In November 2017, soon after Raqqa was declared liberated from the Islamic State, 31-year-old journalist Amer Matar sat in front of his laptop in his home in Berlin, scrolling through images coming out of the city. ISIS had ruled Raqqa, Amer’s hometown, for three years. The “liberation” was bittersweet: A months-long military campaign by US-led forces had left thousands of civilians dead, 90 percent of the city’s population displaced, and much of the city reduced to rubble. In the photos, Amer struggled to recognize the streets he’d known his entire life. His home was destroyed. His neighborhood and his elementary school were completely demolished. The images offered no clues to the question that was at the front of his mind: Where was his brother Muhammad Nour?
On August 8, 2013, Muhammad went to film a demonstration outside a courthouse. Civilians were protesting the internal fighting between the various rebel groups contending for power there—among them Ahrar al-Sham, the Free Syrian Army, and the Al Qaeda affiliate then known as Nusra, now HTS—after the city’s liberation from government forces that spring. As people chanted, a car exploded near the crowd, killing dozens. Those who were far enough away to survive the attack were rounded up and arrested by members of the Islamic State, aka ISIS, which was also fighting over Raqqa and already controlled parts of it.
Amer began reporting on anti-government protests in 2011 and was arrested that year by the government. Soon after his release, he left for Germany, but after rebels seized control of Raqqa from the government in 2013, he frequently returned. In fact, he was traveling there on the day the bombing occurred, and arrived that night. So the next morning, Amer and his other brother, Mezar, went to the site of the attack to look for Muhammad, who was then 20. They studied the burned bodies that were still strewn around the street, looking for any clues that one of them could be their younger brother. Later that day, as they were examining the street again, they found Muhammad Nour’s camera, but there was no sign of him. They expanded their search to include Raqqa hospitals, turning up nothing until, several weeks after the bombing, they received a message from a man who had been held in an ISIS prison. He said he had seen Muhammad Nour inside.
Four years would pass, and Amer would hear nothing more about his little brother. When ISIS was finally driven out of Raqqa, Amer started to wonder: Thousands of ISIS detainees are still missing. Where were they?
This is when he decided to start a campaign called Where Are the Kidnapped by ISIS? People—largely from Raqqa, including some living in exile—joined the campaign to search for answers regarding the whereabouts of friends and family who had been detained by the extremist group.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Islamic State detained over 7,000 Syrians between 2013 and 2017. Charges included reporting human-rights abuses, participating in aid work, posting messages against the Islamic State on social-media platforms, and fighting for the Free Syrian Army. Hundreds of these detainees were publicly executed in Raqqa’s public squares.