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A perilous journey home for Raqqa residents

In the former self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, two months after the end of the battle, Raqqa residents are already attempting to rebuild their war-battered city — a colossal challenge that has also proven to be lethal.

His footsteps echoed like gunshots in the ocean of silent stones. The soldier stopped, blocked by a pile of rubble, and glanced at the facades of what was not so long ago a crowded shopping street. Punched with bullets, cracked open by mortar shells, flattened by airstrikes and blackened by flames, most of the buildings seem to have been meticulously slaughtered.

After four months of a Dantean battle between the Islamic State (IS) and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Raqqa is now mute. Then, suddenly, the call to prayer resounded between the hills of debris serving as tombs for the civilians who could never escape. As one moves away from the city center, the thunder of shovels fills up the cold, dry air of what was for more than three years the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

On the second floor of a five-story building, a man leaned on the edge of his balcony to sweep the remains littering his apartment, making fall a river of dust as thick as snow. Some 50,000 civilians have now returned to the peripheral districts of Raqqa and its surrounding villages, according to Raqqa's Civil Council.

For 10 days now, every member of the Hamoud family has been busy trying to repair their household. Armed with a wheelbarrow, Hassan, 39, ran toward the pavement to discharge the debris he collected. The father of four, a former mechanic, wants to believe the family home will be ready in two months.

“I was surprised because I didn't think that it would be so destroyed,” he told Al-Monitor. “The whole neighborhood was leveled. We just want to clean our house to be able to stay inside — no more than that. We got everything: airstrikes, bombings, mortars, artillery, IS suicide cars,” he said, counting on his fingers.

Some 200,000 civilians were believed to be in the city when the military campaign to dislodge IS began on June 6. Among those who were trapped at various points since then, often used by IS as human shields, the monitoring group Airwars estimates that at least 1,300 civilians likely died as a result of the coalition, which fired some 4,570 munitions on Raqqa.

Satellite images published by the United Nations show that a total of 12,668 structures within the city were affected by the battle, more than half of which were completely destroyed or severely damaged.

On Oct. 17, the battle came to a sudden halt when the SDF and IS struck a deal to evacuate the last remaining fighters and their families and free the civilians who were held as hostages.

“If they had agreed on a deal from the start, they would have saved many civilians. Now I have 16 relatives under the rubble," Hassan said.

As Hassan and his brothers pushed their shovels into a pile of rubble, their 60-year-old "mama" took a long look at the facade of the family home. "They fucked us well," yelled Douha al-Hamoud, her laughing eyes lighting up her wrinkled face. "We grew old building this house, and now it's gone," she added in a more serious tone. 

Perhaps considering her children too slow, Mrs. Hamoud seized a shovel and started to clear a collapsed wall while her junior exercised his weightlifting skills in the corner of the garden. “We cannot afford to hire workers, so my sons and I are doing all the work. When I saw our house I cried, but I prefer to live in ruins than with IS,” the matriarch said. "Everything will be back the way it was except for the lost lives."

However, while the guns have fallen silent, the stream of IS’ victims continues to flow. In al-Mashlab, the first district of Raqqa retaken by the SDF, a makeshift clinic continuously receives casualties. On the pavement, a man with a face corroded by shrapnel staggered beside an ambulance carrying an unconscious patient.

Before losing the control of the city, IS militants planted thousands of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which kill about 10 residents a day, Raqqa's Civil Council, doctors and soldiers told Al-Monitor.

IS, in both Iraq and Syria, has developed on an industrial scale evermore sophisticated devices, continually experimenting and creating new types, making mine clearance as difficult as it is hazardous. Some Raqqa residents even speak of a new battle.

Contacted by Al-Monitor, the US-led coalition affirmed that, with the assistance of its partners, it "disarmed and/or disposed of thousands of IEDs over the past three years" and "provided counter-IED training to thousands of Iraqi security forces and Syrian defense forces."

But soldiers on the ground say they are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the threat.

“Even our IED disposal experts are losing their lives because they do not have adequate equipment,” Abdelkareem Abbas — who joined the SDF two months after having fled the occupation of IS in his hometown — told Al-Monitor.

Raqqa is a ghost city, but I am a son of Raqqa. I have nowhere else to go. We simply ask for the mine clearance to be done faster. I have small children, and for the moment I cannot allow them to go in the street," he said. "I have to jail them inside the house.”

Destruction and minefields have forced the vast majority of the residents to remain in exile. Thus, 19,000 Syrians from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor live in the Ain Issa camp, an hour's drive from the forbidden city.

In her tent of 10 square meters in Ain Issa, Mouna al-Khelo, 40, patiently awaits a hypothetical return with her four children. “It will take 10 years for Raqqa to be like before," she told al-Monitor. "All the city center has been destroyed. Is it possible to rebuild it? I don't know. But Raqqa is still too dangerous for us,” she said, holding her baby.

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