Raqqa recovers and wants recognition

A plastic plate with pink flowers is floating in the small water basin underneath the trees on the northern bank of the Euphrates. On its rim small glasses of fresh tea are standing. Five broken plastic chairs around it. In one of the trees a yellow garden hose is wrapped around a branch. Tiny holes have been punched in it so a soft, lukewarm rain descends upon the tea drinkers. Welcome to the paradise of photographer Aboud Hamam. 

He comes here every day. The shade and the vapour make the summer heat bearable. The city can’t be seen from here, but its people can. Cars and trucks pass the newly repaired bridge and boys jump from it into the strong current of the river. On the southern pebbled beach a few cars are parked. In the water close to the bank women float in their colourful clothes and boys and girls splash about in their underwear. The men are watching and smoking, in the water no higher than their knees. 

Aboud Hamam, who files to press agency Reuters among others, has stayed in the city for the last couple of years, even when Raqqa functioned as the ‘capital’ of the caliphate of ISIS. He says: “Most of my colleagues have left the city and the country. They are in Europe or the US and I don’t even know exactly where most of them are. I stay. I want to tell the tale of the city.” He got by, he thinks, because he refused to conform to any of the groups that took control over the city. It meant that for months on end he couldn’t work at all and that when he did work, he sold and published under a pseudonym, Nur Firat. Firat, that’s ‘Euphrates’ in Arabic. 

Curtains, furniture, carpets

Raqqa is not a city that starts gradually. During the hour’s drive from Ain Issa, our base north of Raqqa, you are surrounded by grain fields and then suddenly you are enclosed by the city. That sudden city is grey. At least, that’s the first impression. Grey is the colour of destruction. Raqqa is still largely in ruins, almost two years after the battle for the last major bulwark of ISIS. What had colour – curtains, furniture, carpets – was lying under chunks of concrete and was covered with a thick layer of grime. Roofs hung down like pieces of cloth alongside buildings reduced to fragments of walls, bare floors and rusty steel wire. Most of the streets are passable. Small alleys, residential and shopping streets, broad lanes; but who has to be here? Apartment complex after apartment complex, shop after shop, office after office destroyed.

Aboud Hamam was silent, that day when he returned to the city where he was born. He had found refuge in the nearby city of Idlib – still under opposition control and currently under heavy Russian bombardments – because during the battle for Raqqa civilians were not supposed to stay in the city. "It seemed as if what I saw was not real", he says of the state in which he found his city. “The next day, all I could do was cry.” He tries to describe it: “The destruction, our youth, our memories.”

Aboud Hamam (cut from a group selfie)

The city was hardly accessible in the first weeks after ISIS had been fought and bombed into leaving. Practically all streets were filled with rubble and the pavements were full of holes and craters from bullets, mortars and bombs. And still, driving through the city has to be done slowly. Some roads are passable only on one side, forcing the vehicles to pass each other at walking pace on a too narrow lane. 

Only Raqqa’s city centre bursts with colour. Under ISIS, Raqqa was a black and white city with some shades of grey in between. Even billboards had to be in black and white. The new billboards scream it out in pink, red, orange, green, blue. Merchants seem to have deliberately exhibited their most colourful commodities on the sidewalks and on their front walls. Especially pieces of cloth for women’s clothing draw attention. A shop keeper points to the rack of black cloth in the back of his shop and says: “Most people don’t want that anymore so I display the coloured pieces of cloth outside now. And do you see the wall over there?” The shelves on the wall are stuffed with hair dye, depilatory cream, perfume. “I can sell that again too.”

Anyone who stays longer, like ten days, manages to add a layer to the surrealism of the destruction in combination with the pink children’s bicycles, purple hippity hops, yellow, blue and red cloth and human-sized plastic ice creams that promise scoops in the most extravagant colours at the nearby stall. You start following sounds. A quick clapping sound reached the street. It came from a small restaurant on the square with the now renovated clock tower, where freshly slaughtered sheep hung in the shop window. Inside, a man with biceps like steel was mincing pieces of meat with an enormous knife. He obviously liked his job, moulded the minced meat around skewers, which were placed on the grill by his colleague. We sat down, ordered rice, salad and hummus with it and licked our fingers. The small restaurant, which turned out to have two floors, was full. 

