Raqqa, the booby-trapped city

The Coalition’s battle against ISIS in Raqqa is over, but the war between civilians and explosives left by the latter is only getting started, with the death toll of 300 growing daily as desperate amateurs risk their lives to clear homes for a paltry fee.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 23 January, 2018]

In winter, Abu Inad used to work as a fisherman on the Euphrates; in summer, as a waiter in a miserable wine tavern. He is quick to add, though, that he once fought as a militiaman in the Lebanese civil war during his adolescence. This distinction, as he sees it, is over and above his other military expertise, let alone his current status as a de-miner and all-round master of explosives.

When he stood in front of the house, inspecting it from all sides, looking for its entrances and exits, he blew out the last puff of his cigarette and threw it away, saying, “The job is tough, but don’t worry! I was the first to throw dynamite in the Euphrates. With the arrival of portable electric generators on boats, I was a pioneer in their use for fishing.”

Before my brother entered his house in Raqqa, to confirm its lack of homemade landmines he went to the units specializing in their removal, who told him his neighborhood’s turn hadn’t come yet, and he would have to wait for sixteen other neighborhoods to be finished before his. With thieves going about their business as they pleased, and looting occurring with no deterrence, he had no choice but to rely on himself and his own funds to secure his house, and to call the most famous specialist: Abu Inad.

The man, in his fifties, arrived with nothing in his hands except a broomstick with a hook attached to its tip and a pair of rusty wire cutters. Abu Inad denied having any previous experience in de-mining prior to this war, saying, “The matter is simple, it’s not rocket science. All it needs is brave men who don’t fear death, with hearts made of iron.” By way of illustration, he pointed to his own chest, then hopped over the wall of the garden into the house.

He opened a window with great caution, and threw in a flint stone he’d kept in his pocket, which rolled and hit the wall.

“Now we’re done with the laser- and sound-activated mine phase. You see how easy it is?”

Reaching his hand into his pocket, he pulled out a medicine box and swallowed a tramadol pill without effort, not even drinking water with it. He rolled up his sleeves and jumped through the window into the room, carrying his broomstick, probing with it like a blind man feeling his way around, “as we watched through the window frame, our hands on our heads in precaution against whatever might happen,” in my brother’s words.

He extended the broomstick, and slowly and carefully lifted a sponge that was on the ground, then felt the rug and confirmed there were no wires attached to it. After checking the rest of the items, he came out, saying, “The room’s clear,” and held out his hand for payment.

Ten thousand Syrian pounds (US$19) was his demand for each room cleared, except for the store cupboard and the kitchen, which would cost double, as the chance of their being booby-trapped was higher due to the presence of the fridge and washing machine; much sought after by the looters among the city’s “liberators.”

“We told him, ‘Trust in God,’ by way of agreement,” said my brother, and it was then that the tramadol pill began to work its effects, for Abu Inad started entering the rooms without throwing the stones, or prodding with his stick. He was moving as though a machine, neither hearing nor fearing anything. “We moved away from the door and windows, unnerved by his recklessness, and within fifteen minutes he was out, pronouncing the house safe in its entirety, collecting his sixty thousand pounds ($117).

“We entered the house after him extremely warily, though this wariness quickly disappeared. The place was looted; we were beaten to it by the thieves, who never lose such a race. We found no fridge, or washing machine, or television screen. Even the wardrobe was dismantled, in the hope of carrying it off at a later time. All that we found amounted to sponges and the remains of our clothes, as well as pieces of our furniture demolished and burned for reasons we still don’t know.”

The spectacle of Raqqa resembles that of Dresden after its destruction by the Allies in World War II, or Grozny following its flattening by the Russian army in the 1990s, with the difference that Raqqa was intended to be a gathering point for extremists from all over the “civilized world.”

This world’s conscience was able to bear the destruction of this unfortunate city, and the displacement of its people, and so Coalition forces assailed it with a colossal, and sometimes unjustifiable display of force. Dozens of ballistic missiles; 2,400 airstrikes; white phosphorus bombs; in addition to over 20,000 artillery shells of all kinds and calibers; fell upon the city within the ninety days that followed its besiegement from all four sides. Raqqa was struck with staggering quantities of ammunition, turning its houses and buildings into mere memories. This was considered a victory against “terrorism,” and a cause for celebration and dancing atop the rubble under which the bodies of the city’s people were still buried.

After the festivities and victory declarations, the Coalition’s media messengers packed their bags and left in a hurry. The victors left the city to its destruction as though an earthquake had hit it, with animals picking apart the bodies of civilians scattered around the streets, indifferent to ethical or humanitarian responsibility. The UN estimated the level of damage inside the city at 80%.

“The ground will fight on our behalf for thirty years”

The larger problem, and the true challenge, facing the local people now is the tens of thousands of makeshift landmines planted in the city, more than eight thousand of them revealed, having been observed by eye. On the roads; at the doors of houses; in trees; in suitcases; in clothes cupboards; under soil; in the gardens of homes; and everywhere that would or would not occur to the mind; mines have been planted—in addition to tons of unexploded ordnance left by the war. The city’s locals were left alone to look for these needles in the haystacks. It seems they themselves will be its minesweepers.

International organizations issued warnings to civilians about the danger of mines, but without taking any action to remove them, or to secure alternative accommodation or shelter. Winter befell the residents while they were either out in the open; or in the humiliation of the camps that are almost more like concentration camps than refuge sites; or in rented houses costing them exorbitantly under the terrible economic conditions.

