Human Rights Watch (HRW), has uncovered evidence that the Islamic State used a gorge in northeast Syria as a mass grave for the bodies of people it had abducted and executed.  

The HRW drone flight and investigation was conducted at the al-Hota gorge located 85km (53 miles) north of Raqqa city. HRW reported that the bodies need to be removed and the evidence preserved for criminal proceedings against those responsible while the site is being secured. The area surrounding the al-Hota gorge was under the control of ISIS during 2013-2015 until the terrorist group was pushed out of the region by militias of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

The investigators from HRW flew a camera-equipped drone into the 50m (164 feet) deep gorge. They quickly discovered the remains of at least six people floating at the bottom. They also conducted interviews with local citizens, reviewed ISIS-recorded videos, and analyzed satellite imagery. The identities of the victims and their causes of death remain unknown.

After using available maps and a 3D topographic model of al-Hota created from the drone flight the investigators believe that the gorge is much deeper than the drone was able to fly into. They think that water beneath will be littered with more human remains.

ISIS used to threatened local citizens with tossing them into the gorge when it controlled the area and — from what has been uncovered thus far — frequently carried out those threats.

Local witnesses recalled their horror in seeing scattered all along the gorge’s edge. Among the many missing and feared dead are humanitarian workers, journalists, anti-ISIS fighters, and common civilians.

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ISIS recorded a video that was posted to Facebook in 2014 and shows a group of men throwing two bodies into the gorge. The bodies were clothed the same as people who are shown in another video being executed by ISIS.

One man who was interviewed said he saw a body hanging over a ledge as he approached the area back in 2015. “This was a dumping area for bodies from all over,” he said. “[ISIS] brought them in from Raqqa, Deir al-Zor — nobody knows how many bodies were there.”

“Al-Hota gorge, once a beautiful natural site, has become a place of horror and reckoning,” said Sara Kayyali, a Syrian researcher at HRW.

“Exposing what happened there, and at the other mass graves in Syria, is crucial to determining what happened to the thousands of the people ISIS executed and holding their killers to account.”

After ISIS terrorists were pushed out of most of Syria, more than 20 mass graves across the country, which have been the killing ground for thousands of people who were executed, have been unearthed.

But, according to HRW, due to the ongoing civil war and with certain areas changing hands, very little has been done thus far to exhume these mass graves.

The Syrian National Army, which is a Turkish proxy, now controls the area around the al-Hota gorge, having pushed out the Kurdish SDF. Yet, the SDF, which was supplied and advised by U.S. forces, still controls the city of Raqqa. 

One civilian group, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which is conducting investigations in lands areas that were held by ISIS, is trying to pinpoint what happened to the area’s missing and kidnapped. However, the Kurdish-led SDC is expected to be allowed little access to areas controlled by the Turkish military or their proxies.

Yet, HRW is determined to properly investigate the site despite the ever-changing situation on the ground. It says that the forces there have an obligation to protect and preserve the gorge site as well as clear the area of unexploded munitions so that investigators can lower themselves into the gorge, begin the identification process, and remove all of the bodies.

“They should facilitate the collection of evidence to hold ISIS members accountable for their horrendous crimes, as well as those who dumped bodies in al-Hota before or after the ISIS rule,” Kayyali said.