Syrians search for Daesh captives a year after caliphate crumbles

RAQQA, Syria: When the Daesh group lost its Syrian bastion Raqqa last year, Amani hoped to finally uncover what happened to her husband who had vanished in the jihadists’ prisons.
But with many Daesh jails destroyed in fighting and no centralized body investigating the issue, she has spent a year desperately searching for Abdul-Ilah without answers.
“I thought I’d see him immediately after the city was liberated. I thought he would come back to me,” said Amani, a mother of three.
“But I haven’t heard any news on whether he’s alive or dead. No one helped me with this.”
Daesh ruled over Raqqa for three years, implementing its interpretation of Islamic law until US-backed forces seized the northern Syrian city on October 17, 2017.
Anyone who violated the jihadists’ rulings or was suspected of working against them was locked up in its notorious prisons, including under the football stadium where the group made its ill-fated last stand.
Abdul-Ilah was among them, accused by Daesh three years ago of plotting with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to bring a car bomb into Raqqa.
Amani, who denies his involvement, said she has spent a painful year searching for her husband.
Some sources told her that he had been killed, while others said he was whisked away with other detainees to Hajjin, Daesh’s final holdout in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor.
Amani now works with the Raqqa Civil Council, which has governed the city since the fall of Daesh, and has demanded a committee be created to properly follow up.
Her hair wrapped in a glittery beige scarf, she flipped through papers at her RCC office.
“Whether he’s alive or dead, I just want to know so I can rest.”
Hanan, 22, misses having her older sister Razan around.
Her 24-year-old sibling was arrested in an Daesh raid two years ago, accused with seven friends of being “regime spies” and “apostates.”
“Until today, we know nothing,” Hanan said.
“There isn’t anyone we haven’t contacted but it’s all been in vain,” she said.
Staring quietly out a window at a collapsed building in Raqqa, she mulled over the painful possibilities.
“If they didn’t kill her, maybe she died in the bombing. Maybe when they besieged Raqqa, she starved to death, or maybe they used her in a hostage swap,” Hanan said.
Since Syria’s war erupted in 2011, tens of thousands of people have been detained, kidnapped, or “disappeared.”
A majority are expected to have vanished in the Syrian government’s labyrinth of detention centers, but others were arrested by rebels or jihadists.
Human Rights Watch estimates between 3,000 and 5,000 people detained by Daesh across its onetime caliphate remain missing, a year after Raqqa’s recapture.
“It is very frustrating for families who thought that after Raqqa was taken, they would be able to uncover the fate of their loved ones,” said HRW researcher Sara Kayyali.
Many were spending their savings trying to track down relatives on their own, without official help.
“There is not even a centralized mechanism for people to register their disappeared or missing, which shows how low of a priority it is for local authorities and the US-led coalition,” said Kayyali.
Further complicating the search for lost loved ones is the vast destruction wreaked by fighting in the city.
“The difficulty is that many of the prisons holding people who had been detained or kidnapped were actually struck in the course of the battle,” said Kayyali, making it “significantly likely” prisoners were killed.
The final hope for families may lie in mass graves littered across Raqqa, where Daesh fighters, prisoners, and victims of air strikes were buried during the assault’s dwindling days.
Rescuers equipped with basic digging tools have uncovered 2,500 bodies so far, according to Amnesty International.
Those working at a recently-uncovered mass grave said they has already received 360 requests from families looking to identify their loved ones among the remains found, said Yasser Al-Khamees, who heads the recovery team there.
Zarifa Mahmoud Nazzal, 50, has scoured Raqqa’s mass graves for her son Moussa, detained by Daesh three years ago when he was just 17.
“I try to identify him by the mole between his eyebrows or the burn scars on his feet,” said Nazzal.
“Where will I even look for him? I haven’t left a single place — I searched everywhere,” she said.
Nazzal, who lives in a modest home in Raqqa’s Al-Daraiyah district, bursts into tears at the mere mention of Moussa.
“I still have hope he’ll come back, but I lost hope officials will help me.”

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