Syrians in Raqqa afraid, angry, frustrated as they rebuild

Six months after ISIS’s ouster, residents say they have been abandoned as the world moves on.
Wednesday 18/04/2018
Palpable desperation. Syrian children walk along a destroyed street in Raqqa. (AFP)
Palpable desperation. Syrian children walk along a destroyed street in Raqqa. (AFP)

RAQQA - Across the ruins of Raqqa, the streets are cloaked in grey, the colour of bare cement and rubble left by the bombing campaign that drove Islamic State (ISIS) militants from the city. Among the residents of Raqqa, the fear, anger and desperation are palpable.

Six months after ISIS’s ouster, residents say they have been abandoned as the world moves on. They are trying to rebuild their lives but they say they fear everyone around them: the Kurdish-led militia that administers the majority Arab city; the Syrian government, which has forces nearby; criminal gangs that kidnap or rob whoever shows signs of having money; and ISIS militants who may be hiding among the people.

“Daesh is still among us,” said a businessman, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. To give an example, he said, a man threw a hand grenade at a funeral when mourners played music, which hard-line Sunni Muslims view as sacrilegious

The Associated Press spoke to more than a dozen residents on a recent visit, most of whom talked of their woes on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety. The businessman asked to be identified by the diminutive of his first name, Abdu.

After fleeing Raqqa during the coalition-led assault on the city last year, Abdu returned once the militants were driven out in October. He found his restaurant and his home next to it destroyed. He was angry but practical. His life has been on hold for too long and he wanted to get on with his business so he hired workers and started to rebuild.

However, local gangs kidnapped him and demanded $10,000 ransom. His tribe intervened and rescued him without paying, he said.

He, like many others, lamented the loss of security, which he said was one prize feature of living under ISIS. He faulted the Kurdish-led forces for hastily recruiting local Arabs to boost their ranks and appease the local Arab tribes.

“We end up with thieves or former Daesh in the force,” he said.

For three years, Raqqa was the de facto capital of the ISIS self-proclaimed “caliphate,” which stretched across much of Iraq and Syria. In the campaign of the US-led coalition and Iraqi and Syrian partners, the group has been uprooted from almost that entire territory.

UN officials say Raqqa has been the most devastated city in all of Syria’s 7-year-old war, a conflict that has involved Syrian government forces backed by Russian and Iranian forces battling rebels. All of Raqqa suffered intense air strikes by the US-led coalition and the population of at least 350,000 had to flee. The infrastructure was destroyed, as was 65% of civilian homes, said Leila Mustafa, a member of the US-backed Raqqa Civil Council that runs the city.

A prominent Arab tribesman escorted the AP to see a building he owned that was gutted by air strikes. He angrily complained that the coalition bombing was indiscriminate. Like many, he said there should be compensation but didn’t expect any would be given.

“I wish I even found the bone of an ISIS member in there! But nothing. No reason,” he said. “Now, who will pay for this?” He refused to give his name, fearing his criticism would undermine his chances of getting money to rebuild.

Nothing is unaffected by the bombardment. Mosques, schools, squares and buildings have all taken hits, some repeatedly. Trees on the street were burned. Insects and dust saturate the air.

The stench of death rises from crushed buildings and remains long after bodies have been removed. Civil workers say they have pulled nearly 500 bodies from the rubble in the past three months, working with just one bulldozer.

Some streets have been cleared of wreckage, giving way to a scene even more haunting because of how organised it is. Scrap metal and debris are neatly stacked in heaps at the foot of destroyed buildings. Row after row of buildings reduced to concrete skeletons run like a pattern through the city. Large chunks of cement dangle from twisted rebar above sidewalks like cryptic decorations. At least 8,000 explosives riddle the city centre.

Major overpasses have been hit, as well as bridges across the Euphrates River, which cuts through the city. Residents and their cars cross on small barges.

Yet the buzz of activity is startling. Nearly 100,000 residents have returned, the United Nations said. Mustafa said it was likely much higher.

Women in colourful scarves punctuated the grey monotone in the markets. A market for scrap metal has sprung up at one end of the city. Meat grills could be found on some streets and warehouses were full of soft drinks, water, grains and other stock. Bulldozers drilled into the wreckage of buildings.

Workers from nearby provinces have come looking for opportunities. The driver of a truck loaded with mattresses with job hunters sitting on top said they came from the north-western city of Aleppo.

“They can’t do it all alone,” a construction worker from the neighbouring province of Deir ez-Zor said at the site of a destroyed bridge.

Those with money rebuild. Painters added colour to the facade of a former car dealership. Its owner, who asked only to be identified as Ismail, said ISIS had used its back rooms as a prison.

When he returned to Raqqa, he heard of masked gangsters who robbed returnees but that has not stopped him. He is turning his dealership into an internet cafe, much needed in a city that has no phone lines and relies heavily on personal generators for electricity.

He said he paid $600 to clean the wreckage from his street. “I want to make it feel safe,” he said.

Mustafa said most of the restoration work was self-financed, with some US money, though she would not say how much. She, with American officials attending, on April 5 inaugurated a pre-fab bridge to connect the city to neighbouring villages. One US official said installing the bridge cost $7,000.

The city is getting “very limited” support — “no match to the size of the needs,” she said. Infrastructure was destroyed, as was 65% of civilian buildings. Mines and rubble still need to be cleared, she said. She could not say the total cost for rebuilding since it is constantly being re-evaluated.

Raqqa paid a “hefty price” for the war on terrorism, she said, but “international organisations and some countries didn’t live up to their responsibilities.”

US officials have led operations to clear land mines and restore basic services such as water and electricity in the city. However, those programmes would likely have to be called off if US President Donald Trump withdraws American troops within five or six months. In meeting with national security aides, he has railed against the trillions of dollars the United States has spent in the Mideast, saying it brought no return.

Despite the devastation, signs of ISIS remained around Raqqa.

The infamous Naim Square — Arabic for “Paradise” — where ISIS militants displayed hanged bodies or heads, was empty aside from a single chair in the street that marked a former checkpoint of the militants. On the other end were remains of an ISIS media centre with broken chairs and a stand where the screen was once set to show ISIS videos to the public.

A juice shop and a supermarket were the only signs of life in the square, surrounded by destroyed buildings. Seals used by ISIS were visible on the metal shutters of shops, numbering them for tax collection purposes.

Nahla Mustafa walked absent-mindedly nearby, pulling her 7-year old son Baseel behind.

Asked how she is, she immediately said, “Everything is lost.” Her eyes welled with tears. The war had impoverished her well-to-do family. Militants confiscated her husband’s clothing store. The three homes they owned were destroyed in coalition strikes and she had multiple miscarriages, which she blamed on fear from the bombing.

She now makes clothes for a living and asks around houses for odd jobs. Looking at her purse, she said, “I have 3,000 liras ($7) in here. What do I do with this?” Her husband works in a grocery store, earning the equivalent of $45 a month.

“I am tired and I am scared,” she said. “When will we be able to save to fix our homes — when (my husband) is 100?” Her son doesn’t go to school because she worries about land mines.

“What will become of his future? What is our fault in all of this?”

(The Associated Press)