One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear

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Shops in Raqqa have reopened and traffic has returned to major roads, although choked by the impromptu checkpoints. (AFP)
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Soldiers verify drivers’ identity papers and carefully sift through lorry cargoes. (AFP)
Updated 18 October 2018
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One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear

  • While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins
  • ‘The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future’

RAQQA, Syria: A year after a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters drove the Daesh group from the northern city of Raqqa, traumatized civilians still live in fear of near-daily bombings.
“Every day we wake up to the sound of an explosion,” said resident Khaled Al-Darwish.
“We’re scared to send our children to school ... there’s no security,” he added.
The militants’ brutal rule in Raqqa was brought to an end in October 2017 after a months-long ground offensive by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces supported by air strikes from a US-led coalition.
But despite manning roadblocks at every street corner, the SDF and the city’s newly created Internal Security Forces are struggling to stem infiltration by Daesh sleeper cells.
At Raqqa’s entrance, soldiers verify drivers’ identity papers and carefully sift through lorry cargoes.
Inside the city, there are regular foot patrols and armored vehicles sit at strategic points.
Women wearing the niqab are asked to show their faces to female security members before entering public buildings.
“If there wasn’t fear about a return of Daesh, there wouldn’t be this increased military presence,” said Darwish, a father of two, speaking near the infamous Paradise Square.
It was here that Daesh carried out decapitations and other brutal punishments, earning the intersection a new name — “the roundabout of hell.”
While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins and there are near daily attacks on checkpoints and military vehicles, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Although a series of stinging defeats have cut Daesh’s so-called caliphate down to desert hideouts, the militants still manage to hit beyond the patches of ground they overtly control.
Some Raqqa residents say the city’s new security forces lack the expertise to cope.
“We are exhausted. Every day we don’t know if we will die in a bomb explosion or if we will go home safe and sound,” said Abu Younes, sitting in his supermarket near a roundabout not far from Paradise Square.
“There is no security — (the new security forces) on the roadblocks are not qualified and there is a lot of negligence,” he complained.
“There are faults that enable Daesh to infiltrate the city easily and carry out attacks.”
But despite the continued attacks, a semblance of normal life has returned to the city.
Shops have reopened and traffic has returned to major roads — albeit choked by the impromptu checkpoints.
In a public garden, children climb up a multi-colored slide and onto dilapidated swings as their mothers sit on nearby benches carefully keeping watch.
They are set amidst an apocalyptic backdrop of twisted metal and splayed balconies — the remnants of buildings torn apart by US-led coalition air raids.
Nearby, Ahmed Al-Mohammed pauses as he listens to music on his phone. Like others, he does not hide his disquiet.
“We’re scared because of the presence of Daesh members in the city,” the 28-year-old said.
“The security forces need to tighten their grip.”
Ahmed Khalaf, who commands Raqqa’s Internal Security Forces, defended the work of his men and claimed successes against the militants.
He said patrols are highly organized and that a “joint operation cell” had recently been established with coalition forces to monitor the city’s security.
“Recently we arrested four (militants) — it was a cell that took part in attacks that terrorized the city,” said Khalaf, sporting plain green fatigues.
“We are continuing our investigation to uncover the other cells,” he added.
“Daesh’s goal is to destroy the country and to not let anyone live in safety,” he said.
Security and stability are what Najla Al-Ahmed wants most for her children.
“The nightmare of Daesh follows us everywhere — whenever we try to rest, explosions start up again,” said the 36-year-old, as she shopped with her young ones.
“The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future,” she said.


On both sides, residents prepare for worst

Palestinians survey a destroyed residential building hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. (AP)
Updated 18 min 41 sec ago
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On both sides, residents prepare for worst

  • In Gaza, a number of buildings destroyed in the last war with Israel in 2014 still have not been rebuilt
  • The streets of Gaza City, usually bustling and noisy, were deserted on Tuesday morning

GAZA: Israeli strikes kept Palestinians in Gaza on edge throughout the night over whether another devastating war was beginning, while tens of thousands of Israelis took refuge in shelters as rockets rained down.
“What happened was like an earthquake,” said Abu Ayman Lemzeni, who lives near Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV building in Gaza City destroyed by an Israeli strike.
“As you see, here there is no more the grocery, the pharmacy, the office, the wall, the building.”
“The children are afraid. They are terrorized,” said Gaza resident Jamal Murtaja. “We could not sleep last night or this morning.”
Many had only a short time to flee their homes and found themselves in the street due to a lack of secure shelters. “As soon as we saw the missiles, we ran outside the house,” said Mohammed Aboud, who lives near the former Al-Amal Hotel building.
“We are civilians. We don’t have guns or rockets.”
Just 20 km away, on the other side of Israel’s heavily guarded security fence, the more than 128,000 residents of the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon spent the night under rocket fire. “The girls are traumatized. It’s not possible,” said father of three Meir Edery.
Edery and his family took refuge in a shelter. A police spokesman said Israelis in Ashkelon have little more than 30 seconds to reach a secure location once an alert sounds.
“We are demanding that the government give us the ability to raise our children securely,” Edery said. “It’s our most basic right.”
Behind him, neighbors called out “destroy Hamas,” the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip and with whom Israel has fought three wars since 2008.
Along the city’s port, nearly all stores had their shutters closed.
Under the azure blue sky, Nissim Arzoane, 65, came to cast his fishing line in the sea, as he does each day.
“We have to show them that we are not afraid,” he said.
Israeli authorities ordered the closure of schools and kindergartens, and many streets were deserted. Betty Calvo, 63, could not sleep at all the previous night.
In Gaza, a number of buildings destroyed in the last war with Israel in 2014 still have not been rebuilt.
The streets of Gaza City, usually bustling and noisy, were deserted on Tuesday morning.
“We have not forgotten the last war in 2014,” said Mohamed Bulbul, who lives in the southern sector of the city.
“People are tired of wars. That’s enough.”