Raqqa: ‘Seeing dead bodies is normal now’

As battle for ISIL-held Raqqa enters its final stages, those on the ground lament civilian casualties.

Fighters from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walk together along a damaged street in Raqqa
More than a thousand Syrians have been killed since the start of the Raqqa offensive since June 5 [Reuters]

Tim Ramadan’s* day begins with the sound of coalition air raids piercing through the morning air at the break of dawn.

“First, it sounds like a strong, fast wind, then comes the sound of the crash – loud and pounding after impact. If the strike is less than 300 metres away, you can hear whistling in the ears for several minutes,” he says.

The smell of death hangs in the air with the streets of Raqqa full of dead bodies rotting under mounds of rubble, in the late summer heat.

The Syrian citizen journalist from Sound and Picture, a group of Syrian human rights activists documenting cases of violations against civilians, charges his laptop from abandoned car batteries, and connects it to a hidden WiFi device in his rented apartment to upload pictures and videos of what appears to be the final phase of the battle.

“A couple of weeks ago it was still possible to shoot and take pictures on the sly but now it’s very difficult.”

“When we’re on the streets we are constantly running to avoid Daesh (the Arabic-language acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, ISIL, also known as ISIS) snipers and coalition air strikes. We are afraid that Daesh might locate where the video was taken, and that might cost me my life,” Ramadan told Al Jazeera.

Ramadan can only access the internet a couple of times in the day, but as one of the few journalists and media activists who have been able to get images from the battered city out into the world, he says he is willing to take any risk.

“This is my city, not Daesh’s city or the coalition’s city. I’ll stay here and defend it and tell the world about all the war crimes committed by everyone against my people, ” Ramadan says.

“I feel that it’s my duty. It’s not about me alone any more, it’s about the families stuck here with no food or water […] being slaughtered by different means, by Daesh and the coalition. What I am doing is part of what I signed up for when the uprising started,” he says.

More than a thousand people including 248 children and 177 women were killed in the Raqqa offensive between the June 5 and September 20, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a United States-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, now control the majority of Raqqa city with ISIL’s fast collapsing ranks confined to small pockets in the city centre and a few other neighbourhoods.

Raqqa’s tryst with the Syrian revolution

Raqqa, like many parts of Syria, witnessed spontaneous, non-violent, anti-government protests as part of the Arab uprisings in 2011, which called for the overthrow of Arab dictators. 

In Syria, protesters called for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, who has ruled the country since 2000. 

READ MORE: Syria’s civil war explained from the beginning

In March 2013, it became the first provincial capital to be captured by armed opposition fighters from government troops symbolised by its jubilant residents bringing down the statue of former President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian leader. 

It was hailed as the first successful model of the revolution where opposition activists from across the country would seek refuge from the crackdown of the Assad government. 

Local coordination committees were set up to ensure democratic governance of the city whose schools and markets were relentlessly bombed by the government. 

Within a few months, ISIL took control of Raqqa after capturing it from the Free Syrian Army, an armed group formed out of military defectors, in spite of opposition and protests by local residents.

ISIL’s attacks on Syrian activists, Christians and minorities, its infamous kidnapping of Italian, Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio and its public floggings and executions gained it international notoriety. 

Ghost town

Ramadan remembers his first protest in April 2011, as a young university student in Deir Az Zor city, southeast of Raqqa. The fear of his beating heart gave way to tears of joy as he heard chants “The people want the fall of the regime,” his voice blending with those around him.

Government attacks destroyed his home and killed many of his relatives, forcing him to move to Raqqa where he resumed his studies at the Raqqa university.

In the following years, Ramadan’s close activist friends were killed by ISIL, he says, and in the final days of the battle for Raqqa, he lost the woman he met and fell in love with five years ago at the university.

“She asked me to leave the city and come with her, but I refused because I needed to tell the world what’s happening here. She said she doesn’t want to be with someone who will die,” Ramadan recalls.

He says Raqqa looks like a ghost town where people avoid going out of their homes in spite of the risk of being killed inside by aerial bombardment.

Bombs and mortars have destroyed hospitals and shelters with no functional civil defence units to take the injured out. Food and medicine have run out.

“There is no food for the last two weeks. People are eating mouldy, rotten bread, olive oil, leaves and herbs,” Ramadan says.

His memory of sitting on his roof under a cool night sky, watching the stars and drinking coffee, surrounded by the humdrum of the bustling, vibrant, ancient city by the Euphrates river where families would gather and sing on weekends, is a distant one.

“Seeing dead bodies is normal now. It doesn’t affect me any more. I don’t cry any more over dead people. It’s become a routine. This war has changed me a lot. Earlier, I used to have a sense of humour. I was a happy person, now I am always depressed.

“If life ever returns to normal, I would first hang pictures of all my martyred friends in the city. But personally, I would like to see a psychiatrist to help me get over what I have seen – everyone here needs to do that,” he says.

