It has been a mere six months since a U.S.-led coalition drove the Islamic State from its self-declared capital of Raqqa, Syria. As the offensive drew to a close in October 2017, news cycles around the world ran triumphant reports of the Islamic State’s humiliation, touting the victory as a final blow to the waning, would-be caliphate. The five-month campaign for Raqqa’s liberation had cost the city dearly: As the dust settled, over 11,000 buildings and much of the city’s infrastructure — including its electricity and water — lay in ruin. Even so, for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced during the three-plus years that ISIS occupied Raqqa, the news brought the welcome hope of returning home, at last.
Yet the fall of ISIS was not the end of terror in the war-ravaged city. Waves of displaced residents flocked back to their neighborhoods and re-entered their homes — only to fall victim to hidden explosives, left behind by retreating ISIS fighters. Emergency medical staff began to receive dozens of patients who were mutilated by shrapnel and heat, their families bringing reports of mines hidden inside refrigerators, teddy bears, kitchen cabinets, and even under Qurans.
“We were seeing men, women, and children with parts of their bodies blown off, with internal injuries, broken bones,” the head of mission for a European medical NGO that works inside Raqqa told The Intercept. (He asked not to be named because the NGO does not publicize its presence in the city, for safety reasons.) “It was horrific — people had waited months for the war to end, only to be blown up inside their homes.”
“It was horrific — people had waited months for the war to end, only to be blown up inside their homes.”
Others unwittingly triggered explosives hidden on neighborhood streets; children were blasted after picking up shiny objects or climbing over booby-trapped debris. As the casualties climbed into the hundreds, the reality of post-ISIS Raqqa quickly became clear: The retreating caliphate had rendered the city a death trap.
While post-conflict zones often require some level of de-mining, the scale of Raqqa’s contamination is virtually unheard-of, said Stewart Wight, a State Department spokesperson working on the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, in an interview with The Intercept. Recovery teams have not yet conducted a full-scale survey of the level of explosives, said Wight, but, “anecdotally, we can tell you it is bad — amongst the worst contamination in the world that our [U.S. government]-funded program has come across in over two decades.”
Dalgesh Issa of the Kurdish Red Crescent, one of the few medical agencies operating in Raqqa, told The Intercept, “The number of mines is unbelievable. In many ways, they have affected the population more than the actual war, because many people fled before the fighting, only to return to be struck by these explosives.”
Combined records from the Kurdish Red Crescent and Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, show that over 1,000 adults and children have been injured or killed by mines since October, but the true number is likely much higher. Padraic McCluskey, humanitarian affairs officer for MSF in northern Syria, told The Intercept that many victims never make it to one of three makeshift “trauma stabilization points” after being injured, and many of those who do are in need of higher-level care than a temporary clinic can provide. “Over 40 percent of cases are classified as ‘red cases’ — high emergency cases, victims in need of immediate stabilization and surgery — that are transferred to the nearest MSF surgical hospital, two hours away,” McCluskey said.
If they do manage to obtain treatment, victims face harsh conditions when discharged. Many, including amputees and those suffering serious lacerations and burns, have no choice but to return to one of the crowded, poorly resourced camps for displaced persons outside the city.
The United States has spent about $60 million on stabilization and recovery in Raqqa and the surrounding region, including some support for the de-mining effort, but has focused resources exclusively on “critical infrastructure” such as roads, sanitation facilities, and schools. The task of securing private homes is left to the Raqqa Civilian Council, or RCC, a group of Kurdish and Arab leaders supported by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Civilians in need of de-mining can place themselves on the RCC’s growing list for inspection, but according to a recent Human Rights Watch survey, the RCC is only able to respond to about 10 requests per week. “The stabilization effort is a herculean task,” said Wight. “The RCC is striving to meet the critical needs of returning Syrians, but it could take many years to fully clear Raqqa from explosive hazards.”
“The stabilization effort is a herculean task. … It could take many years to fully clear Raqqa from explosive hazards.”
Instead, many Raqqa residents are resorting to their own ways of checking their homes for mines. “Some test their homes by throwing rocks through the windows, or sending an animal inside the house to see if anything explodes,” said the European NGO source, “or they are just going in themselves to check.” A small industry of amateur “inspectors” has also emerged, offering to sweep a home for a sum as low as $50. Nadim Houry, director of terrorism and counterterrorism for Human Rights Watch, recently visited Raqqa to survey the mine problem, and told The Intercept that many of the civilians attempting to de-mine homes appeared “not to know very well what they were doing” as they entered these potentially lethal buildings.
Even if initial passes appear clean, residents may still be in danger. Many of the mines are programmed to explode only after multiple stimulations, or after a significant delay, said the European NGO source. “For example, there may be a bomb designed to go off after the 10th time it is triggered. The father may check the home and believe it is clean, so he moves in his family. Only days later, when the wife is cooking or the child runs through the door, does the mine explode.” This phenomenon has led to a shift in the victim demographic over time, he added: “At first, men were being injured or killed while checking their homes. Now we’re seeing more women and children victims, due to these delayed explosions.”
