Iraq News

Syria's al-Raqa 'uninhabitable' after ISIS defeat

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Shops in the Syrian city of al-Raqa show signs of damage following battles to drive out the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria'. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Democratic Forces]

Shops in the Syrian city of al-Raqa show signs of damage following battles to drive out the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria'. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Democratic Forces]

Relieved to be rid of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), residents of al-Raqa cannot yet return to what remains of their homes as the city's infrastructure is in tatters.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Friday (October 20th) hailed a "historic victory" over ISIS in al-Raqa city and pledged to hand over power to al-Raqa Civil Council, its civilian administration.

But this cannot happen -- and neither can civilians return -- until explosive remnants of war have been removed from the city's streets and bodies trapped beneath the rubble have been removed, the SDF said.

"The current situation is not suitable for the return of civilians who want to get back to their homes, shops and fields," said Saddam al-Huwaidi, deputy chairman of al-Raqa Civil Council's health committee.

In addition to "landmines and rubble everywhere", he told Diyaruna, there are other issues that must be addressed before residents can return.

The short term requirements for rebuilding the city are beyond the capacity of the council, he said, calling on international and relief organisations to stage an emergency intervention.

"Removing the debris is a top priority since only then would it be possible to remove boobytraps and corpses and to sanitize the city so civilians can return," he said.

Clearing rubble and explosives

The current priority is to open up main roads leading to the city by removing rubble and explosive devices, with cleaning operations to follow, said Luay Matar, an engineer from al-Raqa who used to work for the provincial council.

"The city in its current state is impossible to live in and cannot accommodate its 300,000 residents," he told Diyaruna, noting that ISIS completely destroyed basic infrastructure such as water, sanitation and electricity.

"Returnees would considerably suffer, especially with the approach of winter," he said.

"The issue of reopening schools also is paramount so that children do not fall behind even more in their education, which has been the case since ISIS took over the city and its countryside," he said.

ISIS turned some schools into headquarters and training sites, Matar said, which prompted some al-Raqa residents to flee to nearby refugee camps in order to access schooling for their children.

"Rehabilitation of the city is no less important than liberating it from ISIS," Matar said, but this cannot happen without direct international support.

Al-Huwaidi said the council's health committee will work to rehabilitate the city’s health infrastructure to pave the way for the return of civilians.

The initial objective is to rehabilitate hospitals and clinics, he said, noting that the full reconstruction of the healthcare system will require considerable effort and funding.

Residents dream of returning

“My dream was to return to al-Raqa no matter what," said Jamal al-Bakkar, an al-Raqa-area farmer who has been sheltering in Ain Issa. "But after the expulsion of ISIS and liberation of the city I have to wait some more, since it is completely uninhabitable."

City residents who fled to the refugee camps lost everything they own, and in spite of their desire to go back, reality dictates that they wait, he told Diyaruna.

Most have lost their homes and livelihoods, he added, but farmers will not be able to return to their fields due to ISIS-planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the group's vandalisation of irrigation networks.

"A group of civilians tried to go back but the SDF and al-Raqa Civilian Council who are stationed on the outskirts of the city wisely handled the situation," he said.

They explained to the returnees the obstacles and dangers they would face and escorted them to the nearest safe location, he added.

Despite clear instructions from the SDF, civilians wait every day at the city gates for a chance to look for what might be left of their homes, trying to convince SDF fighters to let them through, AFP reported.

Dangers await for those who fail to heed these warnings, with a team of SDF medics on Friday reporting that at least 15 people, including nine civilians, have been killed since the fighting ended.

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