NEWS BRIEF As Islamic State fighters retreat in northern Iraq and Syria, human-rights groups, government officials, and journalists are finding mass graves filled with thousands of bodies left in their wake, according to a new report from the Associated Press.
Through interviews, photos, and research, the AP found the Islamic militant group has buried at least 5,200 and as many as 15,000 bodies in 72 mass graves, “with many more expected to be uncovered as the Islamic State group's territory shrinks.” The news service reported Tuesday it had identified 17 mass graves in Syria, “including one with the bodies of hundreds of members of a single tribe” that ISIS massacred when it took control of their region. In Iraq, the report said, at least 16 of the mass graves are in locations that are too dangerous to excavate, and officials cannot make estimates about the number of dead buried there.
ISIS-controlled territory has shrunk in Iraq and Syria in recent months. In June, Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, said the group had lost half of its territory in Iraq and about 20 percent in Syria since the summer of 2014. McGurk attributed the losses to coalition air strikes and ground offensives by Iraqi forces and local militias.
On Sinjar mountain, where ten of thousands of members of Iraq’s oldest religious minority group, the Yazidis, took refuge from ISIS in August 2014, there are several mass graves. According to the AP, Sinjar mountain contains “six burial sites and the bodies of more than 100 people.”
In its report, the AP included an account of ISIS’s killing of Iraqi inmates from the Badoush prison, outside of Mosul, after the militants captured the city on June 10, 2014. As Human Rights Watch wrote, ISIS militants “forced the Shia men to kneel along the edge of a nearby ravine ” and then shot them, though several men survived. Identified only as H.K., one survivor told Human Rights Watch:
A bullet hit my head and I fell to the ground, and that’s when I felt another bullet hit my arm. I was unconscious for about 5 minutes. One person was shot in the head, in the forehead, it [the bullet] went out the other side, and he fell on top of me.
The survivors lived because they pretended to be dead or were shielded from the bullets by men who fell on top of them. The AP said a Colorado-based satellite-imagery company used their testimonies to find and identify the mass grave, in which the “bodies are believed to be packed tightly together, side by side in a space approximately the length of two football fields end to end.”
“They don’t even try to hide their crimes,” Sirwan Jalal, the director of Iraqi Kurdistan’s agency in charge of mass graves, told the AP. “They are beheading them, shooting them, running them over in cars, all kinds of killing techniques, and they don't even try to hide it.”