AMMAN: As US-backed forces close in on Raqqa city, some civilians are fleeing to the Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital, where they describe an atmosphere of anxiety and fear of American-led coalition airstrikes and advancing ground forces.
For an estimated 150,000 people inside the city, there is currently no safe way to leave Raqqa. Routes by land were cut by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and all bridges across the Euphrates River to the southern part of the city—where 50,000 people live—have been destroyed by United States-led coalition airstrikes in recent weeks.
The SDF, a multi-ethnic, anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition of which a Kurdish militia is a primary component, is leading the campaign, dubbed Euphrates Wrath. It began in November 2016 with the ultimate goal of capturing Raqqa city.
Since last November, the SDF, backed by scores of airstrikes by the US-led international coalition, has isolated the city, capturing territory to its north, west and east.
Now, IS forces are increasingly encircled inside Raqqa city, but they are not alone: Thousands of civilians are also inside. They include both Raqqa residents and people displaced from towns and villages in the surrounding countryside during the SDF advance.
“Dozens of families from the east Raqqa countryside are thought to have been displaced to Raqqa city in recent weeks,” Furat, an activist and reporter from the province told Syria Direct from Turkey, using a pseudonym.
Furat is a former member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a group of media activists documenting IS violations. He is currently part of a separate online news group reporting on events in Raqqa.
SDF forces advance northeast of Raqqa city in February 2017. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP.
The people who fled to Raqqa city from the small towns and villages that dot Syria’s northern Raqqa province represent only a portion of those displaced by the latest battles.
According to a report earlier this month by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “up to 42,000” people in Raqqa have been displaced since Euphrates Wrath began, and “new displacement is expected as military operations continue.”
Of those 42,000 people, some were only temporarily displaced and later returned to their homes. Many fled to SDF-held territories in the north. Others, however, sought shelter deeper inside IS territories, including in Raqqa city.
Why flee to the capital of the so-called caliphate, the heart of Islamic State territory and clear target of Euphrates Wrath? Civilians say they fear advancing SDF forces, according to five who fled to Raqqa city. Some worried they would be seen as IS supporters and potentially arrested. Others cited reports and rumors of property seizures and conscription by the SDF.
For some Raqqans, they simply had nowhere else to go, either prevented by IS forces from leaving or by landmines and IEDs planted along the frontlines.
It is difficult and dangerous for people living inside Islamic State territory to speak to outside media sources. Four displaced people inside Raqqa city who Syria Direct contacted for this story sent voice recordings online through Furat, the Syrian activist and reporter living in Turkey. A fifth individual directly contacted Syria Direct via WhatsApp. It is not possible for Syria Direct to independently confirm their accounts.
Regardless of why some displaced people fled to Raqqa city, those interviewed for this report say they are now stuck there with other civilian residents, in a tense, encircled city under bombardment by US-led coalition warplanes.
“Life in Raqqa is at a virtual standstill,” Abu Ammar, a civilian who fled to Raqqa city from the countryside last month, told Syria Direct. “People are afraid of what will happen in the coming battle to expel IS.”
This week, the SDF reported that its forces were advancing towards Raqqa city from the east “after receiving new weapons, missiles and armored vehicles from the international coalition” earlier this year. The closest SDF positions to Raqqa city lie roughly 5km to the northeast.
As the battles draw closer, the United States-led coalition reported 172 strikes against Islamic State near Raqqa city this month alone. Local activists and news pages have reported dozens of civilian casualties as a result.
Inside Raqqa city, displaced people like Khalil Omar, who fled his town in the northern countryside with his wife and three children in January, live packed into mosques, schools and other public buildings. “I wasn’t one of the lucky ones with enough money to rent a house,” he said. Other people have set up tents in the streets and squares of the city.
Dense clusters of displaced people have given rise to fears of mass casualties in airstrikes. And coalition bombings have reportedly struck schools and other areas where displaced people are gathered in recent days.
On Tuesday, local activists and monitoring groups reported at least 30 killed in what they said was a coalition airstrike on a school housing dozens of displaced families in the IS-held town of al-Mansoura, in western Raqqa province. Some local media outlets said that more than 180 people died in the strike. The coalition reported 18 strikes near Raqqa on Tuesday, including against what it called an IS headquarters and a media facility.
On March 11, at least 12 civilians were reportedly killed east of Raqqa city when a coalition airstrike hit a school that sheltered displaced people, according to monitoring group Airwars. Coalition forces reported a dozen airstrikes near Raqqa the same day.
Coalition aircraft rarely leave the sky over Raqqa, said Abu Ammar, and “every day, there are bombings.”
Displaced father Omar is not optimistic about his family’s future. “I don’t think we’ll be in the school long,” he told Syria Direct. “Soon, we will be lying dead beneath its rubble, after SDF or coalition bombardment.”
In addition to the ever-present warplanes and bombings, a swift advance of SDF ground forces has left some residents afraid of what happens once the US-backed forces arrive.
“People are spreading stories here about the SDF that have put fear in my heart,” Umm Ahmad, a woman who fled to the city with her daughters earlier this year told Syria Direct.
All five people contacted by Syria Direct for this story cited fears of arrest, conscription, displacement and other abuses by the SDF. Those fears, they said, are based on “criminality and sectarian practices” by the SDF in previous battles in the Raqqa countryside.
A recent report on human rights abuses in Syria by the United Nations' Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, found “no evidence to substantiate claims that YPG or SDF forces ever targeted Arab communities on the basis of ethnicity” over a seven-month period beginning last July. Furthermore, while Kurdish fighters are the most prominent and effective forces within the SDF, Arab fighters are also part of the group.
The UN report did identify temporary and long-term displacement from villages captured from the Islamic State as a point of concern, as well as the ongoing conscription of men and boys.
Inside Raqqa, a concern remains that, when ground forces arrive, civilians could be seen as the “popular support base for IS" and treated as such, Abu Ammar and others told Syria Direct.
“We are living under IS terrorism, in fear of arrest, whipping, killing for false accusations,” Abu Ammar told Syria Direct. “We civilians in Raqqa are some of the most harmed in all of Syria.”
“We are being held hostage by IS,” echoed another resident, Abu Khaled.
“The civilians are the whole world’s responsibility,” he added. “We hold the coalition and its allied forces on the ground responsible for any bloodshed or destruction to our property.”