Photo Gallery: Raqqa in Ruins

Liberated Raqqa The Stench of Death amid Hopes for Life

The former Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa has been liberated, yet the city remains largely uninhabitable, criss-crossed with mines and strewn with rotting corpses. One man has made it his mission to bring the city back to life.

On Dalla Square, where uniformed teens sit around a chipboard fire at the first checkpoint into the city, Abdullah al-Arian notices that the smell is still there. The smell of the "caliphate." The smell of the military offensive. The smell of death.

It's a Tuesday morning in November and Arian, a lawyer, is attempting to navigate his SUV around the piles of rubble and mounds of earth to get into the city he once called home. He is driving into the devastation, into the stench -- into Raqqa. The city lies deathly quiet and empty beneath the autumn sun. He is driving slowly into the graveyard that was once the "caliphate's" Syrian stronghold. Behind the SUV is a gray minibus carrying two pharmacists and a doctor, all of whom are staring silently out the windows.

Arian, a small, 54-year-old man in jeans and a black leather jacket, looks in stunned silence at the ruins. He watched as his city was destroyed, first by the brutality of Islamic State  and then by American bombs. Now, he wants to rebuild it. No longer capable of laughing, his face remains marked by shock and fear.

The further into the city they drive, the stronger the sickly-sweet smell of decaying corpses becomes. Raqqa was once a thriving city of 200,000, located in the heart of Syria's breadbasket. Now, it's like an intermediate realm where life and death, the past and the future, meet. One is not quite over, and the other cannot really begin.

The men in the bus are members of the health committee set up by the civil council that now controls Raqqa and they are looking for the clinics where IS used to treat its fighters. And they are also looking for any materials they can use to rebuild the old state-run hospitals. Everything is in short supply. Indeed, residents have only been allowed back into two city districts, one in the east and one in the west, while the rest of the city is mined, destroyed or both.

Raqqa had been the heart of darkness ever since it fell to IS in 2013. It became the de facto capital of Islamic State, the headquarters of beheadings, terror and inhumanity. It was here the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's fighters put the heads of beheaded regime soldiers on rusty stakes on Naim Square. It was here that IS first consolidated its power in one city before marching across the border into Iraq , where it conquered Mosul and created a "caliphate " that at one time ruled over 8 million people.

The fall of Raqqa on October 17, 2017 was symbolic for the fall of IS itself, which today has been almost entirely defeated, at least militarily, in both Syria and Iraq. The battle for Raqqa lasted four months and included over 4,450 American airstrikes. More than 30,000 men and women from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fought here, a military alliance led by the Kurds. The SDF allowed 270 IS fighters and 3,500 of their relatives to leave Raqqa  in order to end its destruction.

But can a city recover from such a past?

Abdullah al-Arian, the lawyer, is convinced it can. He and four other men and women head the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC), which took over control of the ruined city after IS was pushed out. It has set up 14 committees to work on the reconstruction of the city.

The Next Conflict on the Horizon

But Raqqa is also a symbol of the problems lurking ahead. The authorities in Damascus insist they won't rest until they control all of Syria again, including the ruined city. Which means that the next conflict is already on the horizon, one that will pit the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad against the Kurdish forces. Thus far, the Kurds could count on their U.S. allies, but they may not be able to for much longer.

The vehicles have slowed as the craters on the streets become both more numerous and deeper. There is not a building to be seen that hasn't been either badly damaged or completely destroyed.

Arian is becoming nervous. The RCC estimates that there are still around 8,000 mines and booby traps in the city, located in private homes and hidden in the debris -- sometimes even attached to dead bodies. Around a thousand corpses are estimated to still lie beneath the ruins with thousands having been buried in gardens and yards. Diseases like leishmaniosis, a parasitic infection that eats away at skin and flesh, and Hepatitis A are spreading.

For now, though, it is the mines that are causing the biggest problem for Abdullah al-Arian and the council. There are only three mine-clearing teams and if they don't get more help, he says, then it won't be possible to even enter the city for another six months, much less live there.