The Naim Square was infamous during the ISIS years because on the fences around it freshly chopped off heads were impaled. The centre of the square is already renewed – some water hydrants, seats, stone arches, young trees. On the side huge colourful letters are shining with newness: I <3 Raqqa. Opposite it a heavy drilling sound emerges and thick clouds of dust swirl up. Work is being done on an apartment complex that didn’t survive the bombings. 

Guardian of the city

When photographer Aboud Hamam walks through the city, which he does on a daily basis with both his professional camera and his smart phone at the ready, he sees an experiment. “In the early days, it was frightening to wander around. Raqqa was a ghost town without inhabitants. Over the course of months I have started to feel like a guardian of the city. I know every street, see every change. I notice every citizen returning.”

A lot of work has been done and he calls it ‘a great achievement’, even though one and a half years ago 90% of the city was destroyed and even now it’s still 80%. But he sees and feels something else as well: distrust. Hamam: “Many inhabitants didn’t live here before the battle for the city. They are people who fled from other parts of Syria. The new and the old inhabitants don’t know each other and they don’t necessarily trust each other, whereas the mutual trust and spontaneity among Raqqa citizens has always been great. The identity of the city has changed. We live in an experiment.”

Abdalla Aryan, the co-head (most leading positions are held by a duo of a man and a woman) of the bureau that coordinates Raqqa’s reconstruction, doesn't talk about what his eyes can see when he describes the city. The physical reconstruction will somehow be managed. It is more important for the city to get a foundation. He isn't talking about concrete but about a foundation of security. That is what the current city dwellers lack. Already early in the conversation, Aryan brings up his daughter of fifteen years old. He says: “A doctor diagnosed her with depression. The pressure of uncertainty ties tightly around your head and pressures your brain until it’s no longer bearable. That’s how I describe Raqqa.”

Click here for my short film about the reconstruction of Raqqa!

That the physical reconstruction goes so slowly is partly due to a lack of funding. International donors pay for the rebuilding or renovation of public buildings, which is the reason why the clock tower is standing proud again and Naim Square looks neat, the local museum is being renovated, mosques re-open in destroyed neighbourhoods and schools start up again. Private home owners don’t get any financial help. A bigger problem is that most of the owners aren’t there. They are in Europe, or drowned on the way to it. They are in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon and know or don’t know whether their homes can be made habitable again or don’t dare to return because the future of both city and country are insecure. 

Sale of ice blocks in Ain Issa refugee camp. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink

Thousands also are still in the refugee camp close to Ain Issa. Khaled Safi, for example, 42 years old and father of two daughters and two sons, who runs a second hand clothes shop in a tent. The clothes reach him via aid organisations. All clothes cost a little. He earns enough to make a humble living. Going back to the city? Safi answers: “I rented a house there and would have to do that again. How can I earn the money to pay for that? There are services here, like electricity, two schools, health care. Maybe I will stay in this camp for years. Maybe even forever.”

These kinds of testimony anger Abdalla Aryan of the reconstruction bureau. Put people in a position of dependancy for two years and then try to get them on their own feet again. While the city needs its residents. That’s what he means by a ‘foundation’: “You can’t develop a new city without developing the people living in it. Why are Syrian cities destroyed now? Because humanity was lost during decades of dictatorship. We have to make sure not to make that mistake again. We must take care of our people, we must tell them that the future will be better. Then they will get confidence and will want to make their contribution. We can hardly commence with that task.”