Initially, the RCC tried to block people from returning to the booby-trapped city, but these efforts proved largely futile. Instead, aid groups and the RCC are investing in raising awareness, by posting signs about the danger of mines and broadcasting warnings on local radio. Yet Issa, of the Kurdish Red Crescent, says “there is still a great lack of awareness about the mines, especially among the children.” The U.S.-sponsored transition program that Wight works for says that it has conducted “Mine Risk Education” for over 44,000 people, but Wight admits that people are often too desperate to heed caution. “People are getting more impatient to return home, which means they resist warnings,” he said.
Meanwhile, other aspects of life in Raqqa remain fraught with suffering. The city still lacks running water and electricity, and Raqqa’s schools and healthcare facilities remain largely shuttered. Even the most basic tasks, such as rubble removal, can be lethal, as piles of debris are often rigged with explosives. Leila Mustafa, co-chair of the RCC, told The Intercept, “We are striving to rehabilitate the city to the best of our ability, but we are facing many challenges restoring basic services due to the massive level of destruction, the lack of resources, and technical failures. Even so, the waves of returning internally displaced people continue to flow in each day. We are in need of much more support.”
The immense need is compounded by the challenge relief groups face in even reaching Raqqa: Most resources must be funneled in via Iraq, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refuses to approve aid bound toward the area.
“Assad has no interest in stabilization or rehabilitating Raqqa, especially if it’s not under his control,” said Wight, the U.S. official, contrasting the efforts in Raqqa to similar ones to restore Mosul, Iraq, after its recapture from ISIS. “In Iraq, despite the immense challenges, we have an Iraqi government partner. Stabilizing and rebuilding Raqqa is a lot more challenging.” The government of Turkey, unhappy with the strong role of Kurdish militias and leaders in the region, has likewise been unhelpful to aid groups trying to reach the area. The United Nations, which relies on permission from the Damascus-based regime, has no presence in the region.
Now, even the modest recovery measures underway in Raqqa are threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to freeze a promised $200 million fund for Syrian stabilization efforts. He’s also nodded toward pulling out the 2,000 troops currently on the ground in Raqqa, many of whom are involved in the reconstruction process. The U.S. is, by far, the largest governmental actor in the city, supplying humanitarian goods and capacity-building, security, and de-mining services. It is also the key partner to the still-fledgling RCC, and aid groups worry that the abrupt rollback in aid could undercut months of incremental progress.
“The city is far from recovered, and the aid is already far less than what is needed,” said the European NGO source, who added that Trump’s “flip-flopping” on Syria, as well as the recent firing of his former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has created a toxic sense of uncertainty. “With a single tweet, [Trump] can undo months or years of recovery. It is very destabilizing for all of us, and it is a small-minded way to do foreign policy.”
Others point out the troubling contrast between the U.S.’s heavy investment in the military campaign against ISIS and its faltering commitment to recovery after the militants were ousted. “The U.S. was very strong and focused during the military fight,” said Houry, of Human Rights Watch, “but since then, there’s been a state of confusion and mixed messages. I am not prescribing any certain policy, but the bottom line is, the city is totally destroyed due to a fight the people didn’t choose. There needs to be a real plan and support to help the city recover.” Mustafa, of the RCC, agreed. “The city of Raqqa paid a heavy price for the world’s fight against ISIS. We hope that all the countries involved will continue and increase their support for our recovery.”
“The city is totally destroyed due to a fight the people didn’t choose. There needs to be a real plan and support to help the city recover.”
So far the U.S. has held back from any definitive statements on the future of Raqqa, or the de-mining process there. Wight could not comment directly on Trump’s decision to freeze the $200 million in aid, but said, in a written statement to The Intercept, “In line with the President’s request to review all international assistance, we continually reevaluate appropriate assistance levels and how best they might be utilized.” In a special briefing earlier this month, Jerry Guilbert, chief of programs for the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, was also asked about the cuts. He replied, “We never went into this from the beginning with the view that the international community was going to clear Raqqa or clear Syria [from mines]. Ultimately, this has to be viewed as a Syrian problem that is in need of a Syrian solution.”
The uncertainty of U.S. support has shaken many Raqqa residents. One 39-year-old Syrian medic, who asked that his name be withheld for security reasons, said Trump’s statements have left him fearing for his city’s future. “Right now, the people have only a little hope left. If the aid stops, how will we recover? If the city collapses, ISIS could come back.”
Another Raqqa native, who published dispatches from the city under the pseudonym “Tim Ramadan,” to protect his safety, told The Intercept that many already feel betrayed by the U.S. “People in Raqqa are making comparisons to Iraq, where they say that the Americans abandoned Iraq after causing a destructive war,” he said. “America is losing the opportunity for a real victory over ISIS, a real liberation of Raqqa.”