According to the council's emergency response plan, after the mines are cleared, the buildings need to be decontaminated with chemicals and only then can the bodies be removed from the rubble. After that, those corpses buried in the building yards throughout the city must be exhumed and buried properly in deeper graves. Once that project is underway, they can get started fixing the water and electricity supply.

Only then will it be possible to reopen hospitals and schools. Arian says that the schools are vital to counteract the damaging brainwashing inflicted by IS on the city's children. And then, reconciliation must be addressed.

The vehicles drive through canyons of rubble and circumvent huge craters as big as single-family homes. At intersections, they are stopped by young fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces. New explosives are constantly found on streets thought to have been cleared and gunfire can frequently be heard in the city. The fear of sleeper cells is omnipresent and the young fighters prefer to shoot first rather than run any risks. There are constant attacks, often by IS fighters wearing SDF uniforms and hiding bombs on their motorbikes.

The city is a colorless, empty wasteland. Crumbled bits of tar are strewn across the streets, spewed like pebbles from the craters by the explosions. Swarms of flies hover over the ruins. Abdullah al-Arian won't be able to get the smell of death out of his nose until he finally goes to bed late that night.

In front of a butchers, a shredded awning billows in the wind while canisters of sunflower oil are piled up in a heap in front. Iron bars lie on the ground like tangled strands of hair. Lumps of concrete hang from the steel girders that protrude from the skeletons of houses, blackened by soot.

Arian climbs out of his car for a moment. There's fine dust on the ground showing his footprints as he walks. He can hear only the calls of the barn swallows and a crow. He bites his lower lip. "I never would have thought I'd ever be alone in my city," he says, his voice trembling slightly. He's startled by the hollow sound of two pieces of steel that are pushing out from a broken street light and banging against a corrugated sheet in the wind. Then it's quiet again before a gunshot can be heard in the distance.

Scavaging for Supplies

They drive on. Navigation is aided by information provided by fighters sitting on worn out sofas at intersections. There's no cell phone network here.

An ambulance with German license plates and Spanish lettering on the windshield comes around a corner. Akif Kobane disembarks wearing green surgical scrubs, a nine-millimeter pistol in his shoulder holster. Kobane led the first aid team in the east of the city during the battle. "Follow me," he says, and turns to lead the delegation to the IS clinics.

The convoy turns off Tell Abyad Road into a small side street. The rubble presses in so closely from both sides that it scratches the vehicles' paintwork. Then they stop.

Dr. Kobane passes through a doorway. Decomposing feet are protruding from beneath a filthy, red woolen blanket in the street. With every step, Abdullah al-Arian becomes a bit more hesitant, his fear a bit more difficult to ignore. He steps on a destroyed door lying on the ground and startles slightly as his foot plunges through the thin chipboard. He looks left into a room and sees piles of homemade mortar shells, as big as bar stools, with fuses protruding from their tips.

Kobane explains that bombs the size of baseballs were thrown into the room during the last battle around the stadium. The small bombs, he explains, should have caused all the remaining mines and explosives on the ground floor to detonate.

Arian continues, his feet treading on torn jackets, worn mattresses, broken doors and other debris. He hesitates, but Kobane hurries on. To the right lie hundreds of heavy artillery shells. Arian and his three colleagues from the health committee follow Kobane further into the clinic that IS ran in the cellar of the bombed-out building. Canisters of saline stand in one corner. There are Russian painkillers, Iranian ointments, bandages and needles. Someone says that the stretchers can still be used. And the air conditioning unit, someone else says.

Then they go back upstairs and into the courtyard. Everything is gray. Arian is afraid, but fear can't hold him back anymore. He's had too long to get used to it. He lived here for two years and eight months under the IS regime.

