Raqa (Syria) (AFP) – The stench is overwhelming, but Fawaz does not let it stop him. Stepping around the blue body bags, he searches for his brother’s remains in the largest mass grave uncovered in Syria’s Raqa.
The sacks are lined up on an otherwise bare football pitch neighbouring Raqa’s national hospital, where jihadists from the Islamic State group made their last stand for their withering “caliphate.”
US-backed forces ousted IS from the devastated city in October, leaving the Raqa Civil Council to run it.
Around a week ago, the RCC discovered dozens of bodies buried in the vast courtyard and have begun carefully retrieving them.
One worker pulls back a piece of sky-blue tarp. Fawaz Hamadeh puts his hand over his nose, and leans in over the decomposing body.
The thin 21-year-old is searching for any signs of his brother, fatally wounded in heavy bombardment during the battle’s final days.
“My parents were able to leave, and he was supposed to flee too — but he couldn’t find a car and it was too late,” Hamadeh says.
He heard his brother was buried in the yard, but the body he is looking at is unfamiliar.
“I’m feeling so much pain because I can’t find my brother’s body or that of his wife,” says Hamadeh.
He looks around at the rows of dead, the rusting carcasses of cars, the crumbling multi-storey buildings.
“It’s indescribable, the size of this disaster we’re living,” he says.
– ‘Children, women, fighters’ –
IS captured Raqa in 2014 and made it the de facto Syrian capital of the infamous “caliphate” across which it imposed a rule of terror.
The bodies found outside the hospital appeared to be from a makeshift cemetery used in the final stages of the Raqa offensive, local officials say, and not the result of a group execution.
Under the blistering sun, first responders wearing white surgical masks and plastic gloves dig straight, shallow trenches using shovels and their bare hands.
Six workers retrieve a thick, maroon-coloured blanket holding a decomposing body.
“A woman, looks to be in her forties,” one notes, as he writes in a red notebook.
Around 60 bodies have been retrieved since the mass grave was found around a week ago, says Yasser al-Khamis, who heads the RCC’s first responder team.
“We’ve seen children’s bodies, women, and fighters, too. We saw bodies with hands or heads cut off. Most are civilians,” he says.
Of the recovered corpses, 10 have been identified by relatives.
But as many as 200 could be buried there in total, estimates Abdullah al-Arian, who heads the RCC’s reconstruction committee.
“After we extract the body, the forensics doctor examines it. If their loved ones are there and can identify it, we hand it over,” he says.
“Otherwise, we take pictures — teeth, bones, any anatomical identifiers — and bury them with a number so we can identify them later,” Arian says.
The RCC has been retrieving bodies from the rubble across Raqa, left in ruins by the months-long assault to oust IS. Arian says 655 have been found so far.
“We’re still searching for bodies, finding them through resident reports, the smell, or the flies,” he tells AFP.
– Indescribable grief –
Ali Hassan, 52, has been trekking to the pitch for days, hoping each newly-uncovered corpse is his brother’s.
“Every time they pull out a body, we check if it’s him. We know his clothes, the documents he would have had in his pajama pockets,” says Hassan.
For Mohammad Abdulhameed, seeing the mass grave was like being sent back into a nightmare.
The 32-year-old lawyer remembers how IS would bring groups of dead from the nearby hospital to be buried there.
“Daesh wouldn’t let anyone bury their dead,” he recalls, using the Arabic word for IS.
“My friend died and I took him to the hospital, but they forbade me from burying him or even being present during the burial,” says Abdulhameed.
Instead, he watched from behind a nearby wall and is now back, searching for the grave.
“They robbed us of our most basic human rights. Our memories are scattered. It’s a grief I can’t describe.”