One year after IS ‘defeat,’ Syria’s Raqqa still lives in fear
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One year after IS ‘defeat,’ Syria’s Raqqa still lives in fear

Jihadists no longer control the war-ravaged city, but sleeper cells continue to terrorize the population; a new local security force looks to bring quiet

  • Banners advertising shops and clinics are pictured hanging in a street in the Syrian city of Raqqa on October 18, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
    Banners advertising shops and clinics are pictured hanging in a street in the Syrian city of Raqqa on October 18, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
  • School children walk past destroyed buildings in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa on October 14, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
    School children walk past destroyed buildings in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa on October 14, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
  • A member of the Raqqa civil council's local security forces inspects a motorcycle and its riders at a checkpoint securing vehicles entering into the eastern Syrian city and former Islamic State (IS) stronghold, on October 16, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
    A member of the Raqqa civil council's local security forces inspects a motorcycle and its riders at a checkpoint securing vehicles entering into the eastern Syrian city and former Islamic State (IS) stronghold, on October 16, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
  • A member of the Raqqa civil council's local security forces holds a Kalashnikov assault rifle as he stands at a checkpoint securing vehicles entering into the eastern Syrian city and former Islamic State (IS) stronghold, on October 16, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
    A member of the Raqqa civil council's local security forces holds a Kalashnikov assault rifle as he stands at a checkpoint securing vehicles entering into the eastern Syrian city and former Islamic State (IS) stronghold, on October 16, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
  • People drives their motorcycles in a street in the Syrian city of Raqqa on October 18, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
    People drives their motorcycles in a street in the Syrian city of Raqqa on October 18, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

RAQQA, Syria (AFP) — A year after a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters drove the Islamic State 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 jihadists’ 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 IS sleeper cells.

At Raqqa’s entrance, soldiers verify drivers’ identity papers and carefully sift through lorry cargoes.

A member of the Raqqa civil council’s local security forces checks the identification documents of a man riding a motorcycle with two children at a checkpoint securing vehicles entering into the eastern Syrian city and former Islamic State (IS) stronghold, on October 16, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

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 IS, there wouldn’t be this increased military presence,” said Darwish, a father of two, speaking near the infamous Paradise Square.

It was here that IS carried out decapitations and other brutal punishments, earning the intersection a new name — “the roundabout of hell.”

‘We are exhausted’

While the nightmare of jihadist 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.

A woman walks past a damaged building in the Syrian city of Raqqa on October 13, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Although a series of stinging defeats have cut IS’s so-called caliphate down to desert hideouts, the jihadists 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 IS to infiltrate the city easily and carry out attacks.”

A member of the Raqqa civil council’s local security forces gestures to a vehicle at a checkpoint securing vehicles entering into the eastern Syrian city and former Islamic State (IS) stronghold, on October 16, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

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.

People walk in a busy street in the Syrian city of Raqqa on October 18, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

“We’re scared because of the presence of IS members in the city,” the 28-year-old said.

“The security forces need to tighten their grip.”

‘Nightmare’

Ahmed Khalaf, who commands Raqqa’s Internal Security Forces, defended the work of his men and claimed successes against the jihadists.

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 (jihadists) — it was a cell that took part in attacks that terrorized the city,” said Khalaf, sporting plain green fatigues.

Bulldozers clears debris in the Syrian city of Raqqa on October 18, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

“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, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Security and stability are what Najla al-Ahmed wants most for her children.

“The nightmare of IS 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.

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