Retaken but not rebuilt: Raqa a year after IS ouster

RAQA, Syria: All day, dinghies cross the Euphrates River to shuttle residents into the pulverised cityscape of Syria’s Raqa, where bridges, homes, and schools remain gutted by the offensive against the IS group.
Exactly a year has passed since a blistering US-backed assault ousted the group from its one-time Syrian stronghold, but Raqa — along with the roads and bridges leading to it — remains in ruins.
To enter the city, 33-year-old Abu Yazan and his family have to pile into a small boat on the southern banks of the Euphrates, which flows along the bottom edges of Raqa.
They load their motorcycle onto the small vessel, which bobs precariously north for a few minutes before dropping off passengers and their vehicles at the city’s outskirts.
“It’s hard — the kids are always afraid of the constant possibility of drowning,” says bearded Abu Yazan.
“We want the bridge to be repaired because it’s safer than water transport.” The remains of Raqa’s well-known “Old Bridge” stand nearby: a pair of massive pillars, the top of the structure shorn off.
It was smashed in an air strike by the US-led coalition, which bombed every one of Raqa’s bridges to cut off the militants’ escape routes. The fighting ended on October 17 last year, when the city finally fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which then handed it over to the Raqa Civil Council (RCC) to govern.
But 60 bridges are still destroyed in and around the city, says RCC member Ahmad al Khodr.
“The coalition has offered us eight metal bridges,” he says, to link vital areas in Raqa’s countryside.
Human rights group Amnesty International estimates around 80 per cent of Raqa was devastated by fighting, including vital infrastructure like schools and hospitals.
The national hospital, the city’s largest medical facility, was where IS made its final stand. It still lies ravaged.
Private homes were not spared either: 30,000 houses were fully destroyed and another 25,000 heavily damaged, says Amnesty.
Ismail al Muidi lost his son, an SDF fighter, and his home.
“I buried him myself with these two hands,” says Muidi, 48.
Now homeless, he lives with his sister in the central Al Nahda neighbourhood.
“The coalition destroyed the whole building, and all our belongings went with them,” he says.
Anxiety over eking out a living has put streaks of grey into Muidi’s hair and beard. “How could I rebuild this house? We need help to remove the rubble, but no one has helped us at all,” he says. Since IS was ousted, more than 150,000 people have returned to Raqa, according to United Nations estimates last month. — AFP