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In Raqqa, People Are Living in Ruins And Resentment Is Growing


It's been a year since a coalition of countries led by the United States pushed ISIS out of Raqqa, its de facto capital. The air and ground assaults of that war caused massive destruction after the U.S. promised to stabilize Raqqa, an effort designed to prevent the kind of desperation among locals that might allow ISIS to return. But the funds for that have slowed, and many millions more are needed for real reconstruction. During a visit to Raqqa, NPR's Ruth Sherlock found people living in ruins, and the resentment is growing.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: On the main road to Raqqa, we passed fields where women are bent over working under the sun. Then, the city's deformed outline appears, buildings jagged and warped by war on the horizon. A dirt track takes us inside the city. It's been almost a whole year since the coalition led by the United States forced ISIS out of Raqqa. But as I look around, I find a city still ruined by that war.

I mean, the destruction is really just breathtaking. It's hard to believe it until you see it with your own eyes. Wherever you go, this place is just - has been flattened. It's like people are living among the rubble here.

Raqqa was once a city of over 200,000 people with green parks and middle-class homes. The U.S. military says it ran a precise bombing campaign against ISIS in a difficult and crowded place. But that's not what people here think. We stop at a home where a giant shell hole in the exterior wall exposes a neat living room inside. In despair, the father of the family points to the moonscape of bombed out buildings around us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) These buildings didn't have to all fall. There were some buildings without any ISIS. Why did they bomb those? Why? They should have targeted in a more precise way. Either they used bad coordinates or they did it on purpose. I don't know. This is bigger than you and I.

SHERLOCK: He tells me the offensive against ISIS wasn't liberation as the U.S. calls it. It was destruction. Life now is worse than ever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I lived under ISIS for three years. ISIS is terrorism. There's no doubt about that. Despite this, life then was better. It's very expensive now. Bread under ISIS was cheaper.

SHERLOCK: As we talk, he asks not to be named because he wants to criticize the new local council that runs the city but fears doing so publicly. This is a majority-Arab city, and he says most of its people don't trust this Kurdish led and American-backed new administration.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) It's not the support from the council or the Americans that's fixing the city. It's the people of Raqqa.

SHERLOCK: He warns if there's no real assistance soon, residents will rebel against their new rulers and Raqqa will descend into violence.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) There is no security here, and if the U.S. and the local government don't fix things, then in the end the people will rebel. The pressures will build and cause an explosion.

SHERLOCK: This danger is something that Ibrahim Hassan, the head of the Reconstruction Committee, is only too aware of. A few months ago, Hassan suffered an assassination attempt by members of his own family who oppose his being part of the Raqqa civil council.

IBRAHIM HASSAN: (Through interpreter) About seven bullets.

SHERLOCK: His body is partially paralyzed, and he looks frail as he describes the task in Raqqa.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) When we came into Raqqa, it was a ghost city. We worked with experts to demine the city, then to clean the rubble from big streets and side streets, then assisted people to return. Now we work on sanitization and water. No one can live without water.

SHERLOCK: Many of these projects are backed by the U.S. who says that stabilizing Raqqa is still part of the fight against ISIS, so there's not a vacuum where extremists can thrive. But even Hassan, who is cautious to criticize his U.S. allies, admits the funds given so far - just a few hundred million dollars - is too little to achieve that. The city needs many times that figure.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Of course, we can't say the funding is enough because the city is big and needs more.

SHERLOCK: There is already an uneasy sense of insecurity in the city. Targeted bomb attacks against coalition vehicles and their local allies are now common, and residents whisper of ISIS sleeper cells. As we drive out of Raqqa through its decimated northern suburbs, we find graffiti so fresh the paint still looks wet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think this is the - the green one is new.

SHERLOCK: In Arabic, the writing reads whether you like it or not, ISIS is here. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Raqqa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.