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.

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.”