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Al-Raqqa destroyed, many civilians dead, after IS clashes

Editing: Abd Allah Al Darwesh |
TranslationEditor: Farah Nassif |
Translation: Nouha Salti

Al-Raqqa - SMART

It's been a year since the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the International Coalition led by the United States against the Islamic State (IS), have expelled the IS and controlled the city of al-Raqqa, Northeastern Syria. The battles against the IS destroyed the city, killed thousands of people, and resulted in dozens of mass graves. Activists and locals accuse the al-Raqqa local council of delaying projects that improve the situation in the city.  

Battles against IS kill thousands of people

Salal al-Muftah, a member of the al-Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently campaign, held the three contending parties (the International Coalition, the IS, and the SDF) responsible for killing more than 3,600 civilians and injuring tens of thousands of them.

The campaign represented the city of al-Raqqa in several international activities and conferences. The campaign members informed people about the violations of the International Coalition, the SDF, and the IS against civilians. 

The al-Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently campaign earned several prizes such as the CPJ International Press Freedom Awards.   

Al-Muftah said that they documented the killing of more than 500 civilians due to landmines and explosive devices left behind by the IS. The rest of the civilians were killed due to random missile and artillery shelling, in addition to aerial bombings from the International Coalition and the SDF. The International Coalition and the SDF targeted the city with more than 3,500 air raids and about 30 thousand missile and artillery shells.   

Al-Muftah added that the number of victims documented does not include people buried in the al-Panorama mass grave in Eastern al-Raqqa city center, which likely contains about 1,500 bodies or the bodies that are still under the rubble of destroyed buildings. As the bombings were intense and killed many people, locals from al-Raqqa had to bury the dead in mass graves in public parks and between the buildings.   
Yasser Khamis, a member of the al-Raqqa local council Initial Response Team (IRT) from the rebuilding commission, reported that they had retrieved 2,620 bodies through Jan. 8, 2018 and Oct. 16, 2018. The IRT identified 501 bodies and delivered them to their families.

Khamis said that they retrieved 2,010 unidentified bodies, including the bodies of 509 militants that the IRT did not determine for which party they worked. The IRT did not mention any information about the remaining 109 bodies.

Khamis added that they finished retrieving bodies from six out of nine mass graves, as the IRT asked the rebuilding commission to de-mine and remove explosives from the reaming three graves for the team to start their work. The IRT and the commission are still searching for new graves.  

Muhamad Othman, an activist in al-Raqqa, assumed that the IS might have executed hundreds of detainees in IS prisons before leaving the city. If accurate, the number of dead bodies in mass graves might increase to more than 5,000.   

The families of detainees launched a campaign demanding the SDF to reveal the fate of their sons who were detained in the IS prisons of al-Raqqa. The SDF did not respond to the families.

Othman accused the IRT of working slowly in retrieving bodies and searching for mass graves, saying, "They delay their work for international organizations and parties to continue paying their salaries (…) their job will end when they finish retrieving all bodies."

Amnesty International: "Anyone still able to live in al-Raqqa defies logic"

About half a million civilians were displaced from the city of al-Raqqa to camps managed by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in Northeastern Syria to live under conditions as harsh as those under the bombings The Death Camps campaign, which was organized by activists to highlight the suffering of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the camps of Eastern Syria, documented the deaths of several IDPs, most of them children, due to a lack of health care that led to the spread of infectious skin diseases. The Kurdish Autonomous Administration and humanitarian organizations neglected the IDPs in these camps. 

Salal al-Muftah, a member of the al-Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently campaign, said that about 200 thousand civilians returned to the city of al-Raqqa, amidst a lack of essential services, while many other IDPs are still living in the al-Raqqa countryside and camps. Al-Muftah said that the people who returned to the city are the owners of houses that were partially destroyed or those who can afford to rebuild their damaged houses.   

Al-Muftah added that the SDF-controlled city lacks water and electricity, and people depend on power generators and water tanks. The campaign documented the death of hundreds of people due to typhoid fever and poisoning from polluted water from the city.    

Kumi Naidoo, the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, reported, "What I saw in Raqqa shocked me to my core. The city is a shell – bombed-out buildings, very little running water or electricity, the stench of death hanging in the air. That anyone is still able to live there defies logic and stands as testimony to the remarkable resilience of the city’s civilians."

Othman, an activist, said that after the people demonstrated, the SDF allowed people to return to the city's partially destroyed neighborhoods at their own risk in the western side of the city, such as al-Mashlab, al-Jazra, Nazlat Shehadah, al-Hsewah, and al-Tayar, of which the SDF gained control at the beginning of their campaign against the IS.    

The SDF allowed the civilians who have property in al-Raqqa, but documents registered outside the city, to return after they obtain a certificate from the neighborhood Mukhtar and from two sponsors who will take full responsibility for returning people.  

Bombings destroy 70 percent of al-Raqqa city

SMART obtained  22 documents from a private source saying that more than 70% of al-Raqqa's infrastructure and civilians' houses are destroyed.

According to the documents, the bombings destroyed the two bridges on the Euphrates River in al-Raqqa, 18 mosques, 22 schools, eight medical centers, and three hospitals. The attacks also damaged 60% of the city's sewage subsystem, 40% of the central sewage system, and about 80% of the main roads.

Over six months, the council has executed several projects to remove the rubble and retrieve corpses from mass graves and from under the rubble. The council launched projects to support bakeries and to activate the water pumps of al-Raqqa and Maslakh. The council is planning to reactivate the remaining water pumps and to restore water and sewage service networks, according to the documents.

The al-Raqqa local council demanded the supporting organizations and concerned parties to provide about 25 million dollar to rebuild the bridges and destroyed schools, in addition, to restore the power network. The council also demanded the machinery and equipment to finish the planned project.

Othman said that the al-Raqqa local council and the International Coalition did not provide anything for the city and the civilians, adding, "Even removing the rubble was on the expenses of locals (…) people are busy rebuilding their houses to shelter them."

A civilian from the al-Badou neighborhood in al-Raqqa city center said that he submitted more than 20 complaints to the council to remove the rubble, fix the sewage system, and reopen roads, but the council did not respond. The civilian added that the ruins had been there from the beginning of the military campaign on the city and no one tried to remove them.

Abu Anas, a resident of al-Raqaa, said that he did not receive any help from any party to remove the rubble from his house, which the International Coalition bombing destroyed. Abu Anas had to make a deal with contractors to remove the rubble in exchange for iron pillars and remnants of the house. Another civilian, Abu Ussama, confirmed what Abu Anas said.

The US-led Coalition admitted to killing civilians during airstrikes on Syria and Iraq, while human rights organizations condemned the Coalition's airstrikes, saying that the Coalition did not reveal the exact number of killed civilians during the airstrikes.