Photo Gallery: Reconquering an Islamic State Stronghold

Foto: Alice Martins / Der Spiegel

Islamic State on the Ropes Two Paths Cross in the Ruins of Raqqa

When Islamic State conquered Raqqa in 2014, Fadi al-Hadi fled to Germany while Nadja Ramadan abandoned her life near Frankfurt to marry an Islamist in the IS stronghold. Now that the city is about to get liberated, the two are trying to retrace their steps.

Everywhere in the sun-drenched villages and towns of northern Syria, in the camps and the ruins where they have been living for months, or even years, the refugees from Raqqa are eagerly awaiting the chance to return. They gush about evenings spent in the "Casino," as they call the bars along the banks of the Euphrates. They speak longingly of their homes and their gardens, as though they had once lived in the Garden of Eden. It's a lot of longing for a relatively unspectacular place.

Two brothers have brought grapes from their garden in al-Meshlab, the first Raqqa neighborhood to be liberated, all the way to Tal Abyad, located 100 kilometers away. "We can't return yet, but we were able to check if the house is still standing," one of them explains. The grapes taste like -- grapes. But they are served as though they were a rare delicacy.

Since June 6, Kurdish-controlled troops  of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), together with heavy air support from the United States, have been attacking Raqqa, the unofficial capital of the Islamic State in Syria. In early September, the advancing force announced that it had taken complete control of the Old Town and now held 65 percent of the city's territory. It would only take just a few more weeks until Raqqa is completely liberated, they said.

What, though, does this city -- to which so many are longing to return -- now look like? It takes several days before permission is granted to drive into Raqqa. Streets have been transformed into narrow paths through ravines of ruined buildings jutting into the sky, piles of rubble and the twisted wreckage of cars. Even with eyes closed, it is easy to tell that the center of Raqqa is getting closer. It stinks. At first just sporadically, but then more and more often until the stench no longer lifts. It smells like corpses in all different stages of decomposition, lying under the rubble of what were once multiple-story residential buildings.

"Forty seconds," says Luqman Khalil, one of the SDF commanders on the city's eastern front, with weary pride. Often, it takes no longer than that between the first report of an IS position, usually a sniper, and the impact of a shell or a bomb and the disappearance of that position. Where a building had once stood, a cloud of dust shoots into the sky, bulging upwards before thinning into a gray haze that slowly dissipates.

A Mostly Invisible Enemy

Sometimes, Khalil says, it might take two to four minutes, "but 10 at the most." By then, one of the American jets that is constantly circling above Raqqa is close enough to destroy the target that has been identified. From one of the most advanced positions under Khalil's command, located in the fifth floor of a building with windows covered by wool blankets, it is possible to see the shimmering inferno that was once Raqqa's city center: a sea of ruins, gray and devoid of human life.

It is a fight against a mostly invisible enemy, but one that is militarily resourceful. "Everything is mined. They use snipers, but sometimes also suicide attackers in armed vehicles," says Khalil. The most treacherous are Islamic State's explosive drones, tiny aircraft that are virtually silent from a distance. They carry a few hundred grams of explosives each and are steered onto the roofs shortly after sunup. That is where the soldiers sleep when temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) transform the buildings into ovens.

Just recently, a drone killed one of them and injured five more. The result was an order that the roofs must be cleared at first light. And then, of course, there are the tunnels, says Khalil, just like everywhere in IS-controlled territory. The ground under the city is crisscrossed with them, some equipped with electricity and light -- and in one, they even found a freight elevator. Many have been discovered, but not nearly all of them -- which explains why IS raiding parties repeatedly turn up behind the lines, attack and then disappear.

For the moment, at least, Raqqa is hell.

For others, though, this city, with its once functional apartment blocks and single-story family homes, remains a paradise. Just a few weeks ago, a group comprised of Raqqa's last 30 to 40 Armenians stumbled out of the combat zone, faces pale and the men sporting unkempt beards. They had refused until then to leave the city, preferring instead to pay the "jizya" -- a tax non-Muslims had to pay Islamic State to be allowed to remain -- and hold out. They didn't want to leave because Raqqa, they explained, had provided refuge to their grandfathers and, especially, their grandmothers from the Turkish genocide in 1915. Arab families in the city had taken in Armenian children.

When Islamic State took control of Raqqa in 2014, a kind of ominous population exchange began. Tens of thousands of people left the city, with many of them ending up in Germany. Meanwhile, some 900 foreign fighters from Germany traveled to the region to join Islamic State, with many of them ending up in Raqqa. For them, the city was a salvation, while for others, life in the city became unbearable.

An Islamic Life

Such was the story of a German woman and two Syrians, whose paths between Raqqa and the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg crossed twice. The woman from Weinheim, just south of Frankfurt, set off to join IS at the end of June 2014 -- to, as she says, finally be able to lead an Islamic life there. Meanwhile, one of the Syrians, an elementary school principal, fled Raqqa with a friend that same month to escape the clutches of IS. They ended up in Germany, one in Dortmund and the other in Meßstetten, located a two hours' drive south of Weinheim.

