The SDF's fight for Raqqa is in its final stage. But as the fighting rages on, there's still no safe passage out for civilians. Yet staying behind is just as deadly.
“If you are lucky enough to survive the air strikes in Raqqa, the first thing that you encounter when you want to flee is the mines. If you are lucky again, then it is the snipers – especially if you’re in a van or car.”
Abo Mohamed, a former medicine salesman no longer had a job in Syrian city of Raqqa – as the only functioning hospital in the city fell under the control of Daesh after it declared the city as its de facto capital in 2014.
He was able to send his wife and kids to Turkey at the end of 2015. When conditions worsened, he decided to flee the city, despite all the risks. That was only a couple of months before the US-led coalition and its partner on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) started their offensive to take Daesh-occupied Raqqa.
As the fighting intensifies in the city, residents living in Raqqa are left with the stark choice of staying or fleeing in a bid to survive. One is not better than the other. And neither offers any guarantee of survival.
Staying means the uncertainty of living in the midst of frequent airstrikes by the Russian-backed regime or US-led coalition. It was an option that Abo Mohamed did not want to risk.
(For civilians "Trapped in a battle” between Daesh and the coalition forces bombardment on the basis of coordinates provided by SDF militants, leaving the city comes with a price.
For Abo Mohamed, it was $1,000, a number which is more than it used to be for others who'd fled previously. That's because of the rivalry between the SDF and Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the SDF preventing FSA supporters from leaving the city.
Abo Mohamed supported Turkey-backed FSA, an umbrella coalition of opposition groups in Syria. He had attended the demonstrations demanding political freedom and an end to Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad’s rule.
A smuggler provided him a fake passport and forged papers, and a safe passage through SDF-controlled checkpoints. But safety is a relative word in Raqqa. “It's better to cross with a family rather than moving alone,” he says.
“Because the smugglers have no sides. They only deal with money and they don’t care about the rest,” Abo Mohamad says.
Indeed, his smuggler convinced SDF militants that he had no connections to Daesh, or the umbrella opposition group, FSA, when they questioned him on his way out from Raqqa. When he was able to cross the Euphrates River by boat, he was closer to his final destination: Turkey.
Survivors from Raqqa told Amnesty International that “the coalition forces have been targeting boats crossing the Euphrates River, one of the only viable escape routes for civilians trying to flee the city.”
Reports said Daesh plants booby traps on exit routes, shoots anyone trying to sneak out and sets up fake SDF checkpoints to arrest civilians – a tactic to keep using them as human shields.
“By embedding themselves in civilian areas of Raqqa and using civilians as human shields, IS fighters [Daesh militants] are adding to their brutal track record of systematically and flagrantly flouting the laws of war,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.
Abo Mohamad is now in Sanliurfa, Turkey with his family.
However, many others who managed to flee Raqqa are mostly settled in two SDF-controlled camps – Karama, in the east, and Ain al Issa in the north – outside the city.
Some others have made their way to around 40 other camps across the country’s northwest.
Most of the camps for Internally Displaced People across northwestern Syria are reported to be barely functioning, with only a few equipped with electricity or toilets. According to aid workers, some of the nearby camps have limited water and basic medical services.
But even those camps are better than staying in Raqqa, especially for those who have any links to FSA. Abo Mohamad says that to even be related to a person who has connections with the FSA can endanger civilians, who were not able to get out of the city.
“My uncle was a well-known tribe leader in Raqqa. His name is Abdurrazaq Faisal. He was 50 years-old when the SDF came to his house. They hit him along with his wife and children. Then, they arrested all of them. It’s been now about two years and nobody heard anything about them,” he says.
“He didn’t support any party, he was just a regular civilian, but his brothers were from the Free Syrian Army,” he says.
Civilians in Raqqa celebrated the FSA’s capture of the city from Syrian regime in 2013. But the FSA's control of Raqqa did not even last a year, before Daesh took control.
Daesh had earlier emerged from an Al Qaeda-linked group that was active in Iraq. Areas under its control spread from Iraq into Syria, including Raqqa.
More than three years after Daesh’s capture of the city in January 2014, there are now more actors involved in the battle and that doesn’t include the FSA any more.
A US-backed alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was formed in October 2015.
The SDF, is led by the YPG, which Turkey considers to be an offshoot of the PKK, which has been designated as a terrorist group by Ankara, the EU and the US. The PKK has been waging an armed campaign against Turkey since 1984. US support for the SDF has been a source of friction between the US and Turkey.
The SDF started their offensive against Daesh in the Raqqa countryside in May 2016. The US-led coalition supported the SDF with air strikes. The SDF’s involvement in the battle to retake Raqqa came nearly a year after Russia began its air strikes in Syria, in support of the Syrian regime.
Both Russian and coalition air strikes in Raqqa are said to be targeting Daesh positions, but they have caused a “staggering loss of civilian life.”
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled Raqqa, but some 8,000 civilians remain trapped in the city, the UN's humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said last week.
In June, footage which appeared to show coalition planes dropping white phosphorus bombs in the city caused a stir internationally. The use of white phosphorus poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities like Raqqa, Human Rights Watch warned.
As the fighting continues, journalists’ access to the city is restricted, but the civilians in the city have kept the information flowing to the international media.
Abo Mohamad says it is risky to use the internet, or have photos of the city on one's phone. Speaking on the phone could result in one being arrested by Daesh.
“There was internet when Daesh was there but I avoided using the internet for a long time, but when I did, I used it only for two to three minutes,” he said.
“Once, a guy was talking to his brother in Turkey on the phone and they suddenly came in. They shouted at us and collected all of our phones. After they checked the phones, they arrested anyone who had a phone conversation,” he said, recalling the situation.
Most of the city has been captured from Daesh through intense fighting, but it still does not mean that there is any degree of safety for the civilians trapped in the fight.
The US-led coalition said that local officials and Syrian tribal leaders were leading “discussions” to provide safe passage for civilians from Daesh-held areas.
Mazen Hassoun, the founder of Raqqa Post, a website reporting news from Raqqa said the negotiations between Daesh and the SDF had collapsed, “probably because of coalition request from Daesh to hand over its foreign fighters.” But this information has not yet been confirmed by official channels.
Hassoun says his sources in Raqqa told him that Daesh holds around 500 civilians in the stadium and some others in the National Hospital in the city – two of last remaining places under Daesh control.
"Life is very hard in Raqqa today. The food is almost empty and there is no water and electricity since three months, intensive shelling every hour, too many devastation," he said.
"There are too many dead bodies still under the rubble and in some streets one can smell the dead bodies," says Hassoun.
Having been jailed by Daesh many times previously, Abo Mohammed says the people there dream of death rather than life.
"The moment when I've been stopped and directed at guns while fleeing, I was only thinking one thing," he says. "I was not afraid of the death but I was afraid of being arrested."