Heartbroken residents get glimpse of Raqqa in ruins

This Oct. 19, 2017 frame grab made from drone video shows damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria two days after Syrian Democratic Forces said that military operations to oust the Daesh group have ended and that their fighters have taken full control of the city. (AP)
Updated 21 October 2017
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Heartbroken residents get glimpse of Raqqa in ruins

RAQQA, Syria: Tears streaming down her freckled face, 35-year-old Asya took in the shattered glass, gutted storefronts and crumbling cafes — all that remain of her favorite shopping street in Syria’s Raqqa.
“This was once the most beautiful city, my God,” said the woman in a mustard-colored headscarf, gesturing out of the back seat of a car moving slowly down Raqqa’s once-bustling Tal Abyad boulevard.
“Now look around you. Look at our homes,” she wailed.
Asya was one of the only civilians to access central Raqqa since the city was seized from the Daesh group this week by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
The SDF officially announced Raqqa’s capture at a ceremony in the city’s stadium on Friday but said mines left behind by IS made it too dangerous for residents to return home.
A handful of civilians — relatives of SDF fighters and displaced local officials — had been granted a one-day pass to access Raqqa for the ceremony and seized the chance to see what was left of their homes.
Asya’s husband, an SDF fighter, took his wife and four children in their rented car after the ceremony and drove to find their home in Raqqa’s eastern Al-Rumeilah district.
“I saw my house but wish I hadn’t. It’s been bombed — I only knew it from our personal items scattered outside,” Asya said.
“I would have rather had my things stolen but the walls still standing.”

Asya and her family had considered moving back to their native Raqqa from the town of Tabqa, 70 kilometers (43 miles) west and also recaptured from IS earlier this year.
“But now I don’t even want to come back to Raqqa, because all our beautiful memories have been turned into tragedies,” Asya said, adding that she had fond recollections of the now-ravaged street around her.
Some storefronts are still identifiable: a tattered sign outside a children’s clinic, bare glass displays at a jewelry shop, and a tailor’s fabric and sewing machines.
But most of Raqqa has been left in unrecognizable ruin after the SDF’s nearly five-month offensive, backed by heavy US-led coalition air strikes.
For members of the Raqqa Civil Council — a provisional local administration set up by the SDF — Friday’s trip into Raqqa was bittersweet.
“Yes, we’re happy to be back, but there’s destruction, pain, and sadness,” said lawyer and RCC member Fadila Hamad Al-Khalil, who fled IS-ruled Raqqa in April, before the SDF broke into the city.
“I wasn’t expecting the destruction to be this bad. It’s unreal — there are no buildings left, no infrastructure, no signs of life whatsoever.”
Khalil, too, was only able to catch a brief glimpse of her home from the outside before the SDF’s ceremony to hand over governance of Raqqa to the RCC.
She said she barely recognized her native city: “Everything is mashed together from the destruction.”
Her siblings and childhood friends would not be allowed to enter for days — perhaps even weeks or months — as de-mining teams worked to clear explosives.
“I wish we could have all come back to Raqqa together.”

Even those with a one-day pass could only see their homes from the outside, afraid of the explosives that could lie in wait inside.
Mahmud Mohammed, an engineer and member of the RCC’s reconstruction committee, said the brief glimpse into Raqqa provided a rude wake-up call for rebuilding efforts.
Just weeks ago, he and fellow engineers were enthusiastically laying plans to clear the rubble out of Raqqa’s streets ahead of rehabilitating the city’s water and electricity networks.
But after seeing the devastation on Friday, they admitted they had been too optimistic.
“When we came into the city, the (reconstruction) plan changed completely,” said Mohammed, 27, as he half-heartedly took pictures of the damaged Tal Abyad street on his cell phone.
“We would see pictures, but we didn’t know and couldn’t expect that we would see Raqqa like this.”
Mohammed pointed out a row of damaged storefronts and said his family had once owned them all, operating a relief center and a lingerie shop — even under IS.
“Massive destruction, above and beyond what we had imagined,” he muttered, shaking his head.
As he spoke, a white pickup truck barrelled past, playing a lively and trumpet-heavy tune while SDF fighters danced and flashed victory signs.
One elated militiaman held up his rifle and called out to a somber Mohammed: “Raqqa has been liberated, my brother!“


Gaza: Palestinian territory ravaged by war and poverty

Updated 2 min 56 sec ago
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Gaza: Palestinian territory ravaged by war and poverty

  • Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories on the planet with around two million Palestinians squeezed into 362 square kilometers
  • Israel imposed a blockade in 2006 restricting the cross-border movement of people and goods

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: The Gaza Strip, run by Hamas, is a poverty-stricken and overcrowded Palestinian coastal enclave under a crippling blockade by Israel, with which it has fought several wars.
After Israel tightened the blockade on Tuesday by suspending fuel deliveries amid fears of a new all-out conflict, here is some background.
On the Mediterranean coast, Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories on the planet with around two million Palestinians squeezed into 362 square kilometers (140 square miles).
After the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949, Gaza came under the administration of neighboring Egypt.
It was seized by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967.
In 2005 Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers, ending 38 years of occupation.
But it imposed a blockade in 2006, restricting the cross-border movement of people and goods following the capture of a soldier by Hamas militants on Israeli territory.
The blockade was tightened a year later after the ousting of troops loyal to the rival Fatah faction of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
The only entrance to Gaza not controlled by Israel is at Rafah on the Egyptian border. This too has been almost completely closed since extremists launched an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula after the military overthrew Egypt’s elected Islamist president Muhammad Mursi in 2013.
In May 2018 Israel began working on a “new and impenetrable” coastal barrier just north of Gaza to prevent the possibility of Palestinians entering by sea.
The Gaza Strip has almost no industry and suffers from a chronic lack of water and fuel. Its GDP losses caused by the blockade are estimated at more than 50 percent, the World Bank says.
Unemployment stands at 45 percent and more than two-thirds of the population depends on aid.
A reconciliation deal in 2017 between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority raised hopes of an improvement in the harsh conditions in the enclave, but talks have stalled.
In January 2018 UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov warned the Gaza Strip was on the verge of “full collapse.”
Donors in March greenlighted a project to build a desalination plant in Gaza, where more than 95 percent of water is unfit for drinking due to overpumping of groundwater.
Israel has carried out several military operations against Palestinian militants in Gaza, with thousands killed.
“Operation Hot Winter” in February-March 2008, in response to the killing of an Israeli by a rocket fired from Gaza, left more than 120 Palestinians dead in just days.
It led to weeks of unrest, with rocket fire from Gaza and attacks from Israel, in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed until a truce in June.
A vast air offensive, “Operation Cast Lead,” was launched in December 2008 to stop Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. It ended with a cease-fire in January 2009 and 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
In November 2012 “Operation Pillar of Defense” kicked off with a missile strike that killed top Hamas commander Ahmed Jaabari. In the ensuing eight-day flare-up, 177 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed.
In July 2014 Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge” to stop the rocket fire and destroy tunnels used for smuggling and the movement of militants.
It lead to a war that left 2,251 dead on the Palestinian side and 74 on the Israeli side.