© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Raqqa: View From The Ground


We're going to bring you two views from inside Raqqa, Syria, this morning. They offer us one of the fullest pictures we've had of the city that once served as the capital for ISIS. Two NPR correspondents visited there at the same time last month, one year after the city fell to forces allied with the United States. NPR's Tom Bowman visited with U.S. forces. NPR's Ruth Sherlock went to Raqqa on her own. Reporting from the same city, they saw a lot of similarities and many, many differences. Steve Inskeep spoke with both of them, and started with a simple question to Ruth.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Ruth, I'm first curious how exactly one gets into Raqqa, Syria, on your own. How'd you get there? And what'd you see?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, these days you can actually just drive there. You need permission from Kurdish local forces. But after that, you can go inside. And once we arrived there, I was surprised by what I saw. There was just scenes of utter, utter devastation and a real feeling of desperation amongst the local population. You know, Steve, the U.N. says that 80 percent of Raqqa was damaged or flattened in the offensive. And that's clear when you go there.

People are living in ruins. They're - you see them hanging out washing on the line of a cracked balcony where you think - you know, of a building that you think should be uninhabitable. And there's people sleeping in rooms with blown-out walls. This was a place that once had a thriving middle class. But now it's extremely poor. I saw women and children scavenging the streets for metal to sell. And apparently, half of those who've come back don't have enough to eat.

INSKEEP: But how does that fit, Tom Bowman, with the picture that you saw when you were visiting at the same time?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Steve, when I was in Raqqa in February, I told you it looked like the pictures of Dresden, the German city bombed by the Allies during World War II.


BOWMAN: Well, now Raqqa still looks like Dresden but with more shops open in the skeletons of buildings. Rubble's being removed, and more and more people are moving back into their homes. But there's this dichotomy. As Ruth says, you see destroyed buildings. But two blocks away, there's a pizza restaurant. And you see people rummaging through the rubble of their home. Nearby is a thriving school with hundreds of kids, so there's still this great need. They're living this basic existence - still a need for water and electricity. And as far as something that looks like normal, U.S. officials say it could be a decade or more before it's actually rebuilt, goes beyond this stabilization, the basics.

INSKEEP: So you see, from your past visits, signs of improvement, even though Ruth's description of appalling destruction is absolutely true, which raises a question for Ruth. Do the local people you met with feel like the progress is enough?

SHERLOCK: The short answer of that is no. They need everything. So whilst there has been some money going towards help - rebuild public infrastructure, we've - you know, even that is limited. And we visited places where children are literally sitting in classrooms of buildings whose top floors have caved in by airstrikes. One school still had a huge pile of mortar shells in the playground. Teachers thought most of them were spent, but they weren't sure. And these kids are playing around those. And, you know, beyond public infrastructure, the real problem is that there's no talk of compensation for people whose houses were destroyed in the coalition offensive. And that's where people are really suffering.

INSKEEP: Well, how much help is the United States providing, Tom, given that the U.S. was dropping the bulk of the bombs here?

BOWMAN: Well, they're providing the basics of water, electricity and sewage and bomb removal, some school programs. But U.S. officials on the ground worry whether even these programs will survive because President Trump cut $200 million in aid. Other countries are kicking in money but clearly not enough. Now, local officials in Raqqa worry about the U.S. commitment. Here's a member of the city council, Dr. Ali Mushrif.

ALI MUSHRIF: (Speaking Arabic).

BOWMAN: He says, "we're afraid. We cannot guarantee ourselves safety from the many sleeper cells in this climate. So we could be susceptible to assassination attempts, kidnappings, lootings, robberies." The U.S. already is seeing some ISIS activity in Raqqa again - bombings and assassinations. And Raqqa residents worry that could all increase if the U.S. pulls out.

INSKEEP: I guess we should remember the United States engineered and oversaw the capture of Raqqa for its own purposes and for wider global security concerns. There was this very dangerous group that claimed Raqqa as its capital and had to be dealt with. But they said they were also moving to help the people of Raqqa. Ruth, are the people there at all grateful?

SHERLOCK: There is a real and growing anger amongst local residents about what's happened to their city. You know, everybody we spoke to said they were not happy living under ISIS. ISIS was a terrorist organization. But they don't feel that that justifies what was done to this city, as well as the destruction. A lot of people lost relatives in the airstrikes. We talked to one man who wanted to be known as Abu Ward because he feels the situation is too unsafe to really give his real name. And he said he lost his brother in an airstrike. We talked - I talked to him about how the U.S. says the offensive on Raqqa was a sad but necessary step that also liberated residents.

ABU WARD: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says, "this is not liberation. It's destruction - systematic destruction. This is what people believe - my relatives, my friends, my neighbors - and no one can change their minds. How can you expect them to feel free when their lives are destroyed?"

INSKEEP: Well, Tom Bowman, what does the U.S. military say to that?

BOWMAN: Well, what the U.S. military would say is that you have a very, very tough choice here in an urban environment. If you move slowly going into a city or send in only ground troops, you risk them getting destroyed by ISIS. So you use airstrikes, and you try to be precise. But if your troops are under fire, you have to move quickly. You don't know what's in that building sometimes. It could be a huge number of civilians in a basement, for example. But you have to make that horrible choice.

And the military probably wouldn't talk about this openly, but that's the trouble here when you get into an urban environment. How do you remove the enemy - a very determined enemy with suicide vests and suicide car bombs - and try to protect civilians? You try to get some of them out. But in the end, they say you just have to go in and take out the enemy. It's an awful, awful thing.

SHERLOCK: Well, that's understandable. But it's not how Syrians see it. And as the situation in Raqqa gets worse and people get angrier and angrier at the U.S. and its local allies, insecurity is, in fact, growing. And it's - you know, people say it's exactly this kind of situation that ferments the very extremism that the U.S. wants to stop.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ruth Sherlock and Tom Bowman, both back from Raqqa, Syria. Thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.