Battered city

The military offensive to recapture Raqqa has displaced an estimated 190,000 people and destroyed some 75 percent of the city.

Airwars, a group tracking civilian deaths in Russian and US-led coalition air raids in Syria and Iraq, has documented some 5,775 US-led coalition bombs, shells and missiles dropped in the month of August, resulting in at least 433 likely civilian deaths.

“It’s troubling that since June 6, the coalition has admitted to just four deaths from two incidents at Raqqa, while locals insist that more than 1,000 have died,” Chris Woods, Director of Airwars, told Al Jazeera.

“All indications are that civilians are dying in significant numbers at Raqqa. Rather than denying that, we would prefer that the coalition took the problem seriously.” 

The US-led coalition told Al Jazeera that it dropped about 16,500 munitions in Raqqa and the surrounding areas since June but denies reports by monitoring agencies and human rights groups of an astonishing number of civilian deaths in the Raqqa offensive in the past few months.

READ MORE: What will happen to Raqqa after ISIL?

“The Coalition respects human life, which is why we are assisting our partner forces in their effort to liberate their lands from ISIS brutality. Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the Coalition will not abandon our commitment to our partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics of terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods,” the press office of the Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.

In Raqqa, only one underground hospital remains to treat the dozens injured in air raids and fighting, but there are reportedly no doctors left to treat them.

Wounds are being sanitised with salt and water in the absence of medical supplies reaching the city, according to testimonies collected by human rights group, Physicians for Human Rights.

“We managed to speak to several doctors because they had fled recently. One of them said he was the last remaining doctor. Two of his colleagues were reportedly killed in coalition air strikes and the other died from an ISIL landmine,” Racha Mouawieh, research associate at Physicians for Human Rights told Al Jazeera.

“One of the main challenges that people are facing is that they can’t reach hospitals because there are no rescue teams and there are no civil defence teams to take them to the hospital,” she says.

Returning home

Returning to Raqqa as it reaches the final and perhaps the most dangerous phase of the conflict seems uncertain for the many who have managed to escape, often risking their lives or by paying huge sums as bribes.

Abdalaziz Alhamza, one of the founders of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a citizen journalist group, is living as a refugee in Berlin from where he tracks and reports on developments from Raqqa.

He thinks a military defeat of ISIL is not enough to bolster confidence among the civilian population to return to their destroyed city.

“No one knows who is going to stay in the city. No one knows who will run and govern the city. People are afraid of being charged of supporting ISIS or being forced to join the SDF,” he says.

“The US is only focused on defeating ISIL as an armed organisation, they don’t seem to care about what’s happening to the civilians or the local population. And that’s precisely the reason why we ended up having a group like ISIS,” he says.

His concerns come from allegations of human rights abuses and violations such as forced conscription of child soldiers, lootings, and kidnappings by the SDF, in areas under its control.

“We have certain reports of SDF forcibly detaining people, there are reports of forced recruitment of children and adults and mistreatment and abuse of detainees since the offensive began in June,” Matthias Behnke, coordinator of UN Human Right’s Syria Team, told Al Jazeera. 

“Regardless that ISIL might not respect the laws of war and use civilians as human shields, that does not give the opposing parties in the conflict the right to disregard their obligations to protect civilians,” he continued. 

“Even ISIL fighters who may have surrendered and are outside combat must also be protected”.

READ MORE: Syria: ‘This case is about saving humanity’

The coalition says that it does not condone or support any violation of the laws of armed conflict by its allied forces.

“As a precondition for Coalition support, SDF and Iraqi forces have pledged to observe international laws and the laws of armed conflict. Any violation of the law of armed conflict would be unacceptable and should be investigated in a transparent manner and those deemed responsible held accountable in accordance,” the CJTF-OIR’s press office told Al Jazeera.

Alhamza says he fears for the minds of an entire generation of traumatised children and young adults who have lived through ISIL’s control without access to the outside world and information, witnessing public executions and torture and death of their loved ones in the conflict.

“ISIS is not only an armed organisation, it’s an ideology. The international community is not thinking about the day after. We saw it with the Taliban, then al-Qaeda and now ISIS.

They (the international community) were focusing only on the armed group, not their ideology. No one thought something worse than al-Qaeda would emerge, but it did. So it’s likely that the group that emerges after ISIS in a few months, or years, or whenever might be even more dangerous,” Alhamza cautions.

Ramadan has now left Raqqa city for northern Syria. He says he did it to carry a sick child to safety while being targeted by a hail of bullets.

“I left everything behind me; my memories, corpses all around the city, hungry people, even my clothes, but I went out with a child whom I did not know just because he had a future that should not be denied,” he said in what he called perhaps his last post on social media.

*Tim Ramadan is a pseudonym he uses for fear of reprisals. 

Source: Al Jazeera