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Courtesy of Mohamed Kahil

Burial and Reburial: Aleppo’s Dead between Documentation and Disappearance

by The Aleppo Project on May 10, 2019

Interview with Dr. Mohamed (Abu Jafar) Kahil, founder and chief medical examiner of the Forensic Authority in Eastern Aleppo.

Aleppo Municipality in regime-held areas has opened and moved cemeteries of victims killed by the regime since the bombardment of Eastern Aleppo districts, four and half years ago. From July 2012 until December 2016, the regime displaced the entirety of eastern Aleppo’s population, estimated by one million and a half. After more than two years, not more than a fifth of the displaced have managed to return.

As part of a research by The Aleppo Project[1], we interview Dr. Mohamed Kahil on the (re)burial of those who have been killed and the conditions in which the Forensic Authority in Aleppo was established. Being an expert in forensics and founder and chief medical examiner of the Forensic Authority, he talked to us about the challenges of documentation during burial and the procedures for dealing with unidentified bodies. We discussed regime’s attempts to rebuild some public parks while moving the relics without media coverage in order to conceal their crimes, and the difficulty this poses for the displaced to recognize the bodies of their families. We drifted to discuss the efforts to commemorate the anniversary of some massacres done by the regime.

Dr. Kahil teaches criminal sciences and forensics at Biroya Academy in Gaziantep, Turkey. Biroya Academy is an educational organization for displaced students who did not finish their studies in Syria. He also teaches postgraduate students, and his teaching subjects includes crime-scene, fingerprints, and crime-scene documentation.

How often were the dead buried in locations outside of cemeteries? Was it common to bury the dead in parks and other makeshift places?

It was not allowed to bury in the cemeteries that were already in Aleppo, as it was planned [before the revolution] to move all these cemeteries to the Modern [Islamic] Cemetery. At the beginning of the revolution, the Modern Cemetery was under the control of the regime. As the other cemeteries were over-occupied, the dead were buried in spaces between the old graves, or the old graves were re-opened, in the presence of their families and the burials would be over the formerly deceased, or just inside the fence of the cemetery, an area normally left for pedestrians.

When the area around the Modern Cemetery was freed, burial there did not last for a long time for several reasons. First, the Modern Cemetery was far from the city. There was no financial ability to manage the funerals for a long distance. Second, the Modern Cemetery was under the crossfire of Brigade 80 —if I remember correctly— who were targeting it with DShK-carrying tanks. In one of the funerals, we had to lie on the ground for hours until night in order to bury the dead. For these reasons we stopped burying in the Modern Cemetery. Therefore, we —as the Forensic Authority— allocated a zone near Queiq River for burying the dead and the martyrs. But as a result of poverty and expensive transportation, some continued to use parks and gardens to bury the dead.

Do you have an estimated number of people who were killed in the bombing whose burial you oversaw?

It is very hard to estimate. It is war and the country is under constant shelling. Massacres happened daily and people were in a difficult psychological status and were in no position to fully comply with every guideline. You could not cover all massacres. It is psychologically hard to document all what’s happening, and we did not have the capabilities to do so. With the absence of documentation techniques, tools and trained staff, the dead were only remembered by their families and their communities. However, after the displacement [and regime’s attempts of reburial without families’ approval] the locations of the dead changed, though families now forget where their relatives were buried. Thus, at the beginning of 2013, because I had knowledge and experience with criminal sciences, we established the Forensic Authority after the Queiq River Massacre. It took us a while till people started to acknowledge the necessity of not burying their dead without documentation.

The total number of the victims is, at least, around 17000. However, around 5000 to 7000 were buried without being documented by the Forensic Authority. I stress that these figures are approximate, yet not accurate. By the end of 2015, when I visited these cemeteries, the Forensic Authority, with the help of other authorities, decided to move the corpses therein. Because some families of the dead are still there, and some people know who are in the cemeteries, we moved the corpses to the al-Ansari district, which is located in the southern parts of Western Aleppo. We started the procedures of moving the bodies to al-Ansari Cemetery. However, shortly, the reburial stopped because the numbers of the victims increased tremendously. Moving the bodies, of course, needs financial and logistic support in addition to a municipal approval. However, at that time, the fall of Aleppo took place.

