Raqqa’s forgotten victims
Families appeal for help in tracing hundreds of people detained by Isis
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