Then, in June 2017, the German woman decided to flee Raqqa, but she was taken into custody and interned in a refugee camp north of the city. That same month, the elementary school principal decided to leave Germany and return to Raqqa, where he rebuilt the first school in his liberated village west of the city.

The paths taken by the two are mirror images of each other: Both their travel routes and the lives they have led.

Our first meeting with the 32-year-old German woman, who headed alone to join IS in Syria three years ago, begins rather unusually: "DER SPIEGEL? You already wrote about me once, 20 years ago. Nadja Ramadan, good day!"

More than two decades ago, Nadja was kidnapped by her own father, who was Lebanese. At the time, the seven-year-old girl was living with her mother in Germany after her parents got divorced. Her father, who was serving time in a German jail for possession of drugs and other infractions, wanted to see his daughter during a prison furlough, but kidnapped her instead and took her to Lebanon. German officials had given him his passport and allowed him to leave the country.

Nadja remained in Lebanon for seven years, moving frequently with her father, and visited a Koran school for a time. On several occasions, her mother flew to Beirut and followed Nadja's school bus in a taxi. Desperate and helpless, she knew where her daughter was but couldn't bring her back out of Lebanon, knowing full well that the Lebanese courts consistently grant custody to fathers in such cases.

'That Gave Me Tranquility'

Her life hasn't been particularly nice, the daughter now says in the dreary office that the director of the refugee camp in which she is being held made available for our interview. It would have been more accurate to say that her life has been a series of horrors, one after the other.

When Nadja turned 14, her father forced her to marry a cousin who lived in Weinheim. "They threatened me, saying if I spoke or tried to run away, they would kill me. And I fell into line, had my first child and then, at 18, my second, and then a third. For a year, I suffered from anxiety and thought I was dying. I didn't love the man and felt as if I was just acting. But my faith grew during this period. Muhammad the prophet appeared to me in a dream. I covered myself in the Islamist style and observed the prayers. That gave me tranquility."

When she was 26, she left her husband and the three children, moving into a women's shelter and ultimately into a home. And then she went to Raqqa. "On Facebook, I looked for and found a devout man." He was a Turkish-German who had already joined IS in Raqqa. "He said I should come quickly and that it was possible to lead an Islamic life there." Just one-and-a-half days after her arrival in Istanbul, she was brought across the border and then onwards to Raqqa. "It was a walk in the park," she says. In 2014, the Turkish government still wasn't opposed to allowing thousands of jihadis from around the world stream across Turkey to join Islamic State.

At the same time, Fadi al-Hadi, principal of the Ibn-Rushd Elementary School in Salhabiyah, fled the village, located just west of Raqqa. "Months before that, I had taken part in the final protests against IS. When they murdered a member of our group, we knew that they would kill all of us." He escaped via Turkey, taking a boat to Greece and then continuing onward on foot. "The difficult route," he says, "across Albania, Montenegro, through the mountains and onward to Serbia and Hungary" -- over fences and through ditches. It took him two-and-a-half months, but he ultimately reached Germany.

Nadja Ramadan got married in Raqqa and became pregnant. After a while, they moved to the town of Tal Afar in Iraq, where her husband lost a leg in a bomb attack. As an invalid, he worked in the telecommunications office, she says. Her voice suddenly grows louder when the subject turns to IS terrorism and she says that she becomes irritable because everyone always asks: Did you plant bombs? Did you see any beheadings? Did you also have slaves?

An Unsettling Sentence

But she says she was actually at home nearly all of the time, cooking, reading the Koran, cleaning and watching the occasional film. She says she never would have been able to fire a weapon anyway because she is afraid of firearms. "I wanted to live quietly in an Islamic world, to serve God and raise my children." She also had no contact with her neighbors in both Syria and Iraq. "I was always used to being alone and it didn't bother me," she says.

At the beginning, she says she wouldn't even have had a problem if her husband had taken a second wife. "But then, when he lost his leg just as I was pregnant, I cared for him and was there for him. And I loved him so much that I never invited my girlfriends over to visit. I was afraid that he would marry them too. He is everything to me, my husband, my father, my friend."

Together, the two -- a young woman escaping a difficult life and a young man with just one leg -- formed an odd team. "I wanted nothing to come between us! The time under IS rule was the best time of my life," the delicate, completely veiled woman says. It is an unsettling sentence.

Fadi al-Hadi, the school principal of almost exactly the same age, ended up in Dortmund and then in Leipzig, where volunteers spent months helping him and other refugees "even though they didn't know us at all." He encountered Islamophobic demonstrators in Dresden and went to museums. "I wanted to know why this country works so well," he says. He spent a lot of time traveling through Germany. One particular scene, though insignificant, is one he will never forget. "It was in Wuppertal, late one winter evening. A woman was standing at a red light. It was icy cold, the snow was ankle deep and the street was completely empty, but she was waiting for the light to turn green."