Some groups documented higher figures of the dead, by names and dates. According to the database of Violations Documentation Center in Syria, there are around 31000 dead in Aleppo, which is higher than what you mention. [update and correction: this figure is for all Aleppo Governorate, not only the city].

I do not have an idea about that number, but it might concern the districts that were added to Aleppo by the urban expansion before the revolution. The Forensic Authority cannot cover districts like Rashideen, Layramoun, Hraytan, and other neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. Hence, with all respect to the various documentation centers, at the beginning there was neither a standard way nor an official authority for documentation. There was also no information exchange among those who were documenting. Some cooperation between who documented the situation happened in mid 2016.

The victims who died in hospitals were moved to the Forensic Authority for documentation for the announcement of the death toll. The White Helmets was responsible for recording and announcing the numbers of airstrikes and aerial bombardments. We all, and whoever was in Aleppo, were working like a beehive. Therefore, there was a common understanding between the hospitals, the White Helmets, emergency services  and the Forensic Authority. Some families refused to move the bodies of their relatives to the Forensic Authority for documentation, as they thought that their bodies will be autopsied or for other unclear reasons. We do not want to give astronomical figures that are incomparable with what is happening on the ground. We were in a hard situation. If there were 15 murders, 10 were documented in the Forensic Authority and 5 were buried without being documented.

What did you do with the unidentified dead? How were the dead identified?

It is a good question. It is not that I am doing rocket science, yet thanks to God, as I am a forensic expert, we overcame the issue of the unidentified bodies. A number of key markers were drawn to identify the dead: What is his/her approximate age? What are his/her distinguishing features, i.e. is s/he a dark skinned? Does he have a mustache, tattoos, a ring or Jewelry? What are the types and numbers of the shoes? Which entity brought the body? Afterwards, we would post such information in social media and the press, and leave them for some days. The burial, then, was done in a known cemetery, and is assigned a number. Such information were collected in a digital system, on which the Documentation Department in the Forensic Authority has the database.

We made four exchanges of corpses we have and other corpses under the control of the regime. All the corpses the regime asked for were of Hezbollah, Iranian and Afghan militants. The regime did not ask for corpses for Syrian fighters. We document some sources regarding these cases:

  1. The area in which the dead were found.
  2. The military uniform that distinguishes the fighter. The Syrian uniform is different from the Lebanese and the Afghan uniforms, for example.
  3. The documents that were often found with the dead.
  4. The distinguishing features; usually there are some clues. Iranians, for instance, have mascots and incantations in Persian. Even the tags in the underwear are in Persian. Such clues tell us  who this person is and from where he is.

I would like to add something else: as an authority which took the responsibility of burials, we did not differentiate between our dead and the regime’s victims. Regardless its belonging, the corpse has its sanctity. That’s why we used to bury them in special cemeteries, for their families to be able to identify them later. We were like doctors who treat all patients [equally,] regardless their ideological standpoints. We were keen on leaving no murdered undocumented. All the corpses have their own sacredness and should be dealt with without discrimination.

How did you bury the unidentified victims? What about the process of their identification and reburial?

Sometimes the families who come to receive the corpse of their dead from the Forensic Authority would say they want to take care of the burial on their own. We addressed those who are responsible for the graves that burials are not allowed without a permit from the Forensic Authority. We did daily training regarding these matters. Two persons were arrested by the legal authorities because they contravened the instructions. We do so to prevent any concealment of [the regime’s] killings and for the sake of documentation as well. We ask the families where they want to bury the body, then we keep a written copy of what they say. Not all corpses were buried in Aleppo. In some cases families ask to bury their dead in their villages.

In regards to the unidentified victims who we buried, after a few months or years, a next of kin comes to ask about one of the dead. We go with them to a hall in which we keep the information and possessions of that victim, i.e. where they have been buried after s/he has been identified. When the victim is identified, we add their name [to the graveyard and to our database]. However, until then we attach a number and the date of burial to the grave. We also keep in our database the name of the cemetery, the date of burial, and names of those who buried and identified him.

Regarding the disappeared, it is a highly important topic. With all my respect, it is very difficult to work on this topic. From the moments the aerial bombardment starts, the bodies under it were cut into pieces, and mostly there are no identified organs left. We even documented these cases: whoever was suspected to be there is included in the disappeared toll. We tried to match charred or rotten corpses found around a park, a river or an empty building, with lists of disappeared people.

