Far from front line, volunteers prepare to rebuild Raqqa

Raqqa Civil Council member Abdullah Arian visited Rome last month with other council members to solicit international funds. (AFP)
Updated 13 October 2017
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Far from front line, volunteers prepare to rebuild Raqqa

AIN ISSA, Syria: As US-backed forces fight to oust the Daesh group from its last hideouts in Syria’s Raqqa, a city council-in-exile is already working to bring life back to its devastated home town.
From a buzzing headquarters in Ain Issa, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Raqqa, Syrian engineers and lawyers are setting priorities for rebuilding their battle-scarred city.
“We know every inch of Raqqa. All we need is the announcement of liberation — which we expect to hear in the coming days,” said 27-year-old Mohammad Hassan, an engineer and member of the Raqqa Civil Council.
He laid out a map of the city, pointing out a pair of water pumping stations requiring restoration and major thoroughfares that will need to be cleared of rubble.
“We’ll start on the outside and work our way in,” Hassan said energetically.
Around 90 percent of Raqqa has been recaptured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces since June, but much of the city has been reduced to ruins by heavy bombardment that has rendered whole streets unrecognizable.
Almost like a symbol of the RCC’s eagerness to get to work, bulldozers for removing debris are parked outside its humble two-story office building.
Founded six months ago by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-Arab alliance fighting for Raqqa, the RCC boasts more than 100 volunteers from the city and its outskirts.
Men and women of various ages, ethnicities, religious sects, and professional backgrounds, they are divided into 14 committees working on everything from re-opening schools to restoring water and electricity supplies and repairing hospitals and homes.
The first priority, said the head of the council’s reconstruction committee, is removing a sea of explosive devices the jihadists have left in Raqqa’s streets, public institutions, and even private homes.
“This is a huge challenge — we can’t do anything else before getting rid of the mines,” Ibrahim Al-Hassan, a silver-haired engineer with thick-rimmed glasses, said as he sat in his sparse office.
“The second phase is restoring the water and electricity networks. After all that, we can turn to the schools. These are the essential priorities.”
Hassan said most building material would likely be imported from the neighboring Kurdish region of Iraq, although he did not rule out supplies coming in from Syrian government-held areas in Aleppo or Damascus.
The bulldozers parked outside, Hassan said, were the first of a total of 56 machines the council is set to receive in the coming weeks as part of a grant from the US State Department.
Both the American government and the US-led coalition backing the offensive to recapture Raqqa are involved in “short-term, quick impact projects” to bring Raqqa back to life, said a US official involved in civilian operations in Syria.
They would include supporting de-mining operations in and around critical buildings like schools and hospitals, and providing food and health support once Raqqa is recaptured.
“But we’re not here forever to fix everything. We have no money or desire to spend 20 years here demining the homes,” the official said.
A second US official involved in emergency aid operations for Syria said the US had helped the RCC “pre-position” more than 900 tons of food — including rice, beans, and wheat — for immediate delivery once the Raqqa offensive is over.
The operation has also earmarked water tanks, sewage trucks, and hygiene kits for tens of thousands of civilians expected to flood back into the city.
The EU has also pledged some $3.5 million to fund de-mining projects, said RCC member Abdullah Arian, a lawyer from Raqqa who visited Rome last month with other council members to solicit international funds.
“Raqqa was destroyed so that terror would not hit Washington, Paris, or London,” Arian said.
Raqqa gained a reputation as a key Daesh launchpad for overseas attacks.
“Those who took part in its destruction should be partners in its development,” Arian said.
But RCC members say they cannot yet set a price tag for rebuilding Raqqa because the ongoing offensive means they have yet to enter the city itself.
Arian and his six children, who were smuggled out of the Daesh-held city around 15 months ago, are waiting to see what is left of their home.
“Raqqa won’t be the same city that I left five years ago. There’s been a lot of pain,” says engineer Laila Mustafa, the RCC’s co-chair.
She also urged the international community to shoulder the responsibility for rebuilding her home town, but ruled out a role for the government of President Bashar Assad.
“On a personal level or working with companies (in government-held areas), we don’t have any problems,” she said. “But we won’t deal with the regime, neither politically nor economically.”