A disastrous criterion

Not that there aren’t any people in the city. The population has risen again to some 300,000, whereas before the war there were at least half a million. There is a team numbering all the houses in the city. The commune that runs a neighbourhood (every neighbourhood has one) keeps track of which house becomes inhabited again and by how many people. That’s how they know that there are 52,462 families of some five, six people on average living in Raqqa now. 5,354 of those families are displaced people from other parts of Syria and twenty eight families are refugees from Iraq.  
Not a bad score after more than one and a half years, but for the reconstruction, more people are needed, especially original Raqqa citizens returning to restore or rebuild their homes. Abdulsalam Hamsorik, head of the Bureau of Social Affairs, strongly blames  the refugee organisation of the UN, the UNHCR. It discourages people from returning to Raqqa because they say the city is still unsafe due to unexploded munitions and booby traps that ISIS left behind in houses. Hamsorik: “As long as there is one mine, as long as there is one improvised bomb lying around, people can’t return, that’s the logic of the UNHCR. A disastrous criterion. Who is going to clean the city? People from outside?”

Returnees can call in a team to clear their house from booby traps and explosives. The point is, people often don’t do that. A family in the Ain Issa refugee camp that is packing up to return to the city the next day, said that they had asked their neighbours whether any people had been inside their house. Daughter Hanan Mahmoud: “The neighbours said that there have been, and nothing exploded.” In other words: it’s safe. She tells about another family in the neighbourhood that found a black can on the back of one of the kitchen cupboards, weeks after they had returned. An explosive, they suspected. Hanan: “They asked the neighbours to come and take a look. They had learned about booby traps and they managed to disable the device.”

The court yard of the Mahmoud family's house, the day after they returned to their home in Raqqa. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink

The house of the Mahmoud family has been repaired by three sons, who returned to the city earlier, and been cleaned by the daughters in law. Hanan says poetically: “We return because nobody but the people can bring life back to the city. Without people, it will die.”

For Abdulsalam Hamsorik, returning is part of the fight against ISIS. He says: “If not enough people return, ISIS wins. The battle isn’t over yet.” He himself left the city when ISIS had just taken over. Being a Kurd, he was under increased risk of getting into trouble. Ever since, he has been living in Kobani, four hours drive north, and drives to Raqqa a few times a week. He says: “There were a few high ISIS commanders in my house. It has been totally destroyed. That’s okay. I mean it. It would be selfish to hope that your own house is still standing while so many houses have been destroyed. My family is alive, I have been very lucky.”
It is comparable to what Um Ahmad said, the mother of the family in the camp that was about to return home: “Luckily our house was only partly destroyed.” Everybody counts his blessings and praises God. 

Swish hot air around

The public services in Raqqa are bad. Well, not all of them of course: water comes out of the taps, garbage is being collected, the infrastructure is being improved. But almost nobody has electricity. Neighbourhoods and some private individuals have generators but not everybody can afford that. And anyway, the roaring machines, which pollute the already hot air, provide weak electricity. The aircon can’t work on it. Fans can, but in the more than 40°C heat they just swish hot air around. Refrigerators don’t work either. Whoever can afford to buys a huge block of ice in the morning to put in the freezer. Costs a dollar. In a side street of Nur Street, once the main artery of a well off part of the city, a few apartments in a half destroyed building look inhabited. One of the women who open the door says that she pays fifty dollars rent per month. Her husband tries to provide for her and their four children by selling cookies and sweets at the Ain Issa refugee camp. He earns some eighty dollars per month and only comes home on Fridays. A block of ice? She shakes her head. 

The family is originally not from Raqqa but from the Deir Ez-Zor region, like many displaced people here. They still have a house there and could move in at any time, but it is situated in territory controlled by the regime so they consider it too dangerous to return. They are Sunnis and fear Shia militias. The children don’t go to school now.
Hussam Jassem, who works for a local NGO that tries to get public services up and running, sums up the electricity problems. Electricity plant number 4 can provide 65% of the city with electricity. But plant 4 was heavily damaged in the battle for Raqqa, even including a major fire. According to international regulations, spare parts can only be shipped in with the approval of the central authorities, and Damascus won’t give that approval. Life in the areas controlled by the SDF is, of course, not supposed to become too comfortable. 

