Monday November 06, 2017

'So many dead': Adrienne Arsenault inside Raqqa's ruins

An abandoned stroller in Raqqa, Syria. October, 2017.

An abandoned stroller in Raqqa, Syria. October, 2017. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

Listen 14:21

Read Story Transcript

When ISIS staked its claim on the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2014, its citizens became subject to its brutal regime.  

Torture and beheadings became part of everyday life during the war between ISIS and coalition forces. Citizens of Raqqa were treated as pawns as ISIS fighters herded them from neighbourhood to neighbourhood using them as shields from coalition airstrikes. 

Finally last month, Raqqa was liberated. 

Forces battling ISIS in Raqqa declare victory2:10

But as the CBC's senior correspondent Adrienne Arsenault recently found in Raqqa, the city is still volatile with pockets of fighters likely hiding, and booby traps still waiting to be triggered.

"There isn't a building that's been spared in the fight," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

On the road into Raqqa, Arsenault explains how the only way to get through is following the tracks on a narrow route that the bulldozers left behind.

"As you drive by, you see that the fronts of buildings have been blown off, so you see those details of people's lives, you know, a couch or a curtain or towel hanging in a bathroom."

Syria Raqqa

A heavily destroyed street in Raqqa, Syria, Oct. 19, 2017. (Gabriel Chaim/Associated Press)

When looking around the debris, Arsenault says the blowflies surround and take over. 

"They're so loud and you hear them on your microphone, and they're in your face and they're landing on you, and it's because of the dead, so many dead."

Some of the dead bodies have been booby-trapped, Arsenault explains — "a horrific thing to see."

When ISIS fighters would die — sometimes civilians too — Arsenault says bodies would be rigged.

Booby Trapped Body

A massive bomb lies beside a booby-trapped body. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

"In one case, we saw the body of a fighter and then beside him was this long cylinder which was a massive bomb. But what we couldn't see was the trigger point," she tells Tremonti.

A place called the "Black Stadium" was one of the last places ISIS held, Arsenault points out. It was used for a number of things.

"It had enormous tunnels underneath that stretch for some two kilometres connecting ... the stadium to the national hospital so it would move fighters through there," Arsenault explains

Raqqa torture room

A torture room used by ISIS in Raqqa in what is known as the Black Stadium. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

It was also used as a prison, and it was where ISIS had its sniper practice. 

"We looked at the stands in the stadium, and you can see the outlines of people."

Beneath the Black Stadium, people were tortured — and when Arsenault stands in a hallway between one door open, and another shut, she finds out the chamber is fully-mined.

"But that's the way it is all over Raqqa ... There are doors like that. There are unexploded ordnance. Some of it dropped from the coalition airstrikes — 250-kilogram bombs that have not gone off, mortars with their fins still sticking out of the road."

Raqqa handcuffs

Handcuffs still attached to a wire mesh screen at a detention centre in Raqqa used by ISIS. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

Arsenault says all of what she has witnessed in Raqqa is "too much for the eye to take in."

She cautions if in the next 10 days a death toll comes out of Raqqa, don't believe the numbers.

"It's going to take a long time to figure out how many people have died, and there's going to be discussions about those airstrikes too," Arsenault tells Tremonti. 

"It was a ferocious campaign. And yes people are saying, 'thank goodness ISIS has gone from the city' but wow, the force."

Watch The National for Adrienne Arsenault's report inside Raqqa

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien.