Witness by Amnesty International: Episode 4 - My Heart is Burnt

Amnesty International has launched a brand new podcast series ‘Witness from Amnesty International’. The series introduces listeners to the organization’s Research and Crisis Response teams – whose investigations take them to some of the most dangerous and volatile places on earth.

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TANYA: Syria. It's cold and the wind is fierce. A woman crouches down, picking through the dirt.

TANYA: She's looking for evidence, signs that this was the spot from where American forces shelled the nearby city of Raqqa. This is Donatella Rovera's job.

DONATELLA: My work is about piecing together lots of tiny little bits of scrap of information. And these are part of those scraps of information.

TANYA: She's a kind of frontline human rights detective or in amnesty lingo, a crisis researcher/

DONATELLA: I go to places usually during these sort of the acute phase and investigate serious human rights abuses, war crimes, crimes against humanity in the middle of conflict. Just after the conflict in places where security situation is quite volatile, places that are difficult to get to, places where other people don't want to go.

TANYA: Donatella's worked at amnesty for more than 20 years. She's known for her single mindedness, something that means her field companions often miss out on food and sleep. Sleep's a waste of time, she says. For the last two years, Donatella has been investigating the bombing of the city of Raqqa in Syria. It was the self-styled capital of the Islamic State between 2013 and 2017. And it was also the final IS stronghold where the last stages of the war played out. The U.S. led coalition bombed Raqqa for four relentless months in 2017. The U.S. military boasting that more artillery was fired into the city than in any conflict in the world since Vietnam. Thousands of civilians were trapped inside, turned into human shields by Islamic State who use snipers and land mines to prevent them fleeing the bombardment. The U.S. led coalition claimed it took all necessary measures to spare civilians. "I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare." the commander said. "The coalition's goal is always for zero human casualties." But as Donatella knows, the devastated streets of Raqqa tell a different story.

DONATELLA: So what he's showing here is where the first shell landed. They were in that room. And the shell landed right here where you can see the hole.

TANYA: I'm Tanya O'Carroll, part of the research department at Amnesty International. And this is Witness.

TANYA: Donatella has been back to Raqqa five times since the city was declared free. Her mission is to gather enough evidence to force the U.S. led coalition to admit and take responsibility for the civilian casualties. It's detailed, painstaking work in a place with little infrastructure and a lot of trauma.

TANYA: Donatella goes from street to street, talking to locals, asking questions, collecting scraps of information and testimony, trying to piece together the lives and deaths of those who died in the U.S. led bombardment.

TANYA: When I ask her how she does it, she says "how do ants work?"

DONATELLA: When I started in January 2018, there was no connection. So you couldn't call someone. You can’t message anyone. So the only way to find people was to go up and down the streets and knock on doors and ask people. The situation has changed a little bit since then because it's possible to message someone if you get their WhatsApp number and if they're connected and so on. But even in this last visit, it it's still been a lot of that kind of deal, you know, where I could find the relatives off.

TANYA: How do you do that? How do you, you know, arrive somewhere where there's that much very live trauma and that you're just walking in. And what do people make of you?

DONATELLA: That changes a little bit in a way, from street to street, from case to case, from family to family.

DONATELLA: One of the difficulties is that I have nothing to offer to people. I have no aid to distribute. And there are no outsiders working in Raqqa. There isn't, there are no foreigners there. So any outsiders is very visible and people come up and present each and every one and all of their problems. Sick children, very serious medical condition, war wounds. People who have diabetes, who need dialysis, who have cancer. People who just don't have anything to feed the children. People who have nowhere to live. And one of the questions that people often ask, what am I going to benefit from talking to you? And, you know, my standard responses is "Absolutely nothing in the short term. You will not see any benefit. This is a long term effort. And part of it is to get to a place where others will not suffer the fate that you suffered."

TANYA: We asked Donatella to keep an audio diary. Last time she went to Raqqa.

DONATELLA: Today is day one in Raqqa. I went to that Iya area. It's a poor neighbourhood west of the centre of Raqqa. I went to follow up on a few cases which I had started working on during the previous visit. One of the little girls was injured. She lost her right leg and her left leg is all mangled up in a mess. She was supposed to be receiving help to get some medical care, at least. She's eleven. Incredibly bright. The kind of little girl who could really do anything if she was given a chance. Her family's very poor. The home the family home was half destroyed in the strike that killed her mom and their two little sisters. And the condition in which the family live are absolutely dire.

