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Dead bodies and deserted prisons in Raqa without jihadists

Ⓒ AFP – BULENT KILIC – | Syrian Democratic Forces fighter marching in Raqa on 18 October 2017

A few days ago in Raqa, jihadists entrenched in the national hospital were fighting until the last breath. On Wednesday, a dead silence reigned around the building where flies clustered over two decomposing bodies.

The hospital complex and football stadium, just backed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (FDS) – an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters supported by Washington – were the last two pockets of the Islamic State (EI) group in Raqa.

The jihadists had made this city in northern Syria their main stronghold in the country at war, transforming it for three years into a laboratory of the horror of their self-proclaimed caliphate.

On Wednesday, near the decaying bodies, the Korans, medicines and a small black notebook filled with dates and numbers were scattered on the ground. “Whatsapp number of my wife, Oum Islam the Moroccan” can be read next to a Syrian phone number.

One of the corpses still carries a belt of explosives.

According to the FDS, 22 foreign jihadists were killed during the final assault on the hospital, where sweeping and demining operations are to be launched in the coming days.

At least two explosions, most likely caused by mines laid by the jihadists, were heard in the city on Wednesday.

– ‘They humiliated us’ –

Ⓒ AFP – BULENT KILIC – | A fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqa on 18 October 2017

In the abandoned municipal stadium, two bulldozers are already at work, forming mounds of rubble.

Under the bleachers, the jihadists had turned space into a prison. In small makeshift cells, civilians accused of violating the ultra-conservative laws that the EI was enforcing were detained for days.

Ahmad al-Hassan, a FDS fighter, was one of them.

On his first visit to Raqa on Wednesday, he returned to the cell where he was detained in 2015 for seven days, with 35 men.

His crime? Having attempted to prevent an EI fighter from arresting his wife for briefly showing his face on the street.

Standing in a dark corridor, he finds it difficult to find words. “This is where they humiliated us,” he said.

On the wall of another cell, a message written by hand, with black felt. “May God save us, may God help us!”

Several months of fighting and air strikes conducted by the international anti-Jihadist coalition led by the United States have completely disfigured the city.

The outlying districts, the first to have been taken over by the jihadists, were badly damaged. Those in the downtown area, theater during weeks of violent fighting, offer nothing but a landscape of desolation and ruins.

Multi-storey buildings and businesses have been reduced to an indescribable mass of shredded concrete, pipes and electrical cables.

Ismaïl Khalil, an IDF fighter from Raqa, walks in a ravaged street from the Al-Naim roundabout, infamous for the executions carried out by the EI.

“They say they want to rebuild Raqa. Rebuild what?” Laments the 35-year-old fighter with a broad build, shaking his head with sadness.

“Even in 20 years we can not rebuild. This city has been totally destroyed.”

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