An American UN official has said initial estimates of the number of mines are in the tens of thousands, and that the task of removing them is the hardest they’ve faced in recent memory; more complex than the landmines left by the First and Second World Wars.

“Whoever enters the streets of Raqqa today weeps at the shock, and the scale of the catastrophe,” says Ahmad, a resident who returned to the city a month and a half ago. “All you hear is the buzzing of the flies; all you smell is the stench of decomposing corpses. There’s no call to prayer—all the mosques have been annihilated. There’s no hospital; only a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in the al-Mishlab neighborhood.”

This clinic is no more than an Arabic house, where nothing is provided beyond basic first aid to the ten people received each day, on average, wounded by landmine or unexploded ordnance detonations. The nearest actual hospital is a hundred kilometers away, in the city of Tal Abyad, and in the case of severe wounds, one has to go to the Ain al-Arab/Kobane hospital, where there are sophisticated equipment and advanced capabilities, now that the small city has transformed into one of the most important centers in northern Syria, in terms of politics, security, and healthcare.

The battle waged in the city by the Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militants has ended, only for a ferocious battle between civilians and landmines to begin. The documented death toll already exceeds 300. The mines come in a multitude of forms: laser-activated; temperature-activated; infrared beam-activated; or those activated by wires; or made to look like rugs. It’s said that before ISIS handed the city over, one of their commanders told civilians, “The ground will fight on our behalf for thirty years.”

Theater for the cameras

There are three de-mining organizations working in Raqqa Governorate. One is Roj, named after Rojava (the Syrian portion of the territory envisaged by Kurdish nationalists for the future state of Kurdistan), which was founded in 2016 in the city of Ras al-Ain by individuals linked to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, and in which twenty trainees work. The other two are the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and the American Tetra Tech, neither of which have actually entered Raqqa city, but rather are working in agricultural territory in the countryside.

As for Roj, its humble staff intervene to disassemble mines under the camera lenses only. Most of their de-mining operations have been theater aimed at the West; a group of de-miners, accompanied by a band of hired mourners, not forgetting also the mandatory blonde women in military uniform in the front row, surrounding the ruins of the Martyrs’ Church—destroyed by the Coalition, incidentally—feigning tears over tolerance and coexistence, declaring themselves defenders of places of worship and friends of the minorities. This, while all around them is a devastated city, whose inhabitants’ bodies have still not been extracted from under the rubble yet.

MAG and Tetra Tech, on the other hand, work according to their own schedule, unconcerned by the urgent needs of the civilians. For at a time when the city was burying landmine victims on an almost daily basis, the staff of these two organizations were off on a twenty-day Christmas break, during which period more than fifteen residents were killed by landmine detonations.

Abu Jameel, who works with one of these organizations, says that the American and British organizations have tasks different to their stated ones, for their priority is to enter ISIS bases and get their hands on documents and electronic equipment, such as cell phones and computers belonging to ISIS members. Given that most of the bases are likely to be rigged with explosives, there’s a need to have de-mining teams at hand to facilitate the work.

Moreover, according to Abu Jameel, another of their tasks is to accompany weapons experts and engineers, and perhaps some arms company delegates, to examine the ruins of the city and investigate the military effectiveness of the weapons used, and the extent of damage caused, given that Raqqa became a testing and training ground for arms companies seeking to discover the quality of their products in a free shooting range against residences and installations and civilians, whose victims are estimated at 1,800, more than half of them still smothered under the ruins of their homes.

The people of Raqqa still await the bulldozers of the Coalition made up of seventy-two nations, whose many promises have not resulted in the removal of a single dead body so far. As for the organizations raising awareness about the landmines danger, their message amounts to saying, “Beware returning to your homes until we allow you to, whenever that might be.”

A deadly new vocation

One resident, Bassam, says he hired a worker from in front of the museum, where day laborers gather, to enter the basement of his house and clear it of fallen stone, and retrieve certain bags, for a fee of $50. When the worker went down to carry out the task, he set off a mine that killed him instantly. Within a mere hour after the removal of his body, another worker arrived to complete the job as though nothing had happened, without any intervention by de-mining teams or any other entity.

Poverty is the principal motive turning these people as though into martyrdom-seekers; gambling with their lives for the sake of a morsel of bread dipped in blood. Most of the workers at the museum now offer de-mining services alongside rubble removal.

“We stand here each morning awaiting our livelihood,” says one of them, Abu Yassin. “The demand now is all for detecting mines in the customer’s house, and since we’re the poorest members of society, this task has become part of our fate, like all impoverished people, who are always left with the jobs of death and wretchedness. What can we do? If we don’t work, we die of hunger, and this is the available work, so those of us who survived the aerial bombardment will be killed instead by landmines. Almost every day one of us workers is killed, if not more. Last week two brothers were killed by one while removing stones.”

Most mines are disassembled by individual efforts, with basic expertise; carried out by certain young men with a bit of knowledge about electrical circuits, or satellite TV installation, or other elementary technical skills. De-mining has become a familiar vocation, with its own group of professionals, who tour the neighborhoods and side-streets like roving salespeople. Yet most civilians don’t have the necessary funds to pay these suicidal workers, and so stick to just visiting their houses and standing in front of them, or walking around the outside walls, until they can find enough money to remove the landmines, perhaps through a transfer promised from a son working in Turkey, a transfer that might well never arrive.

Raqqa is not only a city filled with mines, but also one sitting on mines of many other kinds; ones that may explode at any moment; whether political mines, social mines, economic mines, or worse ones. While it may, in al-Kawakibi’s words, be a shout in an empty valley today, it’s sure to bring the caravans coming tomorrow.