Gutted Syrian town begins modest reconstruction, street by street

Updated 8 min 41 sec ago
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Gutted Syrian town begins modest reconstruction, street by street

  • Mountains of rubble still block many of the main thoroughfares in Harasta, a town outside Damascus
  • After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria’s government recaptured it in March

HARASTA, Syria: Khaled’s delicate hands were accustomed to cutting and styling hair in his Syrian hometown Harasta. Now, they’re hauling concrete and sweeping floors to repair homes ravaged by years of fighting.
Mountains of rubble still block many of the main thoroughfares in Harasta, a town outside Damascus held for nearly five years by armed rebels.
After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria’s government recaptured it in March, and displaced families have been trickling back to check if their homes survived.
Khaled, 35, watches them cross a security checkpoint and approaches to pitch his services: knocking down walls, clearing rubble, and sweeping up debris.
“I used to be a barber, but now I’m a laborer. I wait for families to enter and offer them my services in cleaning and restoration,” he says.
Khaled fled Harasta in 2012 to the nearby town of Al-Tal, where he still lives with his family. Every day, the father of three commutes to Harasta to find work.
His own house still stands, but he cannot return yet: temporary security measures dictate that people who live outside the town cannot stay past nightfall.
“I work with three other people. We use hammers, brooms, and buckets of water. Work is on and off,” he says.
“Clients pay us whatever they can afford.”
Harasta lies in Eastern Ghouta, recaptured this spring by Syrian troops with a deal that saw thousands of rebels and civilians bussed to opposition territory elsewhere.
Others, like 45-year-old Hassan, chose not to leave.
The former petrol station worker remained in Harasta throughout the rebel reign and decided to stay in its aftermath, too.
Hassan now works with Khaled, transporting rocks and other materials in his pick-up truck to construction sites.
“This is the only work in Harasta that pays right now,” says Hassan, wearing a dirty wool sweater despite the heat.
Harasta was once home to 250,000 people, most of them Syrians from elsewhere in the country who worked in the capital but sought cheap rent.
Now, just 15,000 people remain, town officials estimate, unable to leave until security forces clear their names.
With the use of personal cars banned, boys get around on bicycles while women and toddlers shuffle along on foot.
Many of Harasta’s large residential blocks or industrial complexes have been pulverized by strikes, artillery, and mortars.
They stand like massive grey honeycombs overlooking dusty streets still stripped of signs of life, months after fighting has stopped.
Mohammad Naaman, 50, was terrified his home would be among those gutted by fighting — and can hardly contain himself when he finds it still standing.
“I was shocked to see most buildings collapsed. It’s true my house is devastated compared to before, but I’m happy it’s still there at all,” says Naaman.
He, too, fled to Al-Tal in 2012 and still lives there.
The doors and windows of his Harasta home have been blown out and cracks run up the walls, threatening collapse.
But in the living room, a layer of dust blankets plastic flowers still standing in their vases.
“Whatever happens, it’s still my house, and my house is so dear to me,” Naaman says.
Like his neighbors, Naaman’s first step was removing the rubble and debris from his home, dumping them into the main street nearby according to instructions by local authorities.
Vehicles provided by the public works ministry transport the rubble to a local dump, separating metal out so that concrete can be turned back to cement and reused.
“We removed 110,000 cubic meters of rubble from the streets, but there’s still more than 600,000 to go,” says Adnan Wezze, who heads the town council running Harasta since the regime’s recapture.
As he speaks, a demolition digger works on a two-story building. Its metal arm reaches up to the roof and picks off slabs of concrete precariously perched there.
Authorities are working fast to demolish buildings “at risk of collapse, because they present a public safety threat,” says Wezze.
Many urban hubs across Syria, particularly around Damascus, have been hard-hit by hostilities, and President Bashar Assad said this month rebuilding would be his “top priority.”
But Law 10, a recent decree which allows for the expropriation of property to redevelop an area, sparked fears that millions of displaced Syrians would not get the opportunity to make a claim to their land.
Wezze insists that Harasta’s modest efforts were fair.
“We only demolish after getting permission from the owners,” he says.
If they are not present, Wezze adds, “their rights are still protected. We’ve requested proof of property even before areas are designated as development projects.”
“No resident of Harasta will lose his rights — whether they’re here or in exile.”