RAQQA, Syria — Summer has come early to Raqqa, and nearby the city center, the stench of the newly uncovered dead hangs over Rasheed High School's soccer pitch. Once a popular destination for aspiring athletes and their cheering families, today the field is a mass grave, grim testimony to the costly U.S.-backed campaign to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State group's rule.
Civil Defence workers and volunteers armed only with picks and shovels tug shrouded bodies from the sandy soil. A handful of civilians, smoking or covering their mouths with their hands, stand by a low concrete wall next to a row of recently filled body bags. They’re waiting in hopes of finding their relatives among the neat rows of stacked bodies.
“There are perhaps 200 bodies here,” says the head of Raqqa’s Reconstruction Committee, Abdullah al-Ariyan. “Mostly women and children.” (After months of work, the group ultimately unearthed 551 bodies in total.)
He gestures at the school buildings, courthouses, legal offices, and apartment blocks that comprise our periphery — every single one was either destroyed or badly damaged by airstrikes and artillery fire. The school he attended, the school his sons attended, the courthouse he first practiced law in, even his family home a few hundred feet away, “every single one has been destroyed,” he says.
“It is catastrophic. Raqqa paid the price for the entire world.”
The U.S.-led campaign to liberate Raqqa from ISIS rule last summer was so destructive that Amnesty International has accused the coalition of carelessness amounting to criminal negligence. Over 4,000 coalition airstrikes pummeled the small city during the campaign. Additionally, the U.S. Marine artillery battalion attached to the local forces fired 30,000 rounds into the city, more than any American artillery unit in any war since Vietnam, according to the rights group's recent report. They literally melted the barrels of their howitzers through overuse, the report said.
The results are plain to see: The city's destruction is almost total, the scale of damage rivaling that of Mosul. More than 70 percent of the city’s buildings were damaged or destroyed during the U.S.-led campaign, according to the United Nations. The civilian cost is equally staggering: Local monitors estimate some 2,000 civilians were killed in fighting, with the majority likely killed by coalition airstrikes, according to independent monitor Airwars. (The Pentagon has rejected these findings, and has so far admitted responsibility for only 26 civilian casualties during its campaign in Raqqa.)
Yet Raqqawis appear angered less by the death and destruction visited upon them than by the total inadequacy of the reconstruction effort that’s followed. In early spring, the Trump administration froze $200 million worth of aid to Syria while the president and his advisers decide whether America’s mission will be continued. Billions of dollars were spent on destroying their city, locals say, and yet almost nothing is being done to rebuild it.
“We can’t do it all with picks and shovels”
At Rasheed High School, the volunteers quickly inspect each body — some of the parcels of bones unbearably small — and transfer them into the blue plastic body bags. One volunteer starts retching uncontrollably and is carried away to a van to recover.
This is just one of the three ongoing excavations the Civil Defence are working on this day. Another 100 unexcavated grave sites that have yet to be explored await their attention.
Yasser al-Khamis, head of Raqqa’s Civil Defence team, is trying to reassure his volunteers that they will get the international aid they need to do their job.
“Look, the size of the work here is huge,” he says. “It’s huge, and we can’t do it all with picks and shovels,” one of his men responds. “We were promised more support and, God willing, all will be well,” Yasser replies. Back in his office, Yasser tells us what he dares not tell his men.
“The U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary came here. She sat here. She asked us about our needs. We told her we need diving equipment and service vehicles and we need digging vehicles. She promised to discuss our requests with the U.S. administration and that they will support us. But we received nothing until now.”
While policymakers in Washington grapple over what comes next, here in Raqqa, the recent freeze in aid means the city sits in a vast pile of its own rubble, filled with rotting corpses and live munitions that could explode at any moment. There’s no running water or electricity either, yet 200,000 civilians have returned to live here, according to local officials, and more come each day, hoping to rebuild their lives.
“The coalition leadership is the one that should provide more support,” adds Yasser. “We hope that this decision is temporary, we hope that better decisions are made in the coming days. Because people here suffered so much.”
In his office in one of the few administrative buildings left standing, Abdullah al-Ariyan is overwhelmed by the task ahead of him. “It's impossible for things to go back as they were. The destruction is catastrophic. Who will rebuild private properties? The roads need reconstruction, the sewer system needs reconstruction, the water supply network needs reconstruction, the entire electricity grid is completely destroyed. Until now, we have received zero international support.”
Like everyone in Raqqa’s local Arab administration, which is entirely dependent on US support, al-Ariyan was horrified by Trump’s recent aid freeze: “It was just USD 200 million. For us, that would've been a huge amount. But for the U.S. administration, that would be just the cost of a couple of tanks,” he says.
“Al-Raqqa was destroyed by an international decree, it also has to be rebuilt by one”
With the Trump administration eyeing an early pullout from Syria, the democratic Arab governance structures the U.S. midwifed into being to defeat ISIS and appease neighboring countries face an uncertain future. The city’s stability depends on the promise of American support well into the future, as well as aid in quantities sufficient to ameliorate the desperate living conditions of its returned inhabitants.
“If the aid stops, we fear the return of armed groups,” warns al-Khamis bluntly, “People are fed up.”
The U.N.’s World Food Program provides limited aid to Raqqa, restricting the quantities delivered as a deliberate policy to discourage civilians form returning because the city remains unfit for human habitation.
“The U.N. support, delivered through humanitarian organizations, is at the very minimum,” said Abedhamid al-Mahbash, co-chair of the U.S.-backed administration. “We don't hold much hope for this aid from international organizations.”
But civilians are returning anyway, and on the ground the restricted aid means crowds of women and old men huddle around the aid distribution point, desperately jostling for the meager supplies of flour and cooking oil handed out.
Already, the lack of support is leading to problems: Small pro-Assad demonstrations have popped up in the city’s streets in recent months, unsettling the new administration.
“I don’t wish for the American forces to leave until security is restored and political reconciliation takes place in Syria as a whole,” says Civil Council co-chair Abedhamid Almahbash, “The regime might make a move against these areas. Turkey might move in. And maybe other forces might move in. Therefore, we'll go back to square one.”
The coalition, which helped create the Federation of Northern Syria, slowly built up a predominantly Arab force, committed to democracy and human rights norms, and in sponsoring an independent Arab government, neither jihadi nor pro-Assad, finally achieved an American policy goal it's sought here since Syria's civl war broke out over seven years ago. Now, after billions of dollars have been spent, and thousands of lives lost, the U.S.-backed local government in Raqqa believe its powerful ally, and the rest of the coalition, has a moral duty to stay in the city and rebuild it.
“As Al-Raqqa was destroyed by an international decree, it also has to be rebuilt by one,” said al-Ariyan wearily. “The entire world destroyed Al-Raqqa. It was bombed by French Rafale jets, Russian MiG and Sukhoi jets, F-14, 15, and 16 jets. It was shelled by Cruise missiles, Scud missiles, Tomahawk missiles, all of them” he said.
“The entire world participated in destroying Al-Raqqa, and now they have abandoned it.”
Cover image: Rubble of damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria. Aris Roussinos for VICE News.