Human Rights Watcha investigated a mass grave discovered at the bottom of the Al-Hota ravine in Syria, which the NGO assigns to the Islamic State group. When France 24 is questioned by the author of the report published at the beginning of the conference, further investigation of “disappeared from Daesh” requires an important step to “turn this page into history”.
Scientists call it the “abyss of terror”. The Al-Hota Gorge, located 85 kilometers north of Raqqa, the former Islamic State (IS) capital in Syria, was used as a mass grave by the jihadist group that ruled the region from 2013 to 2015, reveals aHuman Rights Watch Report (HRW) was released May 4.
The NGO for Human Rights conducted the survey from 2013 to 2019 and used advanced technology to access this geological site, in particular. She was able to film six bodies, not yet identified, floating in the water, at the bottom of the 50-meter abyss. But everything indicates that there are many more corpses there.
Interviewed by France 24, Nadim Houry, former director of the Human Rights Watch Terrorism / Counterterrorism Program and co-author of the report, now executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, think tank, examining the conditions for this particular investigation and the questions it poses.
France 24: How did you target the Al-Hota pit at the beginning of your investigation?
Nadim Houry: It all started with a video leaked from ISIS and broadcast by Syrian media in June 2014. It featured seven masked terrorists who threw the bodies of two men deep in the throat. At that time, the region was dominated by Daesh, we could not investigate there, there were other massacres … But I knew the area well, I had been there in 2013 and already at that time I had heard rumors of bodies thrown. Then we could only go back there in the summer of 2017, at the battle of Raqqa.
What were the difficulties in investigating?
First, it is difficult to access the pit. It is a kind of canyon, far from the road, quite deserted. The roads leading to it were full of mines and explosives. Then the pit is very steep and falls to 50 meters deep.
The human investigation was also complicated. In the village of Soulouk, which is a five minute drive away, the villagers were afraid to answer questions. Even though Daesh lost ground, there were still IS-sleeping people and people refused to surrender.
How has technology helped you in your investigation?
Our goal was to film at the bottom of the screen and drones were the best way to do that. But we had a lot of trouble importing it. ISIS used it too, so the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan – through which we passed – took almost a year to give us permission, so our drones were not cut for terrorist purposes.
In September 2018, we were finally able to bring in two French technology units that can operate without GPS – commercial companies were ordered to reduce their signals in connection with the fight against IS – and dive 50 meters below us. . The challenge was enormous. We almost lost a drone that was hit by a flock of birds in the throat, but the other drone finally took the pictures back to us.
What did you discover?
In the pictures you can see six bodies floating on the surface of viscous water, probably pockets of oil. But we could not identify the bodies that remained in the water nor dive beneath the surface, where there are probably other corpses.
We are in 2018 and the Islamic State group no longer dominates the region. Why accuse him of your report?
There was probably a use of this grave as a mass grave of rebel groups before IS and then after them. In 2018, we warned the FDS (the military coalition for the Syrian Democratic Forces) that had regained control of the region and they told us to score points among the locals. But we have never been able to substantiate these claims. But we have evidence against IS.
First the video from 2014, then local testimonies and local journalistic inquiries. Finally, we know that IS used the same methods in a pit in Iraq. It can be a punishment reserved for “unclean” people who, according to jihadists, do not deserve to be buried. But understanding this practice requires further anthropological investigation.
Why release this report now?
We pushed our technology to the maximum we could do. Now we have to continue the investigation because this document asks more questions than it answers. We have appealed to the international coalition, since the SDF, and now with Turkish troops, to ensure that the place is safe as a crime scene. The answers are there and they are necessary to write the IS story and make sure these crimes do not happen again.
This report is part of a larger HRW investigation of missing from Daesh. This pit is spectacular, exciting. Locally, she already had a fascination: a local myth told her that she was protecting a creature that kidnapped people. But this pit is one of many. There are at least 20 in the region and thousands have disappeared during IS’s reign. Iraqis, Westerners, but also Syrians.
Syrians are the first to suffer from Daesh’s cruelty, they have lost loved ones, have seen their economy collapse, and the coalition acts as if this war had taken place. To answer the missing destiny is to rearrange things and help the country to rebuild. It’s also about letting families mourn and countries turning the page on Daesh.