Syrians in Raqqa afraid, frustrated as they rebuild

RAQQA, Syria (AP) – Across the ruins of Raqqa, the streets are cloaked in grey, the colour of bare cement and rubble left behind by the bombing campaign that finally drove out Islamic State (IS) militants. Among the people of this Syrian city, the fear, anger and desperation are palpable.

Six months after IS’s ouster, residents feel 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 who kidnap or rob whoever shows signs of having money; and IS militants who may still be hiding among the people.

“Daesh is still among us,” said a businessman, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

To give an example, he said, a man lobbed a hand grenade at a recent funeral when mourners played music.

The Associated Press spoke to over a dozen residents on a recent visit, most of whom spoke 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.

Workers remove rubble of a bridge destroyed last summer during fighting between US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants in Raqqa
A family rides a motorcycle on a damaged street in Raqqa. – PHOTOS: AP
Naim Square where militants executed and beheaded people in Raqqa
A media centre previously used by the Islamic State group lies destroyed in Raqqa, Syria

But local gangs had eyed him. He was kidnapped and held for $10,000 ransom, until 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 IS.

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 IS stretching 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 left the most devastated city in all of Syria’s seven-year-old war, a conflict that has also seen Syrian government forces backed by Russian and Iranian forces battling rebels.

All of Raqqa suffered intense airstrikes by the US-led coalition and the whole population of at least 350,000 had to flee. The infrastructure was destroyed, as were 65 per cent of civilian homes, said Leila Mustafa, a member of the US-backed Raqqa Civil Council that now runs the city.

A prominent Arab tribesman escorted the AP to see a building he owned that was gutted by airstrikes. He angrily complained that 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 IS member in there! But nothing. No reason,” he said.

“Now, who will pay for this?” he asked.

He refused to give his name, fearing his criticism would undermine his chances of ever 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 are burned. Insects and dust saturate the air.

The stench of death rises from crushed buildings and remains long after the bodies are removed.

Civil workers say they have pulled nearly 500 bodies from under 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.