BEIRUT — For nearly three years, Raqqa, Syria’s sixth-largest city, served as a slaughterhouse for the Islamic State (IS). Today, Raqqa is an emancipated wreckage. It was liberated Oct. 17 by a US-backed alliance of mainly Kurdish-Syrian fighters. IS forces are now physically defeated, but their shadow continues to darken the lives of those who will forever remember the apocalyptic horror, savagery and bloodbath.
Foza, who refused to reveal her last name, is a 36-year-old mother who escaped Raqqa at night and is now among the thousands of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. “I put my 3-year-old daughter on my shoulders and my 12-year-old son put his younger brother on his back and we crawled over dead bodies in our neighborhood to escape the militants,” she said.
“When we reached Lebanon’s border, the children could not breathe and could not stop vomiting,” added Foza, who escaped IS eight months ago. They walked, hitchhiked and at points hid in trucks that maneuvered through booby traps and land mines.
The trauma endured by Foza and her family is evident in her children’s nightly bed-wetting and nightmares. These are frequent challenges among many Syrian refugees who now live in Lebanon — a country of only 6 million in population that is now host to more than 1.1 million registered Syrians. According to local aid groups and grass-roots organizations, that number does not include the many thousands of unregistered refugees.
According to the humanitarian initiative REACH, by mid-September, there were only 8,000 remaining residents out of Raqqa’s approximate 300,000 pre-war population. In the last 12 months alone, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, recorded close to 1 million displacements in northern and southern Syria, with Aleppo, Raqqa and Hama leading the way in destruction.
In Raqqa, the exact number of civilian deaths is impossible to tally. However, according to local accounts, the civilian death toll rose by mid-October to approximately 1,000 individuals who died under airstrikes and bombings during the past four months. Today, there are no remaining residential neighborhoods, electricity or clean water supplies in this once agricultural city.
Before IS captured Raqqa as part of their self-proclaimed caliphate, the city was a safe house for al-Qaeda’s branch of Jabhat al-Nusra militants who fought against the Syrian regime forces and other opposition groups. It wasn’t until January 2014 that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi successfully claimed the city as the group's stronghold in Syria and simultaneously claimed Mosul in Iraq.
Daily beheadings across town and in the city’s main squares, recruitment of young boys as soldiers of the caliphate and suicide bombers, mandatory Islamic schools — taught under the ominous interpretations of IS forces — and the use of women and girls as sex slaves were everyday practices in this grim charnel house.
“I lost more than my family in Raqqa. Our dignity was lost; everything was taken from us,” said a 29-year-old mother of five who left Raqqa last fall. She told Al-Monitor how her young daughters were forced to watch public executions and beheadings for the past three years.
Instead of her real name, she asked to be called “Amal,” which translates to “hope” in Arabic. She said she wants to protect her identity as she hopes to return back home to Syria.
“Overnight, I put my children in a truck carrying sheep and escaped.” She mainly feared for her young daughters who were forced to attend the caliphate’s mandatory schools and were at risk of forced marriage to militant men.
“Putting the heads of dead people on pikes and forcing children to see them is how you kill their dreams and childhood,” she added. Amal lost many of her family members to IS’ savagery, but one loss in particular continues to torture her as she settles into a new life in Lebanon.
Last year, Amal’s best friend was wrongfully accused of adultery by an IS militant. She was then ordered to become his bride, or better known as “sex slave.” After her resistance she was publicly stoned to death in one of the city’s main squares.
“I lost a sister, but what can never escape me is how I was forced to watch her die,” said Amal, whose children, like Foza’s, suffer from nightmares and anxiety caused by massive trauma.
In the spring, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said that his country is at a “breaking point” followed by a visit to the United States to appeal for more international support for the overwhelming refugee influx that he “fears” may cause “civil unrest.”
Nahla is another mother from Raqqa. For her, the main fear was losing her then 22-year-old son Mahmoud to IS recruitment.
“I knew they were after him. Raqqa’s young men were all forced to become jihadis,” said Nahla. To keep her only son safe, she took on a tumultuous escape from Raqqa last winter.
However, their escape to Lebanon was not an end to the tragedy that awaited her son. A week after arriving in Lebanon, Mahmoud was killed in a motorcycle accident — crushing the mother’s inkling of hope for a new beginning.
The recent liberation of Raqqa does not necessarily equate to a smooth transition to stability and calm. On the one hand, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces seek to control the city, and on the other, the Raqqa provincial council, backed by the main Syrian opposition body based in Turkey, wants to be in charge. This is while Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues its fight to regain control of regions once controlled by IS and the opposition forces.
While clinging to hope may not be easy for the women of Raqqa and many other Syrian refugees who dream of a return, Amal said that “hope is all that we have left.”
Amal, who wants to go back home to a secure and safe Syria, concluded, “Those women who are still in our beloved country must hold on tight to their hope. That’s all that will keep us alive."