'Entire Families Wiped Out': U.S. Airstrikes Killed Many Civilians In Syria Rescuers working to dig out and identify corpses from last year's anti-ISIS offensive in Raqqa estimate there were "thousands" of civilian casualties. The U.S.-led coalition acknowledges 104.

'Entire Families Wiped Out': U.S. Airstrikes Killed Many Civilians In Syria

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It has been a year since ISIS was forced out of the Syrian city of Raqqa, but the civilian deaths are still being counted. The U.S. led a coalition with Syrian fighters on the ground to defeat the Islamic State. That battle lasted four months. Afterwards, the U.S. military said it had liberated the city from militants that threaten the people and the West. But as NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports, many in Raqqa blame the U.S. for so much death.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXCAVATOR DIGGING)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: In Raqqa, the rescue workers dig for the dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXCAVATOR DIGGING)

SHERLOCK: I watch as giant machinery pushes aside the debris of a destroyed building.

The digger is throwing up these clouds of dust from the rubble. And then within the dust, there's this terrible smell. It smells of all the debris of the building, but also something much more putrid. They say that's the bodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXCAVATOR DIGGING)

SHERLOCK: A whole year after the U.S.-led offensive forced ISIS from Raqqa, rescuers still recover corpses from that war.

YASSER AL-KHAMIS: (Through interpreter) This house that we're looking at, it used to have three floors. And then it was hit by an airstrike. There are 15 bodies inside, and most are civilians.

SHERLOCK: Yasser al-Khamis (ph), the head of the recovery team, says his men are traumatized by what they found.

AL-KHAMIS: (Through interpreter) Raqqa did not deserve this destruction. Of course, we understood its fate because it was the capital of ISIS. But we were hoping the civilian death toll would be lower.

SHERLOCK: The coalition acknowledges killing 104 civilians in Raqqa, and says the number could be higher. Khamis' team says it's much higher.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SHUTTING)

SHERLOCK: Back at their headquarters, they show us files where they keep meticulous notes for every corpse.

AL-KHAMIS: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Since January, they've recovered over 2,600 bodies. Of those, they say, the vast majority are civilians. Our translator reads down the list.

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: The bodies of civilians, male, 1,081. Bodies of females, 454. Bodies of children, male, 329. Bodies of children, female, 152.

SHERLOCK: The rescue workers say they can recognize civilians because dead ISIS fighters often wore a specific kind of dress and even carried ID cards.

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Those are the ISIS.

SHERLOCK: Wow.

I then ask only for the data on civilians killed in coalition airstrikes or artillery attacks.

So it's, like, 600 civilians?

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Yeah.

SHERLOCK: Six-hundred civilians is their conservative estimate, as it counts only those bodies found at the scene of a coalition strike, which rescuers say they can recognize from the scale of the destruction. Others may have died under these bombs but been buried elsewhere.

UNIDENTIFIED RESCUE WORKER: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Even this conservative number, already many times higher than the death toll the U.S. acknowledges, will likely grow. Airwars, a monitoring group, says that based on information they obtained from the coalition, coalition planes and artillery batteries fired 21,000 munitions on Raqqa during the four-month offensive. Rescue workers say there are many bodies still to recover.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPERS FLUTTERING)

SHERLOCK: One of the team leafs through a ledger, page after page filled with reports of bodies under the rubble the residents have said they've noticed from the smell.

UNIDENTIFIED RESCUE WORKER: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says it could take another year still before they clean the city of the dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY AMBIENCE)

SHERLOCK: In Raqqa, it's not hard to meet residents who say they lost loved ones in airstrikes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SHUTTING)

SHERLOCK: We find Mohaned Tadfi (ph) in the restaurant where he works. He's 41 years old, pale and thin with dark half-moons under his eyes. Just a few months ago, Tadfi buried his mother, his brother, his sister-in-law and seven nieces and nephews.

MOHANED TADFI: (Through interpreter) Ten people. A plane came and hit the house, and the building, five floors, fell on their heads.

SHERLOCK: In the days after the strike, the U.S.-backed militia the SDF took the area from ISIS and Tadfi asked them for access to the house.

TADFI: (Through interpreter) I told them, please, there are children under the rubble. My brother's children, young kids. Maybe even just one of them is still alive.

SHERLOCK: But the area was off limits because it was mined. It wasn't until three months later that Tadfi was finally able to recover his loved ones. He hired a flatbed truck and took them away to graves that he dug with his own hands.

DONATELLA ROVERA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: I went to see the Tadfis' house with Donatella Rovera, an investigator for Amnesty International who spent much of the last year in Raqqa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHERLOCK: So this is the house?

ROVERA: Yeah. It was like a semi-basement.

SHERLOCK: Wow. So you'd think they might even have been safe in the basement, but even the basement is destroyed.

ROVERA: Yeah. This is one case of many that I've been investigating where entire families were wiped out in the very places where they thought they would be safe.

SHERLOCK: The coalition has said the anti-ISIS offensive was one of the most careful and precise in the history of warfare, and in a statement responding to NPR, it said it conducted thorough assessments to ensure it didn't accidentally kill civilians. Rovera says her findings challenge that.

ROVERA: The strikes were not precise because so many civilians were killed in situations where there were no combatants. This has been the pattern in the majority of the cases that I've looked at. So quite clearly, something has gone terribly wrong.

SHERLOCK: Rovera doesn't dispute the military's account that it was locked in street-to-street battles against what it calls a ruthless enemy, and ISIS did prevent civilians from leaving. But she says the military knew that before they even started the battle and seemed to prioritize a speedy victory despite the dense residential areas. She says the strike often came within minutes of a local Syrian commander choosing a target.

ROVERA: If they had had proper observation for an adequate period of time, they would have realized that there were civilians in those buildings.

SHERLOCK: She says Amnesty doesn't have the resources required to establish the full civilian death toll.

ROVERA: And nor should we have to do that. That is the work that the coalition should be doing. Having dropped the bombs from the sky, they should now be sending their investigators on the ground here, like you and I are here on the ground, to establish the facts of what was the impact of those strikes on the grounds on the civilian population.

SHERLOCK: For now, the people of Raqqa are left to count their dead on their own while the U.S. military says it focuses on fighting ISIS elsewhere in Syria. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Raqqa.

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