DONATELLA: Nothing has happened. There has been no progress in her case.

TANYA: It's estimated that 80 percent of Raqqa was turned to rubble during the battle. What's it like to walk down the street?

DONATELLA: Some streets are just destroyed building and in some streets there is no life at all. Nobody's come back. Other places they may look completely deserted because the level of destruction is such that at first sight, you can't imagine that somebody would be living there. And then you see there is some laundry hanging in a place where there is no wall, no windows. And then you have places where it's much more lively. So, for example, Street. When you look at eye level. It's colourful because a lot of the shops have reopened. So there is a lot of merchandise. It's busy. There's people walking around, people selling. And the above is all destruction. The buildings are bombed-out. Pieces of concrete hanging just by the metal. Incredibly unsafe, very serious structural damage.

DONATELLA: Today, I went to the first responders team. The team of men who have been pulling bodies from under the rubble of bombed buildings, as well as opening makeshift graveyards, because during the battle, people could not reach the cemetery anymore because it was outside Raqqa, beyond the front lines they couldn't get there safely. So they were burying their loved one, their neighbours in gardens, in parks. So the team that prior to the war used to be a team of firefighters. They have recovered more than three thousand five hundred and sixty bodies. I met with them they are very depressed, because they've been told that there is no further funding for their activities. They are prepared to work without the salary. But obviously they need fuel for the machinery. They need the machinery. So they just don't know what the future holds.

At the same time, Naim's Square, Naim Roundabout, which is which is a known in English as Paradise Square, which was just a regular roundabout before the war, but that's where ISIS was executing/beheading. And it's now being made pretty. Marble slabs and so on. Painting some lampposts, orange and stuff like that. Residents are saying "is that really the priority when our children are going to schools which are half destroyed? We have no electricity. We're receiving no help to repair our homes, even just basic repairs". So it's certainly difficult for me to understand how those priorities are chosen. And just Raqqa is not a good place at the moment.

TANYA: What are the risks of doing this work in a place like Raqqa?

DONATELLA: It is one of the most contaminated places. Lot of unexploded ordinance and a lot of places that were mined deliberately by ISIS.

I mean, that was a much, much bigger problem in in my first visit, for example, where on the one hand, it was then that I had the biggest opportunity to dig through the rubble, which is what I do a lot look for pieces of munitions in places that have been bombed. And at the same time, very aware of the fact that, you know, there could be mines in the rubble. So, you know, it was kind of balancing one thing against the other. And there has been a lot of clearing by the miners, but also a lot of clearing by ordinary people, the children and the women who are going around scavenging. And the men who were working as daily labourers who were setting off the mines and were being blown up. And that's how a lot of places have been cleared, which is an incredible tragedy. And then there is the other danger, which is, in my view, not hugely high at the moment, but also not inexistent and that is the risk of attacks. So, for example, the local forces are getting attacked regularly. There are. IEDs, car bombs. Few times a week. They are not targeting people like myself for now.

TANYA: Are you scared when you go on a mission?

DONATELLA: I don't know. It depends. I mean, obviously, you know, we do very detailed risk assessments and there is no place that is completely risk free. It's more trying to understand what the risks are and being quite clear as to what one realistically can do to mitigate those risks and not thinking that I'm Rambo or that I'm invincible and being very realistic as to what is wise and doable vs.what it would be great to do, but would also not be very smart.

TANYA: Donatello's job is to tell the stories of individuals killed in the coalition's bombardment. Each case involves the slow and careful gathering of evidence going house to house, talking to witnesses, trying to get information about the strikes. Exactly where Shell fell, which nations airplane dropped the bomb. The names, dates of birth, family relations of the people killed. It's demanding work both physically and mentally.

DONATELLA: I didn't do a diary entry for the last couple of days because I was just too tired and too busy. I leave the place where I'm staying every morning at six o'clock and I come back at about 8:00 in the evening. I have two hours journey from here to Raqqa and two hours on the way back because there is nowhere to stay in Raqqa.

