Raqqa city a ‘minefield’ as clearing efforts expected to take months

AMMAN: Two weeks after US-backed forces captured Raqqa from the Islamic State, the city lies in ruins, strewn with mines as early reconstruction efforts get underway, while thousands of displaced residents wait to return.

Months of battle and bombings shattered Raqqa city’s infrastructure, leaving most of it uninhabitable for thousands of people now trapped outside their home city, says Firas Mamdouh al-Fahd, a member of the Raqqa Civil Council.

“The city lacks the most basic services: water, electricity, a sewage system,” al-Fahd told Syria Direct. “Many buildings that were not destroyed are still liable to collapse.”

The Raqqa Civil Council is a body established by the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) this past April to administer the city once it was captured from the Islamic State. The council is overseeing the city’s reconstruction, by all accounts a monumental task.

Underneath piles of rubble, bodies still lie, unburied and rotting, says al-Fahd. “We’re sending out teams of coroners to deal with the bodies,” he says. “Civilians cannot be allowed to return until these corpses are buried, because of the risk of illness and disease spreading.”

One of the most pressing challenges ahead is the presence of scores of IEDs and landmines spread throughout the city, al-Fahd and other sources directly involved in the reconstruction effort told Syria Direct this week. According to the US-led coalition, IEDs killed members of at least nine civilian families who attempted to return to the city in recent weeks.

“The city is a minefield,” the Raqqa Civil Council said in a post on its official Facebook page on Monday.

Raqqa Civil Council member Firas Mamdouh al-Fahd points to locations of landmines on a map of the city’s districts. Photo courtesy of Firas Mamdouh al-Fahd.

“We are working with a number of organizations to remove the mines, rubble and earthen fortifications,” Abdelghafar, an engineer on the Raqqa Civil Council's Reconstruction Committee told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “This is the first stage to pave the way for families to safely return to their homes.”

The SDF, a multi-ethnic coalition primarily comprised of a Syrian Kurdish fighting force, launched the battle for Raqqa city on June 6 with the backing of US-led international coalition warplanes, artillery fire and advisers on the ground.

During the more than five month battle for Raqqa, the US-led coalition dropped some 20,000 munitions on the city, according to the UK-based international monitor Airwars. Artillery fire and sniper bullets tore through flesh, pockmarked the sides of buildings, the walls of bedrooms, and street signs. Landmines and IEDs planted by Islamic State fighters killed civilians trying to flee the encircled, embattled city. An estimated 1,800 Raqqa civilians died over the course of the fighting, Airwars reported.

The SDF captured the city on October 17, trading the city’s black flags for yellow ones as the picture of Abdullah Ocalan—the ideological leader of the Kurdish militia making up the bulk of the forces—went up in Raqqa’s central square during celebrations.

Virtually all of Raqqa’s residents—some 300,000 people—fled prior to or during the battle. Outside the empty city, its residents now wait to return to their homes—in displacement camps, in the houses of relatives, or crowded into rented rooms. Many do not know if they have anything left to go back to, said one Syrian journalist who has been visiting the displacement camps.

“Displaced people are torn up about the destruction of their city and their homes,” journalist Abood Hamam told Syria Direct from the Raqqa countryside. “I saw some people sleeping out in the open with their belongings, especially the most recent arrivals.”

The ubiquitous landmines and the time needed to remove them means that many civilians will be trapped outside their city, crowded in camps throughout the winter.

“The city cannot be fully cleared of mines before March or April of next year,” said al-Fahd. Residents of Raqqa are to be allowed to return on a district-to-district basis, as each is declared free of landmines and rubble removed from the streets.

“Six months is a long time,” said journalist Abood Hamam, currently in the Ain Issa camp north of Raqqa city,  “especially with winter coming.”

A member of the SDF clears an IED during an exercise. Photo courtesy of CJTFOIR.

For its part, the US-led coalition—which is currently providing training for minesweepers, heavy machinery to move rubble and other logistical support—says it has “not identified a hard timeline” but would work with partners “to enable the citizens to move back as soon as it is safe for them to do so.”

A spokesperson for the coalition told Syria Direct on Wednesday that the US-led force is supporting local efforts to rebuild, but that it has “no defined role in reconstruction” and would “remain focused on our mission to defeat Daesh in Syria and Iraq.”

Fighting to return home

Among the first Raqqa districts to allow residents to return is the easternmost district of  al-Mashlab, which was the first district that SDF forces advanced into on June 6, the day the battle for the city was announced.

Since Raqqa was captured in mid-October, displaced residents of al-Mashlab district have been trying to get back to their homes. One of them is Omar, a 30-year-old man from the district who left it this past April and is living in the Shaneenah displacement camp, approximately seven kilometers north of Raqqa city.

Omar says he was among dozens of al-Mashlab residents who demonstrated and attempted to return to their district on October 26. “When we approached the SDF checkpoint, they shot at us,” Omar told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “The gunfire injured 12 people, including a woman.”

Videos and pictures purportedly taken at the demonstration and later posted online show a large group of men and women, some of whom are bleeding and injured.

The following day, Omar says an SDF commander spoke to the would-be returnees and promised them that they could re-enter the district in 10 days. Al-Fahd, from the Raqqa Civil Council, confirmed that residents of al-Mashlab, Mafraq and al-Jazra districts would be allowed to return to the city in “less than 10 days.”

Even so, the shooting incident inflamed the fears and suspicions of some residents who worried the display of Ocalan’s picture and other symbols in the days after Raqqa was recaptured meant that the city and its residents were merely moving from the control of one ideology to another.

The SDF and coalition have repeatedly stated that they intend the future administration of Raqqa city to be civilian and representative of residents.

The coalition spokesperson contacted by Syria Direct on Tuesday said the international force is aware of but “does not approve of the display of divisive symbols and imagery” that occurred following the city’s capture. Displays of partisan imagery were “not sanctioned” by the SDF or Raqqa Civil Council, they added.

The closest point to Raqqa city proper that civilians have been allowed to return to so far is the village of Raqqa a-Samra, which lies four kilometers due east of Raqqa city center and neighbors the Mashlab district.

Residents were allowed to return to the village on Sunday after it was declared free of landmines. Raqqa a-Samra’s infrastructure is more intact than the provincial capital city, according to Raqqa Civil Council member al-Fahd. “The water network was not completely destroyed as it was in Raqqa city,” he said.

But even in a village in better condition than Raqqa city, returning residents say they “found Daesh corpses still lying there, some still wearing their explosive vests,” Abu Muadh a-Raqqawi, an activist in the north Raqqa countryside who is in contact with civilians who returned this week told Syria Direct.

As for Raqqa city, “for now, there is no return,” he said.

 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.