NGO report details IS group’s ‘abyss of horror’ in northern Syria

Human Rights Watch published details of a mass grave in the Al-Hota Gorge in northern Syria in a report released on May 4. The NGO said the so-called Islamic State (IS) group was responsible, and called for further investigations into the death grave in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Researchers call it “the abyss of horror”. Located 85 kilometers north of Raqqa, the former center of Syria, was used as a mass grave by the jihadist group which led the region from 2013 to 2015, Human Rights Watch revealed.

The NGO investigated the issue from 2014 to 2019, using satellite technology and geological maps, among other devices, and was able to film the bodies of six people, not yet identified, floating in the water at the bottom of the 50 meter deep pit. But there are clear indications that the number of corpses is much higher there.

Speaking to FRANCE 24, Nadim Houry, co-author of the report, former director of the Terrorism / Counterterrorism program of HRW and now executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative think tank, retraced the investigation and the questions it asked. raised.

What led you to investigate the Al-Hota pit?

It all started with a video broadcast by the Islamic State group and released by the Syrian media in June 2014. The sequence shows seven masked terrorists throwing the bodies of two men into the abyss. At the time, the IS group controlled the area and we couldn’t investigate. But I knew the area well – I went there in 2013, and even then I heard rumors of corpses thrown in the throat. After that, we were unable to go there until the summer of 2017, when the IS group was driven out during the Battle of Raqqa.

What were the difficulties in investigating?

Well, to start with, the pit is hard to reach, it’s a canyon, it’s deserted, it’s far from the nearest road, the paths leading to it were littered with mines and explosives. And the abyssEastitself is very steep, with a fall of 50 meters.

There have been other complications. The village of Soulouk is only a five-minute drive away, but its residents were afraid to answer questions. Even though the IS group was losing ground, it still had sleeping cells and members who refused to surrender.

How has technology helped your investigation?

Our goal was to film at the bottom of the abyss and drones were the best way to do it. But we had a lot of trouble getting the drones there. The IS group also used them, so the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan, which we passed through, took almost a year to give us the green light to use them, lest our drones be hijacked by terrorists.

In September 2018, we were finally able to introduce two French technological devices operating without GPS; this was necessary because the companies had been ordered to cut their signals to facilitate the fight against the IS group. This technology allowed us to see 50 meters into the abyss. It was a huge challenge. We almost lost a drone that was hit by a flock of birds in the throat, but a second drone finally gave us the images we needed.

What did you find there?

The images show six bodies floating on a surface of viscous water – probably pockets of oil. But we could not identify the bodies, nor dive under the surface, where there are surely other corpses.

The IS group no longer controlled the area at this point in 2018. What made you think he was responsible?

The abyss was probably used as a mass grave by rebel groups before and after ISIS controlled the region. In 2018, we informed the Syrian Democratic Forces, a rebel group that had taken control of the region, and they told us about settling scores between residents. But we have never been able to substantiate these claims. On the other hand, we have evidence against the IS group.

First, there was the aforementioned video from 2014; and then there are local testimonies and local journalistic inquiries. We also know that the IS group did the same thing in another abyss in Iraq. It may be a punishment for “impure” people who, according to their jihadist ideology, do not deserve to be buried. But understanding this practice would require further anthropological investigation.

Why publish the report now?

We pushed our technology to the maximum of what we could do. We must now continue the investigation – because so far, what we have discovered raises more questions than answers. We begged the international coalition to fight the IS group, then with the SDF, and now with the Turkish troops who control the region, to ensure that the site is secure as a crime scene. Of course, the answers are there and it is imperative that we find them in order to write a complete history of the IS group and to ensure that these crimes do not happen again.

This report is part of a larger Human Rights Watch investigation into the disappearances caused by the Islamic State group. This abyss has a sensationalist aspect; it’s intriguing. He already had a particular fascination for the local populations: the legend tells that there was a mythical creature there which kidnapped people. But it is a mass grave among many. There are at least 20 in the region and thousands of people have disappeared during the reign of the IS group – Westerners, Syrians and Iraqis.

The Syrians were the first to suffer from the atrocities of the IS group; they lost loved ones, they saw their economy collapse. Giving answers on the fate of missing persons would be a way of putting things in order and helping the country to rebuild. This would allow families to cry and the country to turn a page in its history.

This article has been translated from the original in French.