DONATELLA: I've been messaging most of the night with a woman I met yesterday whose case is just incredibly shocking. She lost her husband, her four children, her mother, her sister and daughter of a sister, niece in the bombing of a building where she was sheltering and where another three families were also killed, 32 people in all. So Iyat, she works in a salon and they met her at work. She was explaining that during the day she is very busy. She's surrounded by other women who give her strength. But then in the evening when she's alone. She finds it very difficult to cope, and understandably so. The place where her family were killed is a building where they were just sheltering there. They had escaped their own home trying to avoid the bombings and they didn't have enough money to pay smugglers to leave there. Quite a large family, not a well-off family. And so they did what so many others did, which was to just find a place which was further away from the front lines and that's when the building was bombed and all these people were killed. The expression that she used is "My heart is burnt. I have nothing left inside me". It's very difficult to find words to say to her to that that everything just seems so trivial. Anything that I can think of saying.

TANYA: What's the emotional impact of this work?

DONATELLA: If I see a road accident, I'll probably faint and have nightmares. But that doesn't happen when I see bodies in terrible situations being pulled out of the rubble or something like that. So I guess it's a kind of protection mechanism that I've somehow built.

TANYA: Does it ever sometimes cut through in the way that you're surprised by at all?

DONATELLA: I don't know. I mean, I think that. I don't generally lose sight of the limits of what I can do. Me personally and Amnesty International as an organization. You know, if I didn't do that, I think it would be emotionally much more difficult because the disappointment would be devastating. So it's never far from my mind that, you know, there is only so much that I can do, but I think that so much is important and necessary, and I would like to continue doing it.

DONATELLA: Most days, I set out to look for information about a specific case, and I end up finding some or all of the information on that specific case, but also so many more cases. Whatever street I go to in whatever neighbourhood, more and more people come and tell me about their relatives who were killed either in that place or in another place. That is kind of like if I spent another year here, I wouldn't be able to finish. It really is quite daunting. Yesterday, I was walking in another neighbourhood and somebody stopped me and said, there is a woman in that house over there.  Her children were badly injured. And so I went to meet this woman and her two surviving children, one of them, he lost his left eye. He now has a prosthetic eye that that he kind of takes in and out as you as you as you talk to him. He's only little, For him, it's a bit like a game. And she showed me photos of when this little boy was 17 days old, injured in the face where he lost his left eye, injured in the abdomen, he's got a very big scar in the abdomen. His right leg was pretty much open on the inside from top to bottom. And it's quite incredible to see that tiny little body injured all over. And how miraculously he managed to survive. And their mom told me that she was only able to get them some basic medical care because, you know, some neighbours who she doesn't even know collected some money to help her send the little baby to Damascus for care where he managed to get the prosthetic eye. It's just something that I come across all the time. Even in the most dire situation, whatever little bit of help people have been able to get, whether for medical care or to make some basic small repairs to their half destroyed houses, it's been help from neighbours and relatives who really don't have very much at all, but were prepared to share the little bit they have with those relatives and neighbours who were in in greater need than they are.

DONATELLA: Prior to the publication of our report on the 5th of June 2018, the US led coalition had only accepted responsibility for 23 civilian casualties. Six weeks later, they admitted responsibility for all the cases. There was like 77, 78 cases. So that increase the number of casualties that they admitted from twenty three to like hundred four. But that's a very, very small percentage.

TANYA: How high do you think the civilian death toll is of these U.S. coalition strikes?

DONATELLA: I mean, I don't like to presume because you know, I'm an investigator and I kind of work with facts and presuming isn't very helpful. The information that we've collected so far is about sort of fifteen hundred civilians who have been killed but basically no organization, neither Amnesty International nor anybody else has the resources, nor should we have to do that for every single case. That's really the job of the coalition. Having bombed the city to dust, they should be on the ground doing the work that I've been doing, investigating the impact of their actions on the civilian population. Being realistic is not necessarily so much as what improvements have you brought about, but how much worse would it be if there was nobody exposing what's going on and documenting and putting the pressure and also creating that awareness amongst the warring parties that, you know, you may be able to get away with murder today, don't count on it being guaranteed forever.

TANYA: Amnesty is calling on the U.S. led coalition to do the right thing and take responsibility for the civilians they killed and maimed and provide reparation. For updated information and to learn how you can help visit raqqa.amnesty.org. Witness is hosted by me, Tanya O'Carroll. And this episode was produced by Cathy Fitzgerald with original music by Steven Coates. Special thanks to Donatella Rovera.