He says he loves this devotion to the rules of a functioning society and the feeling of responsibility that underlies it. "Why isn't our country like that?"

In Iraq, the front began closing in  on IS-held territory in early 2017. But in Syria, too, the soldiers of the SDF spent months fighting their way through villages toward the Euphrates River. Nadja Ramadan and her husband returned to Raqqa in mid-May, where their second son Mohammed was born.

The storming of Salhabiyah, Fadi al-Hadi's village west of Raqqa, came a short time later at the end of May and he found himself no longer able to concentrate on his German classes. "My home, my family was at stake! And I was supposed to learn vocabulary words. I couldn't stand it anymore. It was clear: I had to go back!"

'Cooperative and Moderate'

Officials at the German employment office tried to talk him out of it and his German friends were distraught. But nothing could change his mind. He applied for a Turkish visa three times, but was rejected each time. "So I flew to Greece and returned on the same migrant trail through the border river in the north. Crazy," he says. "Everybody wanted to go the other way." But not him. The Greek border police who intercepted him were surprised at first, but then moved by his story. They let him pass.

A few days later, he arrived in Salhabiyah. An American missile had destroyed one of the two buildings of his old school because the two last IS fighters in the village had been hiding there. A short time later, Abdullah from Meßstetten followed, Fadi al-Hadi's friend from the first demonstrations against the dictatorship in 2011.

At the same time, Nadja Ramadan's husband made the decision to bring his wife and children out of the city. A smuggler was to bring them through Kurdish-controlled northern Syria into Turkey. Their journey began at first light on the morning of June 19, but ended a short time later at a Kurdish checkpoint. They spent 18 days in the Kobani prison before being sent to the Ain Issa refugee camp, where they are staying in the section for IS followers, together with 12 women and 34 children, and just a single telephone between them. But they are alive.

"We have found her to be cooperative and moderate," says Jalal Ayyaf, the camp director. "The intelligence agency also has nothing against her, otherwise they wouldn't have brought her here in the first place."

Nadja Ramadan would like to leave the camp and Ayyaf would also like to see her go. But how? "If someone from her family or a German agency were to come, they could take her immediately, as long as they were willing to take over responsibility for her!"


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 38/2017 (September 16th, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

Her mother Helga has never given up hope of bringing her daughter back from Syria. But she still doesn't know how it would be possible to get into the Kurdish region and then get back out again with her daughter, who initially entered the country illegally.

German officials have said nothing. Nadja says the officials who initially interrogated her told her: "Your country doesn't want you. What can we do about it?"

Seventy kilometers to the south, Fadi al-Hadi and former teachers have fixed up the undestroyed part of the elementary school in Salhabiyah. They have managed to pull desks, chairs and three easy chairs for the office out of the rubble and clean them up. Each family has to buy notebooks and pens for the children.

Preordained by God

"When I arrived," al-Hadi recalls, "IS was already gone. But the fear still sat so deeply that it was like everyone was paralyzed. They asked me: Are we allowed to just reopen the school? My predecessor, the ex-principal who was a party member, said he would wait until Bashar Assad ordered that the school be reopened. But in Germany I learned: Don't wait! Do it! We lost three years during which there was no school here at all. Three years in which you could turn children into whatever you wanted: good people or monsters." IS, he continues, wanted to make them into monsters, beginning with sweets, games and videos for the little ones in the hopes of luring the older ones into its training camps.

Now, lessons start at 8 a.m. every morning from Sundays to Thursdays in the only working school for miles around. Pupils from surrounding villages come as well. Only four rooms are usable and none of the seven teachers is receiving a salary. Since May, Salhabiyah has had to be completely self-reliant. There is no electricity, no water in the taps and no telephone network. Fadi al-Hadi spends his afternoons working in his family's fields and worrying about the coming winter at the school. "We have to fix the windows, we need heating ovens and diesel, around 8,000 euros. Where should we get it? Either we get outside help or we'll have to collect money from each family."

In the refugee camp, Nadja Ramadan has had to sell the only memento of her husband that she had: "a small gold dinar from Islamic State that he gave me. I needed the money to buy diapers. It would be good if Germany could give me a way to return," she says. "I want my children to be something, I want them to have a normal life. Not such a broken one like mine." As she speaks, her two-and-a-half-year-old son Nuh is playing outside with five-year-old Abu Bakr, the son of another IS wife who is named after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State.

Meanwhile, Nadja's one-legged husband is sitting in a Raqqa basement, unable to go forward or back. If he stays, the oncoming troops will ultimately get him. If he tries to make it to the front to surrender, his own comrades will shoot at him.

"You die only at the moment preordained by God," his wife says.