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In Raqqa, you can’t go home again

Diala Ghassan/MSF

The streets were my favourite part of Raqqa. No matter the distance, I rarely took taxis, I never drove. I always walked to visit my friends or family.

I thought about this as I watched a video my friend Ahmad recently made with his phone, in the city where we both grew up. Raqqa was a mess. He told me that bodies were still being pulled from the destroyed buildings, and sometimes the stench was too strong to even go outside.

“To walk down the street and watch your beloved city turned into rubble and ruins is really hard to accept,” he messaged me on WhatsApp, which I read here in Germany, where I now live.

My name is Mazen Hassoun. I’m 21, a Syrian born and raised in Raqqa, and now a citizen journalist. I don’t know if I’ll ever go home again.

Growing up, I thought I’d become a doctor, perhaps an engineer. I never thought I would become a journalist, let alone report on the downfall of my city. I never thought I would become a refugee. And I never thought I’d have WhatsApp chats about crucifixions, and now the destruction of the streets I once played in.

But that’s exactly what happened. After so-called Islamic State took over Raqqa in early 2014, I managed to escape to Turkey, and later to Germany.

From “abroad” – my new home – I began tweeting, posting on Facebook, and writing for various Arabic websites to spotlight the suffering of my friends, classmates, and family members. I wrote about what I was hearing from those still inside Raqqa: executions, fear, and a reign of terror by IS. I also wrote about hunger, deteriorating health services, and airstrikes.

Like many people from Raqqa, I was relieved when IS was kicked out of the city last October, after months of fighting.

Ahmad, who risked his life to send me updates and then spent much of his savings to be smuggled out of the city to a camp and then a village nearby, was similarly relieved to hear the fighting was over. When he heard IS had really gone, he told me the feeling was so amazing it was as if he had a new child. “IS was like a nightmare,” he texted. “Thank God we’ve woken up now.”

Going back?

There’s no future for someone like me in Raqqa. Right now, I plan to stay here. I’ve still got to finish high school in Germany, and I want to study journalism. I’m also not keen to live under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the mostly Kurdish US-backed forces that helped defeat IS and now control the city.

Ahmad was more eager than I to face what was left of our home – he’s 25 and had been sheltering in a three-room house with eight families, where his wife gave birth to their first child in what he called an “extreme situation”. He and his wife went home as soon as they could – he made the trip last December, and his wife and child followed the next month.

In some ways they were lucky – they found that their house in Raqqa was still standing, although the furniture had all been looted.

My uncle and grandmother tried to go home, but their two-storey house was completely destroyed, apparently by an airstrike, and along with it my childhood memories. The rubble is where I played with my cousins, and where I slept on the roof and watched the stars.

My parents’ house was hit by some shells, but it’s still standing. But even if I could go back to the balcony where I used to smoke shisha every day, I’m not sure I would want to.

I wouldn’t recognise the alleyways where kids used to play football using stones as goalposts, and so many of my friends and family have died, and will never return.

Of course it is not just about me and my friends and family. I know that the whole city is reeling.

Rebuilding in a minefield

The UN says many parts of Raqqa are still mined, and that 70 to 80 percent of buildings are destroyed or damaged.

Salal al-Muftah, a member of the citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, which provided information to the world during IS control, told me that 260 civilians have so far been killed by mines left from the IS occupation. The UN estimates there are 50 casualties from unexploded ordnance every week.

I recently spoke to Mohammad Alobeed, the manager of Early Recover Team ERT, an organisation that is working on rebuilding Raqqa, including clearing the city’s streets.

His team is trying to repair the water network. It hopes to get to the electricity too, but doesn’t have any plans (or funding) to get to that just yet.

The UN says “conditions are not conducive for returns”, because of the mines, the damage to infrastructure, and the lack of basic services.

But that isn’t stopping people like Ahmad and 100,000 others from going home, to a city that once had a population of more than 300,000 in the city itself, and nearly one million in the wider province.

There aren’t any hospitals in working order yet, but recently Médecins Sans Frontières opened an emergency room and a small clinic in east Raqqa, where Ahmad’s baby saw a doctor for the first time.

Ahmad has re-opened his car repair shop, and he is trying to get on with his life. But he has to buy water by the 20-litre barrel in order to drink,  wash dishes, or shower. His family needs five barrels a day, and each costs 200 Syrian pounds. That’s only $0.40, but it’s a lot for many people in Raqqa.

And at night, he says, without electricity, the city sinks into complete darkness.

Watching all this from my phone’s screen has been devastating. But I’m trying to believe in a saying we have in Raqqa, a city on the banks of a famous river: “As long as the Euphrates lives, Raqqa will never die.”

First Person is a new editorial feature offering fresh and personal perspectives on crises. Please send submissions to [email protected]

(TOP PHOTO: A family cleaning their house of rubble in Al Mishlab, east of Raqqa city. Diala Ghassan/MSF)

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