It was the Christmas Eve of 2013 when the nightmare began. The nights had gotten colder and electricity for the heaters had become a rarity. When Arian tried to drive to his office on Christmas morning, the city had turned black. The first IS flags were waving in the streets, their logos painted on the walls. A young bearded IS fighter stopped him at the city's stadium, which would later become the regime's torture prison. "Drive back home," he said. At that moment, Arian realized that the city's doom had arrived.

Bodies in the Streets

IS imposed a curfew and by the time Arian left his house again a week later to get bread from some relatives in the south of the city, Raqqa  had turned into a slaughterhouse. It was no longer the city he loved for its gardens along the banks of the Euphrates River, where he sometimes spent the evening with old friends among the fruit trees. It was no longer the city of the SC Al-Shabab football team, which he had played for as a young man. IS had spent the week killing any remaining enemies in the city. The bodies of fighters belonging to other militias lined the streets.

Arian and a few friends formed cells of silent resistance. They met in apartments, where theyread the works of poets, historians, legal scholars and philosophers. If the new rulers were going to promote stupidity, then they were going to keep knowledge alive.

They hacked a satellite TV receiver and met secretly to watch the big European football games. Satellite TV was strictly forbidden and they could all have been executed. For books and football.

Outside, IS beheaded four of the players from his team for alleged contact with the Kurds. Arian withdrew even further to protect himself. His wife hardly ever left the house.

Outside, the cats were getting fatter. They were feeding on the bodies that lay in the streets.

His wife begged him to flee, to join the sons he had sent to Saudi Arabia. He told her that staying put was a form of resistance and he couldn't leave his city. He was one of Raqqa's best-known lawyers and had previously represented its citizens against the regime's henchmen. He couldn't leave.

Outside, the young IS fighters would pull him by the beard. "Infidel!," they would scream, waving their machine guns and laughing.

Outside, men were hanging from crosses.

Outside, his friends were dying, because they couldn't control or hide their anger any longer.

And at some point he could no longer protect himself from what was happening outside. He realized that he was on the brink of falling apart.

On August 9, 2016, he went to his neighbor's house and knocked on the door. The neighbor, a Saudi Arabian IS commander, let him in. Arian knew that there was conflict between the man's wives and that the commander wanted a second home for his second wife. Arian told the man: you can have my house, but I need a travel permit in exchange. He lied and said that he had to go to Saudi Arabia for an operation.

A Return to Normalcy

The next day he and his wife left Raqqa. They traveled north through checkpoints and fields of cotton until they reached the Kurdish-Arab forces. Then they drove further north to Tell Abyad, to his wife's family. Ten days later, he joined the Raqqa Civil Council. The SDF had just taken back the town of Manbij. He hoped that he would soon be able to return to Raqqa.

The RCC is still based in Ain Issa, a village 73 kilometers north of the city. It is in the process of moving its headquarters to Raqqa, or rather to al-Meshlab, the only district in the east of the city that is inhabitable. It is an attempt to make a new future possible in the midst of the stench of the past.

Arian looks out of his car window. Suddenly, unprompted, he says: "The power of life will be stronger than the power of death."

Al-Meshlab is the only place in Raqqa where there is something resembling normal life. Only a few thousand people have returned, Arian estimates, since the SDF recently began allowing people to inhabit the quarter again. Now, they work here from dawn until the 5 p.m. curfew. It was the first district won back from IS and the destruction here is less severe than in other parts of the city.

One can see here how the RCC is working to win over the hearts and minds of the Sunni Arab population and to help the people in their time of need. Every day, the council meets with tribal leaders, listens to mothers whose sons blew themselves up for IS and issues pardons to IS prisoners in order to persuade their clans of their good intentions. And in truth, most of those in Raqqa say it's good that the Syrian Democratic Forces are here. At least, many say, the Kurds provide for security in their regions.

