Raqqa, once the home base of ISIS, still traumatized as it tries to resume normal life

Three years after Raqqa's liberation from Islamist militants by Syrian Kurdish forces and 10 years after the start of the Syrian civil war, the city that was once the home base for ISIS is struggling to come back to life.

Glimmers of optimism visible alongside ongoing hardship

Raqqa tries to rebuild after years of war

3 years ago
Duration 4:15
Featured VideoTen years after the war began in Syria, Raqqa is slowly trying to move forward after being the centre of ISIS rule and some of war's greatest horrors. CBC’s Margaret Evans meets those who’ve lived through it and sees how they’re trying to rebuild.

Three years after Raqqa's liberation from Islamist militants by Syrian Kurdish forces and 10 years after the start of the Syrian civil war, the city that was once the home base for ISIS is struggling to come back to life.

Raqqa's residents have been traumatized by years of brutal ISIS rule and an intense bombing campaign by the U.S.-led coalition trying to root out the militants, but there are slivers of light beginning to emerge from that dark recent past.

(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

CBC's Margaret Evans, Stephanie Jenzer and Jean-François Bisson travelled to Raqqa this month and found signs of a return to normality alongside scars of the war that devastated the northern city.

Some business is back

During CBC's recent trip to Raqqa, vegetable sellers and other food vendors were back in business — including this shop selling the sweet treat knafeh.

(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Although vendors are set up to sell, few people in the city can afford to buy anything due to what analysts are calling an unprecedented economic crisis and the sharp decline of the Syrian pound.

(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Signs of social life

A large portion of the city's buildings and infrastructure is still rubble, but its residents nevertheless try to have some social interaction.

(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Even the sight of a few children gathering offers a glimpse of hope in a city with a long road to recovery.

(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)
(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

'We couldn't chat like this'

Bookseller Ahmad al-Khabour Mohamad has started restocking his shelves, replacing some of the books burned under ISIS rule. He's kept his store's sign, now pockmarked with bullet holes.

"Cigarettes weren't allowed; women couldn't walk by themselves; we couldn't chat like this," he said of life under ISIS. "It was hard."

(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Mehmed al-Ezo is the director of Raqqa Museum, which was looted during the early days of the war before ISIS took it over. He said ISIS destroyed people's spirit during its brutal rule. 

"When you see people hanged, tortured, beheaded in the square, that's what it did," he said from inside the museum, which only has a few artifacts left.

(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Much rebuilding still to do

The intense bombing of the city left behind a vast concrete wasteland of destruction. Many people in Raqqa worry that war — or even ISIS — could return to the city.

(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

In one attempt at renewal, Paradise Square — the site of public executions under ISIS — now features an "I ❤️ Raqqa" sign. The square has been given a facelift in an attempt to move past the painful memories associated with the rule of ISIS.

(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Canada's role

Beyond Raqqa, the broader effort to help Syrians recover from the war got a boost Tuesday when Canada pledged an additional $49.5 million to the humanitarian effort to help the millions of Syrians across the Middle East displaced by the civil war.

Minister of International Development Karina Gould told CBC's Margaret Evans in an exclusive interview that the funding would be officially announced at a virtual conference Tuesday on the future of Syria co-chaired by the United Nations and the European Union.

The funding is in addition to the $281 million in assistance Canada previously announced for 2021 and will go toward funding food, health, sanitation and other forms of aid provided by the World Food Programme, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations.

Almost seven million Syrians are displaced inside the country, and more than five million are refugees in nearby countries, according to the UNHCR.

A Syrian boy holds a chicken outside his family's tent at a refugee camp in Bar Elias, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, earlier this month. More than five million Syrian refugees have been displaced by the 10-year civil war to countries near Syria. (Hussein Malla/The Associated Press)