Regarding the unidentified, what happened in case you did not manage to identify the person?

In one of the workshops in Turkey attended by [forensic] experts who worked in Sarajevo, Somalia and other conflict countries, I asked what the problems they suffered from in such situations were. They answered that a whole generation is missing and after 12 years it became extremely hard to identify the victims. I suggested to them to take the DNA of the current generation [to draw conclusions about dead’s identification]. However, they replied that it is not reasonable and ‘inhumane’ to ask a father, for example, to give them a DNA sample [to know if the dead is his son or not].

Now in Ar Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor they suffer in identifying the dead. In an interview with Baladi News, I advised to avoid using bulldozers [while reopening mass graves]. This mixed unidentified bodies with one another, which makes it even harder to recognize each. I suggested to them to leave these bodies where they are, not to move them at all, and try to document them from afar. No one can recognize these bodies, as they lose their features during reburial.

How do you remember the Queiq River massacre and other massacres?

When we had 10 bodies, we did not consider it a ‘massacre’. However, one of the most terrifying massacres which a few talk about is as-Sukkary Massacre, on June 16, 2014, which claimed 120 lives. We are going to commemorate the Queiq River massacre as a symbol for all the massacres, as we had massacres on a daily basis and the River’s massacre was one of the first to take place. 240 innocent died; they did nothing other than crossing regime-held borders in Aleppo. That’s why they were killed. In Gaziantep, we are going to organize a photo exhibition of the martyrs. Some families [of the martyrs] might come. Since the fall of Aleppo, I try not to remember. It hurts. But commemorating martyrs of the massacres should have more attention. It’s a subject we must continue to deal with.

What is happening now to the graves? Why does the regime rebury the victims? And what is the aim of the “beautification” of some parks?

Under the control of the regime, people are not going to identify more than 10% of the dead. Most of the people who were in the liberated areas [i.e. opposition held districts] are now displaced. Only a few of them, around 5 per cent, stayed. Thus, in case of reburial, 90% of families are not going to identify their dead. The regime will not document such cases. All the dead are considered to be terrorists by the regime, while 80% of them are actually civilians. Again, the regime is not going to document these cases. Therefore many families will lose their rights [to identify their own people].

When we were displaced from Aleppo, some corpses remained unburied. I warned that the regime would accuse the revolutionaries of murdering those who are inside these cemeteries, and this is exactly what the regime did. I call [forensic and human rights] experts to go and check if these victims died due to physical liquidation [by the revolutionaries] or shelling with rockets and bombs [by the regime]. There are a few people who died naturally as well. If you bring criminal experts and forensic doctors to check these cases, they will not say that they were physically liquidated.

The regime does not aim at beautifying the parks, as houses are completely destroyed in all districts. Do we leave destroyed houses for the rats and rodents to play around and pay more attention to decorating the parks? The regime does so, however, to conceal its crimes. As I said, if any criminal expert just came, they would know that these people died because of the airstrikes.

Bodies used to arrive to us torn into pieces. We used to collect the missing organs; here you find a head, there you can see a leg, etc. This annoys the regime. That’s why the regime invests several millions to move these bodies. I do not believe that the regime will move them to a known, rather to a remote location like mass graves. This is to leave no traces of these crimes, about which the regime might be held accountable in the future. I appealed to human rights organizations and the UN to supervise the reburial to prevent any concealment of the regime’s crimes. For instance, the regime reburied Queiq River Massacre martyrs without announcing to where they were moved. The Forensic Authority at the Syrian regime says that it does not know to where they were moved. The regime removed them from the Qabaqeeb Park to an unknown location and claimed to have moved them to the Forensic Authority operating at the Syrian regime to be recognized but it turned out the Forensic Authority had no knowledge of it

Does the regime still move the bodies?

Since the regime moved the martyrs of the Queiq River Massacre from the Qabaqeeb Cemetery, we have not seen anything. We are on the alert and following what they are doing. That’s why I think the regime moves the bodies without any media coverage.

[1] The research is carried out by Connor Kusilek. AlHakam Shaar did this interview on 18/12/2018 in Arabic, via Skype. The translation is by ElSayed Mahmoud. Some details might have changed due to the dynamic situation in Syria.

The Aleppo ProjectBurial and Reburial: Aleppo’s Dead between Documentation and Disappearance