Syria's Raqqa a year after ISIS ouster is still in ruins
RAQQA - Dinghies cross the Euphrates River all day, shuttling residents into the pulverised cityscape of Syria's Raqqa, where bridges, homes and schools remain gutted after the offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS).
A year has passed since a blistering US-backed assault ousted the jihadists from their one-time Syrian stronghold but Raqqa -- along with the roads and bridges leading to it -- remains in ruins.
To enter the city, 33-year-old Abu Yazan and his family must pile into a small boat on the Euphrates, which flows along the southern edges of Raqqa. They load their motorcycle onto the small vessel, which bobs precariously north for a few minutes before dropping off passengers and their vehicles at the city's outskirts.
"It's hard. The kids are always afraid of the constant possibility of drowning," Abu Yazan said. "We want the bridge to be repaired because it's safer than water transport."
The remains of Raqqa's well-known Old Bridge are nearby: a pair of massive pillars, the top of the structure shorn off. It was smashed in an air strike by the US-led coalition, which bombed all of Raqqa's bridges to cut off the jihadists' escape routes.
The fighting ended on October 17, 2017, when the city fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which handed it over to the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC) to govern.
However, 60 bridges in and around the city are still to be rebuilt, said RCC member Ahmad al-Khodr. "The coalition has offered us eight metal bridges," he said, to link vital areas in Raqqa's countryside.
Rights group Amnesty International estimated that about 80% of Raqqa, including vital infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, was devastated by fighting. The national hospital, the city's largest medical facility, where ISIS made its final stand, lies ravaged.
Private homes were not spared: 30,000 houses were destroyed and another 25,000 heavily damaged, Amnesty International said.
Ismail al-Muidi lost his son, an SDF fighter, and his home. "I buried him myself with these two hands," Muidi, 48, said.
"I was not as affected when I lost the house but I had hoped it would shelter me and my family. The coalition destroyed the whole building and all our belongings went with them," he said.
Now homeless, he lives with his sister in the central Al-Nahda neighbourhood. Anxiety over eking out a living has put streaks of grey into Muidi's hair and beard.
"How could I rebuild this house? We need help to remove the rubble but no one has helped us at all," he said.
Since ISIS was ousted, more than 150,000 people have returned to Raqqa, the United Nations said. However, the city remains haunted by one of ISIS's most infamous legacies: a sea of mines and unexploded ordnance that maims and kills residents to this day.
The RCC said it does not have enough money to clear the rubble clogging Raqqa's streets, much less rehabilitate water and electricity networks.
Khodr unfurled a map of the city at his office in the RCC, pointing out the most ravaged neighbourhoods. "The districts in the centre of the city were more damaged -- 90% destroyed -- compared to a range of 40-60% destroyed in the surrounding areas," he said. "The destruction is massive and the support isn't cutting it."
A plastic bucket in hand, Abd al-Ibrahim sat despondently on a curb in al-Ferdaws neighbourhood. Fighting destroyed his home, so he squats in another house, although there has been no water there for three days.
"I come and sit here, hoping somebody will drive by to give me water but no one comes," the 70-year-old said, tearing up.
He points to a mound of rubble nearby. "My house is like this now. We were in paradise. Look at what happened to us. We're literally begging for water,” he said.
The coalition has helped de-mine, remove rubble and rehabilitate schools in Raqqa but efforts have been modest and piecemeal compared to the scale of the destruction.
"You can't call this reconstruction. It's all empty talk," said Samer Farwati, who peddles cigarettes across from his destroyed house in the Masaken al-Tobb district.
He pays $120 to rent a home since his was hit in an air strike.
Farwati said he no longer trusts officials after too many empty promises.
"If they helped us even a little bit, we could complete the construction but there's no hope at all," he said.