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For journalist Amer Matar, a decade of research for his younger brother defined him and changed the course of his life, now devoted to researching and documenting the crimes committed by Daesh in Syria.

His brother, Mohammed Nour Matar, disappeared in Raqqa, northern Syria, in 2013 while reporting on an explosion that hit the headquarters of an insurgent group. His burned-out camera was found at the scene of the explosion and his family learned shortly after that he was in an IS prison. But there has been no other sign of him since.

Mohammed Nour is among thousands of people believed to have been captured by Daesh, the extremist group that invaded large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, where it established a so-called caliphate and brutalized the population for decades. years.

Three years after its territorial defeat, thousands of people are still missing and the responsibility of their captors remains elusive. The families of the disappeared feel abandoned by a world that has changed greatly, as they struggle alone to discover the fate of their loved ones.

“These violations may constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes and even genocide in some cases,” the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Center said in a report released Thursday.

“These families have the right to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones.

The rights group says that between 2013 and 2017, when Daesh ruled much of northern and eastern Syria, the terror group detained thousands of people who are still missing and whose families continue to live in a state of grief and uncertainty.

In its report entitled “Unarthing Hope: The Search for the Missing Victims of Daesh”, the SJAC said that around 6,000 bodies had been exhumed from dozens of mass graves dug by Daesh in northeast Syria and recovered from buildings destroyed by US airstrikes. led the coalition during the military campaign that ultimately brought down Daesh.

This may represent around half of the total number of missing people in the northeast, according to the group, although estimates of the missing vary.

Mohammed No Matar had become a citizen journalist during Syria’s civil war and often took his camera out to document the conflict.

He disappeared on August 13, 2013 while covering an explosion in Raqqa that occurred outside the offices of the Ahfad Al-Rasoul faction, one of several insurgent groups rivaling Daesh.

He was 21 at the time and was working on a documentary about Raqqa and its residents’ opposition to Daesh. Four months later, Raqqa became Syria’s first provincial capital to fall under full Daesh control.

When extremists declared a so-called caliphate in June 2014, the city became their de facto capital.

The group fearfully ruled Matar’s hometown of Raqqa, establishing dozens of detention centers in different parts of the city, brutalizing opponents and even placing the heads of decapitated victims in the city’s Naim Square – the Arabic word for “paradise”.

In the report, SJAC documented for the first time the vast network of detention centers that played a central role in Daesh disappearances. Different branches of the Daesh security apparatus have systematically used this network of 152 police stations, training camps and secret security prisons to detain kidnapped civilians and members of rival armed groups, in some cases before issuing death sentences or to execute them summarily.

He listed 33 detention centers in the city of Raqqa alone.

The SJAC says the alleged perpetrators who may have the evidence needed to identify the remains are languishing in US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces prisons “with no fair legal process in sight”.

He says other former Daesh members live in their home countries where they returned after the group’s defeat.

“The permanent defeat of Daesh cannot be assured without justice for the victims of the organization’s crimes, including those who are still missing,” he said.

Amer Matar, who now lives in Berlin with his parents and siblings, said they were told at one point that Mohammed Nour was being held in a city jail. Some former prisoners who had seen him there provided personal details only the family knew.

But as of 2014, the family lost all evidence of life.

Amer Matar has traveled to Syria several times in recent years to try to obtain information about his brother, even going to mass graves while bodies were removed.

The International Commission on Missing Persons has started collecting DNA samples from the families of the missing, but they are moving slowly, and Matar said his family has yet to donate samples.

Also a journalist, Matar began a few years ago collecting thousands of IS documents and 3D photographs of IS detention centers. He is now working with activists from Syria, Iraq, Germany, France, Japan and the United States to create a virtual museum on extremists.

He said the goal is to have a platform where the families of the disappeared can find information about their loved ones, where they can virtually walk inside the prisons, see the names of inmates, read documents and bear witness to mass grave sites and information about those buried. there, whether in Syria or Iraq.

When asked if his family had hope, Matar replied that “the hardest question is about hope. Sometimes I lose hope because logic says there is no hope.

When asked if in his research he had found any evidence on Mohammed Nour, Matar said: “My mother asks me this question every month or every few weeks. My answer is unfortunately: “We didn’t find anything.”

Sharon P. Juarez