First Published: 2017-07-15

Tragic end to Raqa family's hopes of burying loved ones
While thousands flee Syria's battle-torn Raqa, members of Sheikh Wais family head back in to recover bodies of loved ones.
Middle East Online

Hopes of retrieving and burying their relatives were shattered

RAQA - While thousands of people scramble to flee Syria's battle-torn Raqa, members of the Sheikh Wais family bravely headed back in to recover the bodies of loved ones killed there.

Dodging shelling, air strikes and snipers, the four Syrian Kurds finally made it back into the western district of Al-Daraiya in the jihadist-held city this week.

But hopes of retrieving and burying their relatives were shattered by a nightmarish scene.

"We found half a corpse and some hair. I only knew it was them from my sister Zahraa's gold chain," wailed 17-year-old Amal Sheikh Wais.

Her sister, their brother Abdallah, his pregnant wife Nour and the couple's 18-month-old baby all perished in ferocious fighting between US-backed forces and the Islamic State group.

"We couldn't even find the baby's body," Amal told AFP, moments after returning from the horrifying ordeal.

Amal, another brother and their mother had just arrived at a home in west Raqa used as a command base by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces as they battle IS jihadists.

An SDF fighter saw the family approaching their position along a dirt road and first assumed they were civilians escaping IS.

"Abdallah! Abdallah! Abdallah!" screamed Amal's mother, dressed in a black robe and white headscarf.

SDF fighters tried to console them, but to no avail.

"There was nothing left of them," said her son solemnly, his head wrapped in a traditional white scarf embroidered with coloured flowers.

- A fatal decision -

Before Syria's war erupted in 2011, Raqa's population was about 20 percent Kurdish, according to French geography expert Fabrice Balanche.

When IS overran the city in early 2014, thousands of the city's minority residents fled.

The Sheikh Wais family was one of the few Syrian Kurdish clans to stay in their native city.

"Abdallah would get beaten a lot because he wanted to smoke cigarettes and refused to wear the style of dress" mandated by IS, Amal recalled.

As the US-backed SDF tightened the noose around Raqa earlier this year, IS turned parts of the city into "military zones" -- including the family's home district of Al-Rumeilah.

The Sheikh Wais family fled across the city to a bakery where they used to work, in the western district of Al-Daraiya.

In June, Amal and her mother risked the harrowing journey out of Raqa further west to the town of Tabqa, which was captured by the SDF two months ago.

But Zahraa, along with Abdallah, Nour and their toddler, made the fatal decision to stay in Raqa, where their situation grew even more dire.

"Daesh kicked them out of the bakery, so they were forced to camp in a nearby field with the bakery owner," Amal said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

- Worst fears confirmed -

After she had settled in Tabqa, Amal learned of rumours circulating on Facebook suggesting that their relatives had been killed.

Her brother, who had managed to cross into Turkey, heard the same news and rushed back across the border to find out what had happened to his family.

Desperate for closure, the remaining members of the Sheikh Wais family gathered last week at a camp for the displaced in Ain Issa, more than 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Raqa.

Their worst fears were confirmed by Nour's father, who had just escaped IS.

"He went to check on them one day and found the dead bodies," Amal said.

"So he covered them in a sheet and built up a small dirt berm around them to mark the location before fleeing the city," she told AFP.

Flustered, she switched between Arabic and Kurdish and said it was still unclear exactly how her relatives had died.

Some recent escapees said they were killed in air strikes as they were preparing to flee, but others blamed IS mortar fire.

The United Nations has warned that civilians caught in the fighting or trying to flee face massive risks.

Corpses still litter the streets in areas recaptured by the SDF.

Some are of suspected IS fighters, but others -- including those of small children -- are clearly civilians.

 

At least 235 killed in Egypt mosque attack

Saudi Crown Prince calls Iran supreme leader 'new Hitler'

Syrian opposition agrees to send united delegation to Geneva talks

Saudi-led coalition clears passenger flights to Sanaa

Baghdad's Shabandar cafe marks century since opening

Turkey says Trump pledged to stop arming Kurds

Turkey president sues main opposition party leader

Lebanon's Hariri brings status quo back with him

Activists say 'everybody knew' about Libya slave trade

Erdogan says no contact 'at the moment' with Assad

Lebanon's Jumblatt criticises Saudi Arabia, Iran

China says it will make efforts on Syria reconstruction

Turkey to detain 79 former teachers in post-coup probe

Hezbollah hails PM's suspension of resignation

Syrian opposition aims for unity at talks in Riyadh

Egypt police kill 3 Islamists in shootout

Turkey unsure if Assad to be part of Syria political transition

Migrant arrivals from Libya down since EU deal

Palestinian factions leave Cairo talks with little progress

Sudan’s Bashir looks to Putin for ‘protection’ from US aggression

China, Djibouti forge 'strategic' ties

IS propaganda channels fall quiet in 'unprecedented' hiatus

Kremlin to create Syria congress despite Turkey ‘reservations’

Netanyahu berates deputy minister for 'offensive' remarks on US Jews

Egypt PM heads to Germany for medical treatment

Egypt destroys 10 SUVs carrying arms on Libya border

Outrage in Iraq over 'child marriage' bill

Iraq launches operation to clear last IS holdouts from desert

Saudi-led coalition to reopen Yemen airport, port to aid

Turkey court rules to keep Amnesty chief in jail

France calls for UN meeting on Libya slave-trading

Egypt detains 29 for allegedly spying for Turkey

WTO panel to hear Qatar’s complaint against UAE blockade

Three dead as diphtheria spreads in Yemen

Lebanon’s Hariri suspends resignation

Israel seizes explosive material at Gaza border

Activists call for release of UK journalist held by IS

Bahrain upholds jail sentence for activist

Iraq attacks at lowest since 2014

Turkey continues crackdown in post-coup probe

Hariri back in Lebanon

Putin to hold Syria peace talks with Erdogan, Rouhani

US carries out air strikes against IS in Libya

Divided Syria opposition meets in Riyadh

Lebanon's Hariri in Egypt ahead of return home