Abu Majid at work. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink

Despite that, in Plant number 4 a wall with small white lockers is shining. Electrical engineer Abu Majid calls them ‘cells’. He installed them just a week ago. Nice, right? He has been working for the state electricity company for thirty years and receives a modest income every month. As soon as he gets a hold of spare parts one way or the other, he proudly makes a picture of it and shares it on his Facebook page. How did they find a way to get these parts without Damascus’s approval? German parts, assembled in Turkey, are legally delivered to an NGO in the Middle-East with a branch in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. From there, they are transported over the floating bridge that forms the border between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan, and from there to Raqqa.  

When he walks through the market, people stop him. How much longer Abu Majid, before we have electricity again? Not this year, he thinks, but in 2020, yes. Will people accept that, so much longer without electricity? Won’t there be protests? Won’t people more easily be drawn to extremism again when the heaps of rubble remain and important services are lacking? Hussam Jassem doesn’t think so: “You know when people rise up? When there is a lack of services due to corruption. That’s not an issue here. People know very well that we do whatever we can.”

The most urgent job

The limits of that are partly defined by the political situation in the city, which is in turn connected to military developments. In the spring of 2017 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) started the battle to chase ISIS out of the city, assisted by US bombings. The foundation of the SDF, in 2015, was a request of the US army. Until then, they had supported the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in the war against ISIS, but that met with a lot of resistance from Turkey. After all, the YPG and YPJ are sister organisations of the PKK, the group that has waged an armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984 and that now demands autonomy for the Kurds within Turkey. The goal of the YPG/YPJ in Syria is comparable: far-reaching democratisation of Syria and recognition of Kurdish autonomy. The foundation of the SDF, a collaboration between the YPG/YPJ and a number of Arab and Christian militias, was supposed to end Turkey’s aversion. 

It didn’t. Everything that smells like PKK or that YPG/YPJ is a part of, is, according to Turkey, terrorism. Turkey wants the US to abandon the YPG/YPG and instead cooperate with Turkey in the fight against terrorism. The most urgent job, according to Ankara: force the YPG/YPJ and SDF out of the border areas with Turkey. The indirect negotiations on this are being carried out by the US special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, who travels back and forth between Ankara and SDF-controlled territory. 
In an interview with a Turkish journalist, the SDF has said that it would consider making way for an international coalition force along the border,  but would resolutely resist a Turkish occupation of the area. Not a bone in their bodies considers handing the land over to President Erdogan, especially not after early last year, when Turkey attacked and started its occupation of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the northwest of Syria, leading to a range of severe human rights violations. 

The system that the new authorities in Raqqa are setting up, based on local autonomy, is called ‘democratic confederalism’. It can, they say, be a blue print for the future of Syria. In that future, there would no longer be room for the dictatorship that has been suffocating the country for decades, and several ethnic and religious groups would have the right to govern themselves, up to neighbourhood level. There will be respect for every ethnic and religious identity and recognition for every mother tongue. 

Schools and health care

The system was introduced in the Kurdish regions in Syria starting in 2012, when Assad’s troops withdrew to fight on fronts elsewhere in the country. By now, it functions or is being set up in roughly a third of the Syrian territory. However, there is no international recognition. The troops that defend these areas militarily, the SDF, and the political entity that represents it, are not granted a place at the table in any negotiations about Syria’s future, mostly because of Turkey’s pressure. Abdalla Aryan of the reconstruction bureau says – and he is not the only one in the city: “What we need is not only recognition as military partners but recognition of our civil administration as well.”

The local Democratic Council of Raqqa meanwhile stoically continues to build the democratic framework that must provide the city with a future-proof foundation. The atmosphere in the new and sparcely furnished building of the Council is friendly. Civilians can come here for a wide range of issues, from resettlement in the city and information about schools and health care to information related to women’s rights and the economy. 

