Wednesday October 18, 2017

'My city destroyed': Raqqa man asks what will become of his hometown now that ISIS is gone

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by U.S. special forces, monitor the area near Raqqa's stadium.

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by U.S. special forces, monitor the area near Raqqa's stadium. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

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Story transcript

Abdalaziz Alhamza was happy when he first heard news that his hometown of Raqqa had been liberated from ISIS militants.

Then he remembered all the people who had fled and died during the fighting that left his city in ruins.

Alhamza, himself, fled the northern Syrian city in 2014 when the hard-line Sunni militants seized control. He now lives in Berlin, where he founded the citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

Now he wonders when, if ever, he'll be able to go home.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Alhamza about what will happen now that Syrian forces have regained control of what was once was the heart of ISIS' self-styled caliphate.

Here is part of their conversation.

I know you have been waiting for this day to hear your home city of Raqqa is free of ISIS. How does it feel to hear that news?

I was happy hearing that ISIS was defeated from my home for a couple of minutes. Then, looking at the fact that the city is almost destroyed and thousands of people being killed and other facts made me so sad.

'I was so sad looking at my city destroyed, looking at people celebrating where people are under rubble, killed.' - Abdalaziz Alhamza

People in Raqqa were describing the black ISIS flags coming down ... the yellow flags supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) going up, celebrations and honking in the streets, people saying that the city is liberated. What does that image tell you?

I watched a clip [of an] SDF tank with a yellow flag doing the same thing that ISIS did when they controlled the city. So it's the same scenario that happened when both groups controlled the city.

The difference was that when SDF controlled the city, the city was completely empty of civilians. Those fighters are celebrating over the destruction — over the killed people.

I was so sad looking at my city destroyed, looking at people celebrating where people are under rubble, killed. But, at the same time, I felt a bit happy that ISIS is defeated.

MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-RAQQA

The SDF ride atop of an armoured vehicle waving yellow flags after driving ISIS from Raqqa. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

You mentioned the citizens of Raqqa and the estimation is that only one per cent of the 300,000 people who were living in Raqqa before the war remain. Where are they and can they return now?

Most of them moved to the countryside and mostly they are in a resting in camp in Ain Issa, which is in the northern countryside of Raqqa.

For sure, they would like to go back home, but 90 per cent of the city is destroyed, so there's no place that they can go to. At the same time, ISIS spread landmines everywhere before they left the city.

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A girl cries at a refugee camp in Ain Issa, Syria, for people displaced by the fighting between the the SDF and ISIS. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

What we've seen is the United States and coalition support for defeating ISIS in Raqqa and the region. Is there any plan to help rebuild? Are you hearing of any contributions, any fundraising internationally that will go toward rebuilding the city?

Unfortunately not. The main goal of the international coalition and SDF was only getting rid of ISIS and that's what they did. And they spent millions of dollars on that campaign.

But they didn't plan anything for the day after ISIS being defeated. Looking at many cities where ISIS was defeated by the coalition and SDF, those cities are being forgotten. They haven't done anything. The main goal is just defeating ISIS without taking care of anything else.

Syrian militias declare victory in Raqqa, Syria0:48

Your organization is called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. What has life been like for people in Raqqa over the past couple of years?

It's been a hard life for them. After ISIS took over the city, they changed everything. The city turned to be a "black city," where they painted everything with black. They prevented children to go to the school. They closed universities.

They established many rules. They started to do human rights violations. Executing ... in public squares, public streets. Then [they developed] several ways to kill and torture people to prevent them from doing any action against them. Life turned to be a hell for the civilians who have been living there.

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A woman cries after she was rescued by SDF fighters in Raqqa. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

And at the same time, ISIS has taken over the city, but the international coalition has been pummelling — just bombarding the city — for some time with bombs trying to get rid of ISIS. We know something like 3,000 bombs have landed on schools, hospitals, homes and that's just recently. So, the city just appears to be nothing but rubble at this point. Is that your impression?

When I was watching the videos coming from Raqqa, 90 per cent of the city is destroyed. For me, it was so hard to recognize many neighbourhoods. A couple of neighbourhoods, I couldn't know where they are. The city looks completely different than the city I know.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Abdalaziz Alhamza: