[Published here October 12, 2017]
Dozens of desperate civilians streamed out of battlefront districts of Syria’s Raqa on Thursday after a ferocious resumption in bombardment against Islamic State group holdouts in the city.
US-led air strikes have helped the Syrian Democratic Forces oust IS from around 90 percent of the group’s one-time bastion, but hundreds of jihadists and civilians are still believed to be holed up near Raqa’s city centre.
Early Thursday morning, dozens of people — mostly women and children — crossed the front line in Raqa’s central Al-Badu district and were transported by SDF forces to a row of one-room concrete warehouses on the western edge of the city.
Many of the children were without shoes, their tiny feet covered in dirt after they fled their battle-scarred neighbourhoods on foot.
Haggard-looking men of all ages — most of them suffering wounds to their legs or head — had been syphoned off into a separate area for questioning.
Several residents told AFP that air strikes and artillery fire had resumed with a vengeance on Wednesday night after several days of relative calm.
“It was quiet for two or three days, and all we could think about was just going outside,” said Nisrine, a 20-year-old Raqa resident originally from Aleppo.
She, her one-year-old son, and her neighbour Aya had been trapped inside their apartments in Al-Badu for so many days she had lost count.
“But when the bombardment started up again, it was even worse than before,” Nisrine said, her black face veil hiding everything but exhausted brown eyes.
– No sleep –
This week, officials from the Raqa Civil Council — a provisional administration set up by the SDF — were working to secure the safe passage of civilians from remaining IS-held areas.
SDF field commanders told AFP the front lines had been quiet in recent days apart from sporadic strikes.
The US-led coalition backing the SDF’s offensives said it carried out no air raids around Raqa on Monday and six on Tuesday.
By comparison, it conducted 24 strikes around Raqa on Wednesday.
“The bombing stopped, there was supposed to be a truce and surrender. But then I don’t know what happened and the artillery started again,” said Abdullah al-Ali, a dazed Raqa resident in his twenties who escaped Thursday morning.
An older man with wiry salt-and-pepper hair and gauze over one eye said warplanes had largely spared Al-Badu from bombing over the past three days.
“But last night, we didn’t sleep at all from the air strikes and artillery,” he told AFP as he waited to be taken to a mosque in a western suburb of Raqa that had been turned into a reception centre.
On Thursday, AFP counted at least five bombing raids over Raqa, with massive plumes of smoke seen emerging near the towering lights of the city’s stadium.
The football field, the national hospital and surrounding neighbourhoods are the last positions jihadists hold in the city that served as their de facto Syrian capital since 2014.
The SDF has squeezed jihadists into a sliver of territory near Raqa’s heart ahead of a final push to fully recapture the city.
– ‘Fire. Hell. Fear.’ –
But Rojda Felat, who is leading the SDF’s assault on Raqa, said the attack by the joint Kurdish-Arab force has been delayed by the exodus of civilians.
“Over the past few days, we’ve liberated around 1,000 people, including around 250 today,” she told AFP on Thursday.
“We are preparing to enter the final week (of fighting), but the massive exit of civilians prevented this,” she said.
Felat said her fighters were preparing to declare the “final week” of fighting in the coming days.
As the end to the battle draws near, growing numbers of IS fighters are handing themselves in to SDF forces, according to unit commander Ali Sher.
“Over the last three days, at least 15 IS fighters handed themselves in with their families, amounting to 100 people in total,” said Sher, a commander with the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG) which make up a bulk of the SDF.
“We’ve been calling out with megaphones for them to hand themselves in over the past few days, so the numbers have been increasing. Some are from Raqa and some are foreigners.”
Outside the mosque in Hawi al-Hawa, men were waiting to be cleared by the SDF’s intelligence unit while their families waited inside.
Donya Awwad, 50, sat cross-legged in the back of the mosque with her two unmarried sisters as her husband awaited questioning outside.
Asked what she saw as she fled her native city, Awwad simply shook her head: “Fire. Hell. Fear. Hunger.”
“We’re all dead — those that got out and those that were left behind.”