In one of the offices a sheikh is sitting. His name is Fares al-Horan al-Mihed and he leads both the Mihed tribe and the reconciliation committee of the Democratic Council of Raqqa. Several tribes cooperate on the committee, which solves both old and new conflicts and does so based on old tribal laws. This causes surprise. The ideology of the democratic experiment is known for its progressiveness and even for being opposed to patriarchal structures like tribal systems. 

There is a lot of speculation about the relation between the SDF and its Arab fellow fighters, and more particularly about the alliances the SDF and the civil administration forged with Arabic tribes. The SDF and the tribes needed each other to kick the common enemy, ISIS, out of the city, but ever since, the love has reportedly waned. The line of thought is that Kurdish and Arabic autonomy under SDF protection will be short-lived because, sooner or later, either President Assad will restore his power or Turkey will barge in. The sheiks would be changing their strategy already, displeased as they already were with the SDF’s progressiveness. So, the SDF tries to placate the sheiks now, for example with positions.

Divide and conquer

Sheikh Al-Horan al-Mihed shakes his head and smiles. Especially in this system, he says, tribal traditions have a place. Not per definition, but here in Raqqa, yes, because they are an inalienable part of society here and the new administration wants to respect that. He explains that the new authorities in fact facilitate them in their natural functioning. He says: “During the decades of the Ba’ath regime, tribes were played out against each other and Damascus was stoking conflict within the tribes, for example by giving some people positions in the government and others not. During ISIS, our role was diminished. The current administration interferes as little as possible.”

That doesn’t have anything to do with ‘placating with positions’, he says. The current authorities aim to unite the tribes, so they can stand strong in unison against new divide and conquer efforts of the regime or stirring by outsiders. The goal is to develop and protect the autonomy. The new rules of the game for society are, meanwhile, made clear and are gradually introduced. To give some examples: the minimum age to get married is now 18 and the time when men could marry more than one woman is coming to and end.

Many of the conflicts that the reconciliation committee deals with are intertwined with the subsequent regimes in Raqqa. Like the matter that is scheduled for this morning: a dispute over agricultural land. The complainant party is a man who didn’t cultivate his land in the years that ISIS was in power. He felt unsafe because of intimidations and fear of explosives. A neighbour took his chance and cultivated part of the land. He now claims he owns it. He is sitting on the corner of a leather couch. His opponent, who came with a family member, is sitting next to him. The neighbour has proof and hands the four committee members a document. 

There are witnesses. They take an oath and declare that they used to work on that land in the years before ISIS and that they were always hired by the complainant party, not the neighbour. The neighbour raises his voice: “They are lying!” Sheikh Al-Horan al-Mihad rises from his desk. Calm but firm he says that it is out of order to offend this revered setting. The witnesses have taken an oath so they have spoken the truth. 

Sheikh Fares al-Horan al-Mihed. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink

It may sound not much different than a case that would normally be set in a court room, but here something with a deeper meaning is happening. This is not just the law speaking. The law is, by the way, clear: the neighbour admits that he travelled to regime territory and bribed somebody to get the document he filed. The document was already looking a little bit too brand new. But there is no verdict yet. The committee will give it a week and then there will be an official decision. In the meantime, everybody can cool down and accept the facts. And then the conflict is really resolved. No hard feelings. That is the authority that the tribal tradition has. The tribe must flourish in unity and the several tribes have a long common future ahead of them. Lingering, not fully resolved conflicts are the last thing they need. 

