[Published here September 27, 2017]
HAWI AL-HAWA (SYRIA) (AFP) – For years, Gharam Habbal and her elderly father had desperately dreamt of escaping the Islamic State group’s hellish grip on Raqa. But when she finally fled, he wasn’t with her.
As the petite 41-year-old fled the Syrian city on Tuesday with her mother, brother, and his family, her father’s lifeless body was left behind on a mattress in their heavily damaged home.
“He used to tell me, it’s almost over, it’s almost over. And the day it’s really over, he’s gone,” Habbal said, her voice cracking as her eyes welled with tears.
Once the Syrian stronghold of IS, Raqa has been under attack since June by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
But the battle has come with hundreds of civilian casualties and wrought terrible damage on the city.
Habbal escaped with the help of SDF fighters, who transported her family and a dozen other civilians to a mosque in Hawi al-Hawa, a western suburb of the Syrian city.
They arrived to safety just a day after her father was killed in bombing, unable to see that the freedom he had promised his daughter had finally arrived.
On Monday, the family had finished their lunch in their home in the district of Al-Nahda, and Habbal had prepared a bath for her father, who was sitting on the balcony waiting to take it.
“He told me to go get him some clothes from inside, and as soon as I left him, there was a strike,” said Habbal, a pink-and-blue floral scarf framing her thin, frail face.
“An IS sniper was positioned in the building next to us, a seven-storey villa. Two rockets hit it and blew up everything. The force of the blast hit our house as my father was sitting out on the balcony,” she added.
Debris from the adjacent building completely covered her father. A neighbour helped pull him out, but within the hour he was dead.
– ‘You’re safe’ –
Early Tuesday, Habbal ventured out to see if any neighbours were around to help her bury her father.
She heard gunshots, then a woman’s voice.
An advancing female SDF fighter who had taken up a position on the fourth floor of a nearby building was calling to her.
“I went up to the fourth floor and she told me, ‘you’re safe, don’t be scared.’ She said, ‘bring whoever you can out of that building,'” Habbal told AFP.
“But we left my father’s body there on the mattress. We said goodbye to him as he lay there.”
At the mosque in Hawi al-Hawa, a Kurdish Red Crescent medic checked Habbal’s traumatised mother.
When the door to the mosque slammed shut with a massive boom, the wrinkled woman almost jumped out of her seat in fear.
“That door is going to give me a heart attack,” she muttered.
Another Red Crescent medic was taking the blood pressure of Ahmad Aqqad, the tall neighbour who helped pull Habbal’s father from under the rubble and escaped along with her family.
As soon as the medic walked away, 56-year-old Aqqad enthusiastically lit a cigarette — banned under IS’s iron-fisted rule over Raqa.
“I kissed this cigarette packet. I swear I can’t believe it,” he said.
The jihadist group overran Raqa in 2014, imposing its radical interpretation of Islamic law over tens of thousands of civilians.
But IS has lost around 90 percent of its one-time bastion to the US-backed SDF, and thousands of shell-shocked civilians have made the harrowing escape from the city.
“Whatever I tell you (about IS rule), you wouldn’t believe it. Daily beheadings, lashing of women,” said Aqqad.
“Now, I’m happy from the bottom of my heart. I can’t believe I’m here.”