­ing what hap­pened to the pris­on­ers fell on the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed al­liance led by Kur­dish mili­tias that took con­trol of Raqqa. “The SDF con­trols broad swathes of ar­eas that were un­der the mil­i­tants’ con­trol in­clud­ing Raqqa city, which held the most im­por­tant ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tres for the group and its lead­ers,” he said.

“They have also de­tained dozens of se­cu­rity of­fi­cials and lead­ers in the group who def­i­nitely have in­for­ma­tion that would clar­ify the fate of the forcibly dis­ap­peared.”

The SDF did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

The fam­i­lies, while some­times con­tem­plat­ing the worst, still grasp for scraps of in­for­ma­tion about their loved ones. Among them is Zubayda Is­mail, the wife of a sur­geon from Raqqa who was kid­napped by armed men wear­ing bal­a­clavas in Novem­ber 2013 and has not been seen since. Is­mail’s protes­ta­tions to Isis led nowhere, as the mil­i­tants de­nied they had de­tained her hus­band.

Af­ter flee­ing to Turkey and then France, Is­mail posts a mes­sage about her hus­band on the cam­paign’s Face­book page ev­ery day, up­dat­ing the length of time since he was ab­ducted.

Miss­ing ... Mo­ham­mad Nour Matar; right, his brother’s on­line cam­paign and a nurse’s death sen­tence

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