ISIS Ravaged Syria. Meet the People Identifying the Lost Dead

Since liberation, residents have been divided over the air strikes. Some say the strikes were necessary to defeat ISIS. Others demand the coalition be held accountable for the many civilian deaths, and those deaths are likely to give rise to greater radicalization in the years ahead. (In January, the coalition claimed responsibility for 51 deaths, bringing the total to at least 1,190 civilians since August 2014—but residents say it is much higher.) Meanwhile, residents are anxious to get their loved ones reburied properly so they can focus on rebuilding their damaged buildings.

In the field, the men set to work again. If one is to rest in peace, it cannot be where one died.

“Easy, easy, easy,” says one gaunt but chipper body puller. The men work their shovel blades swiftly. The men believe ISIS buried respected fighters and believers here because they note more care and regard for the stones that shape the graves. Others are less tended. I am told the graves in this field contain civilians killed by air strikes, ISIS fighters, and civilians who were executed.

Another man lifts a small body wrapped in what appears to be a silk cloth out of the shallow hole. He places the weighted sheet next to the pit. Then, shortly after, another. “Both of them are children,” he says.

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Members of the body-pullers team excavate the remains of a child.Andrea DiCenzo

Jassim walks a few steps down the road. In many ways, the remains of a body weigh more than when the person was alive. Jassim answers his cell phone.

“His age is 6,” one man says.

“And this one is a newborn,” Mohammad says.

“His age is one week,” Jassim says, filling out a form.

“Yes,” Mohammad says. “Write an unknown newborn.”

Their body bags are marked by numbers. Mohammad marks the numbers in his book, while Jassim jots the number onto his own separate sheet.

A man has arrived on the back of a motorcycle, and he identifies himself as Ahmad al-Ali, a member of the Raqqa Civil Council reconstruction committee. He is voluble and emotive. He rallies the men, who gather around to discuss the job and how it is going elsewhere in the city.

He remembers when these fields were meant for tilling, not body disposal. “Sometimes they would bring them in a dump truck when there had been an air strike or some similar explosion. The dump truck would dump them and leave. I swear by God they were doing it like that, and most of the bodies were civilians. They were all buried here.”

One of the body pullers offers to show the bodies of the newfound babies to al-Ali.

“I don’t want to see them,” al-Ali says.

“Just look at them. It’s not a big deal.”

“Children cannot come here again,” al-Ali says. But in an adjacent field a family is having what looks like a picnic.

“They were bringing the bodies of their militants from Raqqa and burying them here,” al-Ali says. He isn’t fond of this site. He believes it unholy and that a mass grave should be cared for only if it is that of civilians, not terrorists. “We don’t call them fighters.”

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