Raqqa returnees await water, utilities as civil council announces eastern neighborhoods ‘safe’ from landmines

AMMAN: Water and electricity services are mostly out of service in the first three Raqqa neighborhoods deemed safe for returnees by US-backed forces in recent days, two residents and an aid worker told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

Water from municipal pumps reaches the three districts “for about one hour per day” as of Wednesday, said 23-year-old Abdullah al-Khalil, who returned to Raqqa city two weeks ago. Al-Khalil and his family fled their home in Raqqa’s eastern al-Mashlab neighborhood while under Islamic State control.

“There are many broken pipes,” al-Khalil told Syria Direct. “The water pressure is very weak.”

Raqqa city’s power grid remains offline, leaving some 20,000 recent returnees to rely instead on privately owned generators for power, residents told Syria Direct.

Two returned residents of the al-Mashlab neighborhood and one former resident who is living in a nearby camp but keeps in touch with family members inside the city confirmed a lack of basic utilities in Raqqa city, including communications.

A water pump in eastern Raqqa on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of the Raqqa Civil Council.

With no internet or apparent cell phone coverage inside Raqqa city, al-Khalil said he took an 80-kilometer trip into the countryside on Wednesday to find cell coverage and communicate with Syria Direct via WhatsApp. Another returned resident who Syria Direct reached out to on Wednesday did not respond to questions about conditions in his neighborhood—he had not been connected to the internet since Sunday, according to his WhatsApp profile.

The United States-led anti-IS coalition—which provides military support to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who captured Raqqa city from the Islamic State in October—released a statement on Tuesday declaring the handover of the three eastern Raqqa neighborhoods to the locally run Raqqa Civil Council.

The handover of al-Mashlab, al-Tiyyar and Jazrah districts to the council signifies “complete administrative control of three neighborhoods and non-interference by the military forces there,” Firas Mamdouh al-Fahd, a member of the Raqqa Civil Council told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

Council members are currently focusing their efforts on delivering water to residents and reopening roads blocked off by Islamic State-installed landmines and earthen berms, al-Fahd added. He estimated more than 20,000 residents returned to the three eastern districts in recent weeks.

The return of some Raqqa residents is the first step towards normality in the aftermath of a months-long battle launched in June by the SDF to drive out the Islamic State from its former de facto capital in Syria. The battle ended last month when SDF fighters, backed by heavy US-led coalition airstrikes, seized the last remaining  districts of the city.

The battle left Raqqa in ruins, its infrastructure devastated, with Islamic State landmines scattered throughout the streets and dead bodies buried beneath the rubble. US-led coalition airstrikes killed at least 1,450 civilians over the course of the battle, according to a report released on Wednesday by the UK-based monitor group Airwars.

A bakery in eastern Raqqa on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of the Raqqa Civil Council.

Raqqa residents who have returned to their homes so far are receiving some aid from the Raqqa Civil Council, while other aid workers prepare to ramp up operations inside the three districts. Ziad a-Shammas, who works with the local aid organization Quick Intervention in Raqqa, told Syria Direct that his organization is aiming to open an office to provide free water and bread to eastern Raqqa residents by early January.

But for resident al-Khalil and his family, the process of rebuilding their home is a daunting task as utilities remain largely cut off on Wednesday. When al-Khalil arrived back in the al-Mashlab district two weeks ago, he discovered “a huge amount of destruction” to his family’s house.

“Almost half of the kitchen is gone,” al-Khalil told Syria Direct from the village outside Raqqa city where he found mobile phone coverage on Wednesday. “There is other damage to the windows, and any glass.” He and his family have spent the past five days repairing the house, the 23-year-old said. “We still haven’t finished.”

One photo al-Khalil shared with Syria Direct on Wednesday showed his family members setting up a makeshift framework for an exterior wall to the house. Shattered cinder blocks lay in a pile in the family’s garden.

A returnee’s house in eastern Raqqa on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Abdullah al-Khalil.

In a city that is 80 percent “uninhabitable” by recent UN estimate, al-Khalil feels his own family is, to a degree, lucky.

“You see houses that have been completely damaged,” said al-Khalil. “Some were hit by bombs in the roof, or through the walls.”

“In some, the interior is totally destroyed.”

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of northern, Kurdish-held Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.