There is always at least one woman in the four-person team that deliberates a case. All those involved in a case and all four team members must agree on the outcome of a reconciliation and sign for it. Asked whether it’s  new that there is always at least one woman involved, the sheikh smiles again: “Women have always played an important role in tribal law.” As an example he refers to marital issues, which are currently most common. ISIS sometimes forced young women to ‘marry’ its fighters, even when these women were already married. The law is clear about the forced second ‘marriage’: it is invalid. But the original spouses can’t just continue their marriage as if nothing happened. And what is the position of the man who forced the woman to ‘marry’ him? No blood should flow. “In such cases”, the sheikh says, “the wisdom of  women is indispensable. It’s always been like that, and not only in family matters. You could say that the role of women is restored again.”

Get some ice cream

The longer you stay in the city, the more free and relaxed you feel. Despite that, extremism is lurking. ISIS may no longer control territory, but the group hasn’t been defeated. So-called sleeper cells are active everywhere, both in Iraq and Syria, and so also in Raqqa. It is one of the reasons we can only stay in Raqqa overnight with special permission from the SDF. When we do that for two nights and want to go out in the evening to feel the atmosphere and, say, see if we can get some ice cream, we are stopped. The next day Ammar (‘No, no last name’), deputy head of the security police, explains why: “The news that there is a foreigner in town travels fast. If sleeper cells want to do anything, they will do it in the dark and you will definitely be a target. We are not going to take that risk.”

This is also the reason that we are obliged to stay in a hotel the SDF has directed us to. Photographer Aboud Hamam would have loved to be our host in his house, but it’s not allowed. Hamam isn’t happy about that because he is longing for some old fashioned life in his home. The rules have been tightened after an incident with a French photographer who seemed to have suddenly disappeared. Everybody was in an uproar, the security forces and the police were searching for him for hours, until in the morning the Frenchman suddenly popped up at the market, where he was nonchalantly taking pictures.  He had crashed on a couch somewhere and had no idea that alarm bells about him had gone off. Irresponsible. Who knows whose couch you are crashing on and what your hosts’ intentions are?

Central Raqqa. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink

Ammar says that there are also not many people out at night. The streets are pitch dark. Two, three streets are lit by the energy stored in batteries connected to small solar cells, but that’s about it. It feels unsafe. 

Not that it actually is unsafe, Ammar quickly adds. The SDF and the security police have the situation under control. The shooting we heard at night is celebratory fire to do with weddings or other festivities, he guarantees. “We banned that for some time after the liberation of the city, but we allowed it again because it is part of ceremonies here.” When he sees the doubt on my face, he reacts: “Didn’t you see families swimming in the river? Isn’t it busy at the market? If it were unsafe, would you be here?”
It’s true, the city is alive. But not bomb-free. Early June, on Naim Square, an SDF post was the target. Five SDF soldiers and five civilians died. One month earlier: eight deaths, some of them civilians, in a double bomb attack. Ammar: ”That doesn’t mean that ISIS is strong. It is a problem to a certain extent, also because it obstructs the return of refugees to the city.”

Bombs make it into the media, full markets, infrastructure works and reconciliation committees don’t. Photographer Aboud Hamam is a news photographer as well, but he is specialized in documentary work.  Some time ago, a sound bomb went off: a lot of noise but that was it. He didn’t do anything with it because he doesn’t want to contribute to the goal of the bombers, which is sowing unrest, insecurity and fear. 

Work without interference

But, he emphasizes, even now he has still not referred himself to the authorities and he follows nobody’s instructions. That is his strength. He was even detained by the security police for a week, right after ISIS had been kicked out. It raised suspicion that he was sitting in a half destroyed apartment with a camera and satellite equipment. After they had investigated his background, he was released. Now he can work without interference. 

He doesn’t use the name Nur Firat anymore. Also his other pseudonym, Abu Nur Libiyi, is in his past now. He grins about that name, and explains: “I sometimes used it during the ISIS time, when I made some foreigners believe that I was from Libya.” About Nur Firat, he doesn’t grin. He misses him: “Nur Firat has been successful. He will always be a part of me.”

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This article was made possible with a grant from the Dutch Fund for Special Journalistic Projects. The Dutch version was published in weekly news magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, 14 august 2019. 

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