Human Rights Watch on Monday called for an investigation into a spectacular gorge in northern Syria that has been used as a dumping site for dead bodies over several years.
The 50-metre-deep hole in a desert area of Raqa province was once controlled by the Islamic State group, when it still ruled its “caliphate” straddling swathes of Syria and Iraq.
HRW investigated the site since the area was wrested from the jihadists by Kurdish-led forces in late 2017 and found that bodies were dumped in the gorge during, but also after, IS rule.
“Al-Hota gorge, once a beautiful natural site, has become a place of horror and reckoning,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The sinkhole, whose full depth is not visible from the edge, has always held near-mythical status in the area but was once a popular escape where residents would go for family picnics.
“Exposing what happened there, and at the other mass graves in Syria, is crucial to determining what happened to the thousands of people ISIS executed and holding their killers to account,” she said.
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The area around Al-Hota is currently controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.
It is not known how many bodies were dumped in Al-Hota, one of more than 20 mass graves found in areas formerly controlled by IS.
HRW said that the existence of the open mass grave came to light when an IS fighter took his laptop to a repair shop in the town of Tal Abyad.
A worker there wanted to expose IS crimes and copied the contents of the laptop, which included a video showing jihadists throwing bodies into the pit.
HRW flew a drone into the gorge and spotted several bodies floating in the water filling the deepest section of the sinkhole.
“Based on the state of decomposition, the bodies were dumped there long after ISIS had left the area. The identities of those victims and their causes of death remain unknown,” it said.
A similar sinkhole known as Al Khafsa in northern Iraq is thought to contain the bodies of many IS victims. HRW said it also had yet to be fully investigated.