Yet even in the areas controlled by the SDF, there are conflicts between Arabs and Kurds. Just recently there were clashes in the city of Manbij between the two groups. In order to avoid that happening in Raqqa, almost all the members of the RCC are Arabs. The RCC is a council of technocrats: Lawyers, doctors, engineers and politicians make up the majority while the rest are tribal and religious leaders. As soon as the city is inhabitable, the citizens will be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to become part of the Kurdish autonomous region of Rojava.

Men stand in the ruins along al-Meshlab's main street. They sweep, throw out stones and mix concrete. Bulldozers dismantle the meter-high walls of earth that IS had built as barricades. Water tankers fill provisional cisterns. On one wall, there's still some graffiti written in English by an IS fighter: "Look at the stars, you'll see me there."

Behind the piles of debris, the first shops have opened. The neighborhood seamstress, barely able to suppress her smiles, rips down a screen from her door that IS made her install to prevent passers-by from catching an accidental glimpse of an unveiled woman.

Next door is a fashion store whose owner was first told to stop selling cosmetics and lingerie by the IS commanders only for the same men to then demand those same articles for their wives and sex slaves. Across the road is a pharmacist who came back to Raqqa in 2014 out of concern for his father and then was not allowed to leave the city again. He had emptied out onto the floor the sacks of medicine that he could still find. He was put in prison seven times, mostly for smoking. And he was repeatedly threatened by fighters for not giving them opioids.

The delegation halts at a building manned by the Kurdish militia YPG. Arian and his colleagues go inside to talk with the SDF commanders who have set up camp here. They need a mine clearance team so that they can search an old clinic near the city walls. They sent a drone a few days ago to one of the upper floors and discovered several explosives.

Shortly afterwards a decision is made not to enter the clinic. It's too risky.

Arian gets back into his SUV. Everyone here, he says, is making a big effort to help as much as possible. But they simply lack the means. The United States may have helped push out IS with their airstrikes, but in doing so they also destroyed the city. Now they've donated a few trucks to the council, as well as some food for the refugee camp at Ain Issa and some medical supplies. "Nothing more," Arian says.

"We don't want aid packages. We want support for the rebuilding of our city," he says. "We fought here for the world." Now the world has to help them make Raqqa, once a symbol of horror, into a city once again.

A Resurgent Assad

He doesn't want to believe that the U.S. would abandon them. He doesn't want to believe that all his worries will be of secondary importance once again. That the next battles will come, because Assad, supported by the Russians and Iranians, wants to reconquer the north of Syria. The U.S. State Department wants to "stabilize" Raqqa but not engage in nation-building. The U.S. decisionmakers have already made it clear that they have no intention of repairing the destruction their bombs have wrought.

The RCC believes that the best solution is a federal system for all of Syria. They know, however, that neither they, nor the citizens, nor Assad will be able to make that decision. Rather, their futures will be decided far beyond Syria's borders.

Beyond the borders of Rojava, Bashar al-Assad is militarily stronger than he has been in a long time. The rebels are marginalized, while IS is almost completely defeated. Writing in the magazine Foreign Affairs recently, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, predicted that Assad will likely succeed in his plan to reconquer the entire country. He argued that it would be a mistake for the United States to step in on behalf of the Kurds if it did come to a battle between them and the regime.

An Assad victory would mark the end of Abdullah al-Arian's plans. It would mark the end of the civil council and the end of this brief period of limited freedom.

A few days later, the United States announced that it intended to cease weapons deliveries to the Kurds.

As the two vehicles leave Raqqa, the fields alongside the road are gray and dusty. Most of the irrigation canals have been bombed. In the West, where the sun is just beginning to set, there's a pumping station, but it has been mined. Around 50,000 hectares of fields have dried out as a result, Arian says. He looks sadly and quietly at the dusty plains that now surround Raqqa. Tents, camels and signs warning of mines line the streets.

Raqqa has been liberated. Yet, it remains uncertain what exactly the city will stand for in the future, and whether it will manage to leave the past behind. It used to be, says Arian as night falls, that Raqqa wasn't even mentioned in the weather reports. It is a reality to which he would like to see his city return.